Russians were here ‘fur’ sure

Were the Spanish the first of the probing Europeans?

We know the Haisla were the first people to live on the lands adjacent to the Douglas Channel.

We also know that the Spanish with Jacinto Camaano and the British with Colnett, Duncan and Vancouver were the first of the probing Europeans to come searching our coastlines.

But were they?

Those Europeans were seeking new wealth, territory and information for their political masters.

When they arrived in the early 1790s the principal focus of the search was for the elusive Northwest Passage connecting the North Pacific and North Atlantic Oceans.

But the prospect of the wealth generated by the fur trade was also a very real incentive.

Both the Hudson Bay and the North West Companies were expanding their network west from their base in Lower Canada at Quebec.

The voyageurs had not yet established forts and trading posts on the Pacific Coast.

But there is evidence that in fact the Russians were the first to ply the waters of the northwest.

It all began in 1740-41 when Vitus Bering, a Danish trained mariner in Peter the Great’s navy, charted the area in the Gulf of Alaska.

With stocks of fur-bearing animals declining in Siberia because of over-harvesting, Russian fur traders quickly followed and by 1784 the first settlement had been constructed, the first step on the way to Russia laying claim to Alaska.

But, driven by their insatiable appetite for fur, especially that of the sea otter, the Russians went further and further afield, ultimately building a fort in Northern California in 1812.

Given they got that far south, it isn’t a huge leap to assume they explored the trapping potential of the lands in between, including the Douglas Channel.

And that, said Haisla Gordon Robinson in a 1963 article in Kitimat’s Northern Sentinel newspaper, is exactly what happened.

As evidence he points out that the small creek north of the oolichan camp is known as Loosun – Haisla for “Russian”- where a party of Russian fur traders camped in the early days.

There is even evidence that the Russians’ search for fur took them into the Skeena Valley.

Terrace pioneer Bill McRae, now in his 90s, says the Russians built structures in the area of Kalum Canyon on the Kitsumkalum River. (The Kitselas people wouldn’t let them through their territory, so they set up shop at Kitsumkalum.)

Bill says when he worked on the road at Kalum Canyon he saw the remains of house timbers and fire pits that were not of First Nations’ design. He also found other artifacts including a steel axe-like adze, a California gold scale and a lot of early beads that he maintains were of a different sort than the ones later available through the Hudson Bay traders. Bill still has those beads.

He and others speculate that the Russian visitors at Loosun were linked to their countrymen at Kitsumkalum, likely taking the well-established Grease Trail between Kitamaat and the Skeena Valley.

The Russian colonial presence in North America ended when it sold Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million.

Perhaps in the years to come we will obtain further evidence of this Russian link in our local history.

Walter Thorne is author of the Kitimat Chronicles, Volumes 1 and 2, which are available for purchase at the Northern Sentinel office.

 

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