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Beads and the Settlement of Alaska

Elsewhere I have called Alaska a "trade bead laboratory." This is due to the late nature of European penetration into this area. Columbus is more than 500 years away from us; Bering only160.

General literacy had risen considerably in Europe in the meantime and much more documentation is available for us. From Columbus's first voyage we have only his version in a few letters and a heavily edited journal. From Vitus Bering's foray into Alaska there are three separate journals.

"Settlement" here means the colonization of Alaska by Europeans beginning in 1741. Before that, Alaska had been populated for a long time. The Eskimo, living particularly around its rim; the Athapaskan, occupying the interior and Cook's Bay; the Aleut, dwelling in the Aleutian Islands; and the Tlingit, concentrated in the panhandle, had all developed sophisticated ways of life.

Given the harsh, but rich environment of this huge land, these people had evolved complex social systems, refined artistic traditions and many ingenuous tools to survive and prosper

It was all wiped out very soon, thanks to guns and liquor. For a brief moment, some Europeans were witnesses to the genius of the people who lived in this magnificent land. Few of them appreciated it.

In addition to written documentation, there are collections of beads, made either by archaeologists digging at sites or anthropologists, travelers and missionaries on the spot. Alaska has been owned by two strong powers, both with legions of specialists and great museums.

I have worked on two projects with Alaskan beads. One was as a consultant to the Smithsonian Institution on the "Crossroads of Continents," the first (and, as it turns out, the last) joint Soviet-American exhibit, with objects from Siberia and Alaska loaned by Russian, American and Canadian museums. I have had two reports on this published in Smithsonian books.

The other was in conjunction with the University of Alaska, Fairbanks,* an ongoing investigation of the beads excavated from a longhouse at Reese Bay, Unalaska Island. It represents an early contact site, as it was probably abandoned about 1810.

So, what do the beads in Alaska look like? The first expedition to Alaska, led by a Dane, Vitus Bering, took beads. On two occasions the three eye witness accounts refer to beads being given away, once put in a hastily abandoned house and the other time handed down from the ship to people in a small boat. Each account specifically says they were Chinese beads.

The Chinese and Russian Empires were uneasy neighbors (as they are to this day). The Chinese forbade Russian ships to call at Chinese ports. All trade between these two powers went on at a trading post on the Siberian-Mongolian border called Kiakhta by the Russians and Maimatschin by the Chinese. Goods were generally subject to customs duties. The Russians did exempt a few from customs, and these included glass beads.

The Russians in Alaska were very isolated. The journey across Russia and Siberia was long and arduous, but it was one way beads reached Alaska. Another was the establishment of the yearlong around-the-world connection. A ship would leave St. Petersburg, sail around Europe, Africa and Asia to Alaska. There it would unload supplies and load up on furs (the great treasure at the time). It would then sail all the way down the West Coast of the Americas and up the Atlantic Ocean again to St. Petersburg.

There had to be a better way. Soon after the establishment of the Russian-American Company in 1799 the governor A.A. Baranov contracted with Yankee (mostly Bostonian) skippers to bring European and Chinese goods to Alaska and take Alaskan furs to China. In 1810, J.J. Astor's American Fur Company was allowed to trade with Alaska, and the Hudson's Bay Company in 1839.

American and Canadian/British traders brought most glass beads into Alaska, including the so-called "Russian" bead. Not only was it not made in Russia, but also it is unlikely that the Russians even handled it much. In the "Crossroads of Continents" there are only two of these beads and they are both on early 20th century items. They were called "cut beads" in the trade. This term describes many beads, so I have suggested calling them "Cut Blues," after the dominant color.

There were beads in Alaska before glass ones got there. Teeth were common ornaments, as were shells. Dentalium, traded from warmer waters off Washington and Oregon, were especially desired.

There was also amber. I sent the amber bead from Reese Bay to Curt Beck at the Amber Research Laboratory at Vassar. He kindly examined it with an infrared spectrum.

To my surprise, it turned out not to be Baltic amber brought by the Russians, but most probably local amber. Amber has been used in Alaska a long time. Most of it was found washed out along certain river banks, but some was actually "mined," on Umnak Island, dug out of a cliff with long poles by men standing in small open boats.

There is a lot to say about beads in Alaska. Much of what has been written from the standpoint of collectors needs revision because it is based on private collections, where documentation is scarce or non-existent.

These days people go to Alaska and buy beads they assume (and are told) were in local use. But they are often fooled. Cut blues, for example are sold strung on what looks like grass, but is actually the dried leaf of the Raphia, a palm tree that grows in West Africa where the beads were actually used.


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