Sea Otters: Dying to be Worn

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.

University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, PH Coll 445.24b
Victor Scheffer Photo Collection

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.

Published by Jo Haraf

Jo’s poetry and fiction have been published in the California Writers Club Literary Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Ragnarok. She edited and co-authored "Journal Across the Plains - 1852" (Fonthill 2020). "Marriage, Murder, and Betrayal in Nineteen Century California" will be published in the fall of 2021. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University. A popular speaker on the craft of writing, Jo is a proud member of the Historical Novel Society, Biographers International, and the California Writers Club. She lives on Florida's Suncoast with her husband and a scruffy terrier whose adoration sustains her through revisions and rejections.

4 thoughts on “Sea Otters: Dying to be Worn

  1. For one of my books, I did some research on the early sea otter fur trade. They were amazingly valuable. The Chinese would pay almost any price for them. The earliest account I could find, from 1785, showed they were worth $36 apiece. That’s over a thousand dollars today. A hunter could make a year’s salary in a day.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: