Classic History Books


The Path of Empire. A Chronicle of the United States as a World Power
by Carl Russell Fish

If Russia hoped by ceding Alaska to involve the United States in difficulties with her rival Great Britain,
her desire was on one occasion nearly gratified. The only profit which the United States derived from this

new possession was for many years drawn from the seal fishery. The same generation of Americans

which allowed the extermination of the buffalo for lap robes found in the sealskin sack the hall mark of

wealth and fashion. While, however, the killing of the buffalo was allowed to go on without official

check, the Government in 1870 inaugurated a system to preserve the seal herds which was perhaps the

earliest step in a national conservation policy. The sole right of killing was given to the Alaska

Commercial Company with restrictions under which it was believed that the herds would remain

undiminished. The catch was limited to one hundred thousand a year; it was to include only male seals;

and it was to be limited to the breeding grounds on the Pribilof Islands.

The seals, however, did not confine themselves to American territory. During the breeding season they
ranged far and wide within a hundred miles of their islands; and during a great part of the year they were

to be found far out in the Pacific. The value of their skins attracted the adventurous of many lands, but

particularly Canadians; and Vancouver became the greatest center for deep-sea sealing. The Americans

saw the development of the industry with anger and alarm. Considering the seals as their own, they

naturally resented this unlimited exploitation by outsiders when Americans themselves were so strictly

limited by law. They also believed that the steady diminution of the herds was due to the reckless

methods of their rivals, particularly the use of explosives which destroyed many animals to secure a few

perfect skins.

Public opinion on the Pacific coast sought a remedy and soon found one in the terms of the treaty of
purchase. That document, in dividing Alaska from Siberia, described a line of division running through

Bering Sea, and in 1881 the Acting Secretary of the Treasury propounded the theory that this line divided

not merely the islands but the water as well. There was a widespread feeling that all Bering Sea within

this line was American territory and that all intruders from other nations were poachers. In accordance

with this theory, the revenue cutter Corwin in 1886 seized three British vessels and hauled their skippers

before the United States District Court of Sitka. Thomas F. Bayard, then Secretary of State under

President Cleveland, did not recognize this theory of interpreting the treaty, but endeavored to right the

grievance by a joint agreement with France, Germany, Japan, Russia, and Great Britain, the sealing

nations, "for the better protection of the fur seal fisheries in Bering Sea."

A solution had been almost reached, when Canada interposed. Lord Morley has remarked, in his
"Recollections," how the voice of Canada fetters Great Britain in her negotiations with the United States.

While Bayard was negotiating an agreement concerning Bering Sea which was on the whole to the

advantage of the United States, he completed a similar convention on the more complicated question of

the northeastern or Atlantic fisheries which was more important to Canada. This latter convention was

unfavorably reported by the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, which foreshadowed rejection.

Thereupon, in May, 1888, Lord Salisbury, the British Foreign Minister, withdrew from the Bering Sea

negotiation.

At this critical moment Cleveland gave place to Harrison, and Bayard was succeeded by James G.
Blaine, the most interesting figure in our diplomatic activities of the eighties. These years marked the

lowest point in the whole history of our relations with other countries, both in the character of our agents

and in the nature of the public opinion to which they appealed. Blaine was undoubtedly the most

ill-informed of our great diplomats; yet a trace of greatness lingers about him. The exact reverse of John

Quincy Adams, he knew neither law nor history, and he did not always inspire others with confidence in

 

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