Sea otters have the misfortune to be born with plush pelts boasting up to one million hairs per square inch. Hunters prized their skins as “blacker, thicker, and glossier” than their cousins: the beaver and land otter. When fashion dictated the Manchu nobles of the Chinese Qing dynasty (1644-1912) dress in sea otter skins, the animals’ demise was inevitable. The only question was who would slaughter them to near extinction.
The Russians started the frenzy. After nearly fifty years in the fur trade, the Russians exhausted the Alaskan sea otter population in 1788.
The Spanish exchanged nutria de mar for Chinese quicksilver used to refine silver and gold ore. In 1791, 3,000 Chinese buyers waited at Macau for a Spanish galleon laden with pelts.
The British arrived late to the quest, hiring California contractors to hunt the few remaining otters. John Rogers Cooper, a Monterey businessman and sea captain, once caught 700 otters in a single season. In 1833, he harvested only thirty-two animals after which he predicted, “I don’t think we shall get six hundred in all of the coast.” That same year, a hunting party, including Scotsmen James Black and Edward McIntosh, trapped only nineteen otters—time to find another line of work.
Follow James Black and Edward McIntosh in Marriage, Murder and Betrayal in Nineteenth-Century California as they make their livings in Spanish, then American, Northern California, while coping with Russian invaders, San Franciscan vigilantes, and the 1849 Gold Rush.