San Francisco’s famous Steller’s Sea Lions (and their recent disappearance) have been in the news a lot recently. Did you know that the famous explorer and taxonomist Georg Steller not only gave the Sea Lions their leonine name, but also dubbed one of their close cousins the “Sea Bears”?
The name never caught on, but it’s what he intended to call the Northern Fur Seal. Both Sea Lions and Fur Seals are species of the Otariidae family (seals with external ears). Fur Seals do range as far south as the Farallon Islands, but their real numbers are found far north in the Bering Sea. In the 19th and early 20th century, the port of San Francisco was one of the major hubs of trade in fur seal skins, and the Academy has a large collection of archival items related to that era of maritime commerce, scientific research, and the conservation efforts that ultimately lead to the protection of the valuable “Sea Bear”.
The story begins on June 25, 1786, far out in the Bering Sea. Under a typically thick summer fog, the Russian navigator Gavriil Pribylov piloted his two-masted sloop St. George the Victorious by the sounds of barking seals. When the fog briefly lifted he found a wind-swept, treeless island, unpopulated by humans, but teeming with other creatures great and small. Most importantly, the island was densely populated by the Callorhinus ursinus, Steller’s “Sea Bear”. This was Pribylov’s goal, the fabled breeding grounds of fur seals as spoken of in Aleut tradition. A second island, which was close enough to see under a clear sky, remained undiscovered for another year due to the perpetually gray and rainy state of the Bering Sea. These two volcanic islands, named St. George and St. Paul (and several scattered smaller counterparts) make up the chain now called the Pribilof Islands. Crown-approved Russian furriers claimed these islands and began hunting the fur seals for their valuable coats. Native Aleutians were forcibly moved to camps on the Pribilof Islands to carry out the profitable work.
In 1867, when Secretary of State William Seward negotiated the purchase of the Alaskan Territory from the Tsars, the Pribilofs were included in the sale. The Russian furriers left, but the Aleut workers remained, and in 1870, the United States government leased the sealing rights on the Pribilof Islands to a newly-formed private San Francisco investment firm, the Alaska Commercial Company. In 1890 the Alaska Commercial Company was outbid for continued rights by another San Francisco agency, the North American Commercial Company, organized by Irving Liebes, a Prussian Jewish merchant whose brother Herman had founded a wholesale and retail fur market in downtown San Francisco (later called the H. Liebes Department Store, which continued to operate near Union Square until 1970). To give you a sense of the importance of the Fur Seal trade, under the terms of these two leases the United States government netted ten times the cost of the entire Alaska purchase.
The Academy’s Research Library Reading Room, open to Academy staff and visiting researchers, is currently hosting a display of items from our manuscript collections relating to the history of the Fur Seal trade. Many of the display items are culled from our extensive collection pertaining to former Academy Director Dr. Barton W. Evermann.
Evermann’s interest in Alaska started in 1892. He had received his Ph.D. from Indiana University in 1891 and through his connections to the influential Dr. David Starr Jordan, then the Chancellor at Indiana, he was appointed as a research scientist aboard the USS Albatross, the first commissioned governmental research vessel in the world. The Albatross was assigned to explore the Alaskan coast, the Aleutian Islands, and in particular the fur seal rookeries of the Pribilof Islands. Thus a midwestern schoolteacher and ichthyologist traveled to the remote Bering Sea, where he would go on to become one of the world’s foremost experts on the Northern Fur Seal. The artifacts of his research — photographs of the islands and seal hunting, his painstaking field notes, and a letter from the US Government issuing research instructions to the commander of the Albatross — are all part of the Reading Room exhibit. These are placed alongside advertising circulars from the Liebes Fur Company and a period San Francisco Chronicle article detailing the “romance of the fur trade”.
Evermann would go on to be Commissioner of Alaska Fisheries from 1910-1914. He moved from Alaska to San Francisco in 1914 as the new Director of the California Academy of Sciences. His tenure had a profound influence, including his oversight of the Academy’s move to Golden Gate Park in 1916 and the construction of the Steinhart Aquarium in 1923. His interest in Alaska and the Pribilof Islands went undiminished during his time with the Academy — in fact, four fur seals from the Pribilofs occupied the fountain in front of the Steinhart on the day it opened.
Evermann’s discoveries established the threats of pelagic (at-sea) hunting to the survival of fur seals as a species. This in turn led to a 1911 multi-national treaty that banned pelagic hunting of fur seals in international waters — the first known treaty in history written expressly to save a threatened species from extinction.
In addition to the manuscript items on display in the Library Reading Room, the Academy has a large collection of related photographs, letters and materials. Our holdings also include circulating copies of The Alaska Fur-Seal Islands, written by Academy scientist G Dallas Hanna, who lived on both St. George and St. Paul’s Islands, first working as a teacher and shopkeeper in 1913 and then serving in 1914 as a fur-seal herd custodian. This book is one of the most substantive accounts of this era of discovery, commerce and Alaskan history written by an eyewitness. The call number is QH105.A4 H36 2008.
Please inquire with library staff if you are interested in exploring this period of history further. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) also produced and hosts an excellent website on the historical legacy of the Fur-Seal islands here.
Daniel Ransom – Archives and Digital Production Assistant