The new issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly just landed on my desk—and sent me back to the Fall 2023 edition. I am always amazed at the scholarship and the range of topics in OHQ. And sometimes kick myself for not digesting them whole as they show up. There is always something new about the old that helps me understand where we are today.
For years I’ve heard and repeated the thought that the population of indigenous peoples in what would become Oregon was decimated before the Natives ever saw a white face. I learned and then repeated that: smallpox and diphtheria, measles and malaria jumped ahead, tribe to tribe, across the fur-trading north of the country and ravished NW tribes in the 1790s; and that, even before that, smallpox had come ashore with ships from England, Spain, and Russia seeking furs along the North Pacific Coast. I’d heard that the prized fur was the sea otter and the world market for the fur was in China.
The Fall OHQ recaps much of this and clarifies. Robert Boyd, who has written convincingly in previous OHQ articles about the measles outbreak that precipitated the Whitman killings coming from California and not from Oregon Trail immigrants, is quoted here as saying that as much as 40 % of the indigenous population of the Oregon Country was gone by the time Lewis and Clark arrived, as much as 60 % by the time of the first settlers.
Astounding figures, but almost more astounding in my mind is the extrapolation, from historical sources and sea otter biology, of the actual numbers of animals that were here, something of what made them so valuable, and what made them so vulnerable to extirpation.
Sea otter were prized by Northwest tribes—and by Chinese royalty. Probably by scores of other human groups along their long Pacific Coastal ranges, from Mexico to Russia and Japan. Prized for beauty and for warmth.
Sea otter have no blubber to protect them, but have the densest fur of any creature on earth, a million air-filled hairs to the square inch! They stay warm in cold water.
Sea otter do not travel far, and have a low reproductive rate; multiple offspring not usual with a pregnancy. Which means that populations of sea otter were and are small and local.
Putting all of this together, researchers now estimate that the total sea otter population along the 363 miles of Oregon coast at the outset of the fur trade debacle was 6,000 – 9,000.
I’ve not been able to translate fur otter to dollar, but there is reference to a suggested trade of one fur otter for 30 or 40 beaver pelts. Safe to say that even small numbers, sea otter pelts made scrambling up and down the Pacific Coast lucrative for many, and wealth-making for some.
Efforts at bringing beaver back to help restore wetlands, reduce flooding, facilitate salmon migration, etc. are wide and gaining momentum. Although some tribes are rising to say that sea otter was an important part of their past, and sea scientists claim that their loss has meant more sea urchins, fewer kelp beds, and less ocean diversity, the lobbyists for their return—and the road to that return—seems as fraught as the fate of a few thousand sea otters to the lust of the world 200 years ago.
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