Fighting (and Fanaticism) for Fur Seals

fish7848 Henry W. Elliott, William T. Hornaday, and John Hay spent nearly a decade attempting to save the staggering decimation of the Alaskan fur seals from their mating grounds on the Pribilof Islands. The islands were first discovered by Europeans in 1786 and soon after became part of the Russian Territories. In 1867, they became property of the United States and were later leased to the Alaska Commercial Company, who held the monopoly on seal hunting and pelt trading. The islands were highly sought by hunters for their fur seal rookeries, large areas where thousands of seals gathered to mate, raise their young, and fish. 

Fur seal rookeries, reef rookery, Garbotch rookery; Alaska, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands. From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce NOAA Photo Library

Fur seal rookeries, reef rookery, Garbotch rookery; Alaska, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands. From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce NOAA Photo Library

The ACC gradually mismanaged their responsibility by allowing the seal populations to decline to near-extinction levels. Not only was this a problem for the business of  international trading but, more important, for the indigenous peoples of the surrounding Alaska areas, who relied on those seals for food and clothing.

Henry W. Elliott’s crusade to save the fur seals from extinction was a long and frustrating journey, starting well before 1905 (when he and John Hay co-authored and presented their bill to the U.S. Courts) and lasting until almost 1912 with the signing of the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention treaty. Although Elliott had strong allies in Hay and Hornaday, two men who were well-connected in preservation affairs with the government, there were still many obstacles to overcome in convincing other Senators that the fur seals were in fact in danger at all. Letters written to President Taft from Elliott’s fellow-advocate Hornaday (writing on behalf of the Camp Fire Club) were treated with little support, favoring the findings of  Secretary of Commerce and Labor Charles Nagel. Nagel treated the ‘excessive’ hunting of the fur seals to be at acceptable levels, something that Elliott disagreed with wholeheartedly.

Elliott became enraged at the audacity of government officials to hire seemingly incompetent ‘experts’ and ‘scientists,’ who he believed produced inaccurate, independent surveys of the seals. So flummoxed by their ineptitude in analyzing the stability of the seal population size, his near-obsession with saving the seals spanned hundreds of letters to Hornaday.

June 2, 1910 memo from Elliott to Hornaday detailing Fish Commissioner Bower's faults, including Elliott's accusation that Bower didn't even know the difference between a fish and a whale. n Hornaday Wildlife Scrapbook Collection, Vol. 4. WCS Archives Collection 1007.

June 2, 1910 memo from Elliott to Hornaday detailing Fish Commissioner Bower’s faults, including Elliott’s accusation that Bower didn’t even know the difference between a fish and a whale. n Hornaday Wildlife Scrapbook Collection, Vol. 4. WCS Archives Collection 1007.

Elliott also went as far as to create detailed biographical cards of each transgressor involved. These weren’t silly notes about personal quirks, these were scathing dossiers on Senators, Commissioners, and even high-profile lawyers that interfered with Elliott’s preservation of these small-yet-populated island animals. Each one includes easy-to-file headings, professional titles, and chronological misconduct associated with the long history of the fur seal fight.

Elliott’s frustrations are illustrated in cards like these, regarding the transgressions of James G. Blaine and Charles Foster.

Elliott’s frustrations are illustrated in cards like these, regarding the transgressions of James G. Blaine and Charles Foster.

Elliott reveled in the minutia of documenting these transgressors to the point that by the end he had a self-written history of those who wronged him, their actions and faults, how the government placated their inaccurate findings, and how they shaped the outcome of his persistence.  These can all be found in Volumes 4 through 6 of the Hornaday Scrapbook Collection.

This post is by Janine Veazue, MLIS, who worked during Summer 2013 with the WCS Archives as a Metadata Cataloger on our Hornaday Wildlife Protection Campaign Scrapbook Project.

In addition to serving as the first director of the Bronx Zoo, William T. Hornaday (1854-1937) was a pioneering force in the American wildlife conservation movement, and he spearheaded several lobbying and fundraising campaigns in support of wildlife. These campaigns he documented in scrapbooks, and the WCS Archives has made many of these scrapbooks available online through the generous support of the Leon Levy Foundation.

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