Wildest of the Wild - The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed - John Vaillant

The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed - John Vaillant (2006)

Chapter 5. Wildest of the Wild

The Haida at Kiusta saw it first as a white spot on the horizon that slowly grew larger. The people were afraid and donned their dancing costumes. They began to dance to drive it away, but it continued to approach. The spot became a giant web, and in the distance they saw spiders crawling up and down the webbing. As the web came closer they could see it was attached to a boat, but no ordinary boat, for it appeared to have wings which flapped up and down in unison against the water. The spiders, it turned out, resembled human beings, except they had white faces. The Kiusta people believed the Santla ga haade—the ghost land people—had returned from the dead.

—William Matthews, former chief of Old Masset, via Margaret Blackman

The fierce character of the natives would, however, render any attempts at permanent settlements, unless in strong parties, dangerous. In one sentence, to conclude, these islands are more interesting to the geographer than to the colonist; to the miner they may be valuable, but to the agriculturalist they are useless.


FOUR YEARS BEFORE Captain Cook arrived on the Northwest Coast, a Spanish explorer named Juan Pérez Hernández weighed anchor at Monterey, California, then the northern limit of Spanish settlement, and sailed north into aqua incognita. His mission: to claim the entire Northwest Coast for Spain. Poor weather and fog kept Pérez’s eighty-two-foot corvette Santiago well offshore for the entire trip, and after five weeks of wandering through the heaving miasm of the North Pacific, the crew was dangerously low on food and water and showing signs of scurvy. As a result, they were forced to turn back well short of their goal of the 60th parallel—then the southern limit of Russian settlement in North America. By all accounts the voyage was a dismal failure, save for one historic encounter. Posterity was the last thing on these sailors’ minds when, on July 18, 1774, a lookout spotted land. What lay before them was not the mainland of the recently expanded New Spain, as their captain supposed, but a minor island in an uncharted archipelago. Without knowing it, Juan Pérez and his crew had discovered what would come to be known as the Queen Charlotte Islands.

While probing the coastline of what is now Langara Island, the Santiago was met offshore by a number of Haida canoes; as the paddlers sang, a shaman aboard the lead canoe scattered eagle down upon the water in front of the mysterious craft. Two priests aboard the Santiago admired the natives’ pleasant manner as well as their surprisingly fair skin and rosy cheeks; they also noted that one of the canoes held a spear tipped with iron. Where, they wondered, had these pagans acquired such a sophisticated item? It wasn’t clear whether this weapon was for spearing otters or enemies, but the Haida seemed friendly and some informal trading began, in the course of which they eagerly invited the sailors to come ashore. One hundred kilometres southeast of their position stood the golden spruce. By now the tree would have been about seventy-five years old and thirty metres tall. One can only wonder what the Spaniards, so obsessed with precious metals and so willing to see heavenly portent in every twitch of the landscape, would have made of a golden tree in a green forest. We will never know because the wind died and a strong current bore the ship away. This may have been for the best: up until this time, no explorer who set foot on the northwest coast had ever made it back to his ship.

This was only one of the reasons the Northwest Coast was such a late addition to the world map; with the exception of the two poles, this was the last significant feature to be added to the earth’s portrait. There were two primary reasons. One was motivation: there wasn’t any. Although places as tiny and remote as the Spice Islands were internationally famous by the sixteenth century, the islands of the North Pacific, and any riches they might contain, were unknown to Europeans. The other reason was access: there was simply no direct route; even Tasmania was easier to get to. An overland journey from the Atlantic was not only extraordinarily dangerous, but it could take years, and travelling from Europe presented an even more daunting prospect. During the 1720s it took the naval explorer Vitus Bering three years just to get from Moscow to the Pacific in order to begin his voyage; even then, the yet-to-be-named Bering Strait and most of Alaska still stood between him and the Northwest Coast. The sea offered no better alternative. Unless you were sailing from the east coast of Asia, the only way to get to the North Pacific involved detouring to the opposite end of the planet and passing around either South America or Africa (depending on one’s direction of travel).

The Chinese, who had ships capable of crossing the Pacific by 1200, wrote of a legendary place called Fousang, which is believed to have been the Northwest Coast. The English had a less elegant name for it: they called it “the backside of America,” and until it was accurately mapped at the end of the eighteenth century, it was subject to a series of cartographic indignities driven by misinformation, wishful thinking, and bald-faced lies. Quivira, the legendary city of gold sought by the Spanish during the mid-sixteenth century was rumoured to be there, along with various lost cities, the Northwest Passage and its mythical precursor, the Strait of Anian. While writing Gulliver’s Travels, the satirist Jonathan Swift chose the poorly understood region as a suitable location for Brobdingnag, the land of giants. Gulliver’s Travels was published in 1726, two years before Bering tested the important, if rudimentary, theory that Asia and North America were actually separate continents.

The first European to set foot on the Northwest Coast and survive an encounter with the locals was Captain James Cook, who stepped ashore at Resolution Cove on the northwestern shore of Vancouver Island, on March 29, 1778. Vancouver Island is the biggest piece in the coastal puzzle; with its southern end nestled into a pocket formed by Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, it angles northwestward off the B.C. coast for five hundred kilometres. Cook’s purpose for landing there would prove prophetic: he needed logs. While en route from New Zealand, via Hawai’i, both his ships sustained heavy damage to their masts and spars. The explorers’ host on Vancouver Island was the powerful Nuu-chah-nulth chief Maquinna. He and his people wore cloaks made of sea otter skins and they lived in wooden houses that would have been recognizable to any European. Made of straight planks, with a smoke hole centred along a symmetrically peaked roofline, Nuu-chah-nulth bighouses would have appeared unusual only because of their great size and massive timbers. In addition to finding sea otters “as plentiful as blackberries” and gracious hospitality that augured well for future trade, another opportunity revealed itself deeper in the forest: trees the likes of which no Englishman had ever seen—an empire builder’s fantasy. But Cook, bound again for Hawai’i, wouldn’t live to see his discovery come to fruition.

When Cook’s account of his third and final voyage was published in 1784, explorer-entrepreneurs, who had certainly heard rumours beforehand, took note and wasted no time in outfitting ships for the North Pacific. By 1785 the first vessel was on the coast, trading with the Native peoples, and nothing would be the same there again. These acolytes of Cook were called Nor’westmen (both the men and their vessels went by this name), and they were commercial explorers engaged in what were arguably the most ambitious, far-ranging, and culturally complex trading missions ever routinely undertaken. Their sole motivation was the pelts of a small sea mammal which had been classified not long before as Enhydra lutris, otherwise known as the sea otter. Their skins were the Golden Fleece of the North Pacific; the Chinese were paying a fortune for them. The Manchu dynasty of the eighteenth century, ruling over what they called the Celestial Empire, was the most advanced civilization on earth. With its enormous land area, the xenophobic society’s three hundred million citizens (then more than a third of the world’s total population) were largely self-sufficient. An exception was sea otter pelts which members of the upper class coveted above all other clothing; as much as 120 Spanish silver dollars might be paid for a single high-quality skin, the equivalent of about $2,400 today. So precious were these furs that crewmen on trading vessels had their belongings searched periodically to make sure they weren’t smuggling skins for their own gain, just as African diamond miners are searched today. While the East Coast cod, timber, and fur trades had been generating wealth for a century or more, the otter trade was the first northern commodity to send its exploiters into a bona fide frenzy, like gold, oil, or drugs.

With traders approaching by both land and sea, it was the fur trade that first opened the West; beaver, fox, and ermine were all profitable, but sea otter skins were in a class by themselves. Alexander Mackenzie, a fur trader and partner in the British-owned North West Company, was the first European to cross the continent overland, arriving on the coast in 1793, directly opposite the southern tip of the recently named Queen Charlotte’s Isles (his journey was so arduous that no one has been able to duplicate it). Though he preceded Lewis and Clark by more than a decade, Mackenzie arrived to find dozens of ships already prowling the coast in search of otter skins, and many of them were American; as early as 1791, coins minted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony were seen dangling from the ears of North Coast Natives. John Jacob Astor, whose vast fur-trading empire has become the stuff of American legend, didn’t send his first expedition until nearly twenty years later (1810). By then the slow-breeding sea otter was already in decline.

The sea otter, which exists only in the North Pacific, is unique among mammals; whereas the human head may be covered with one hundred thousand hairs—total, a sea otter can produce up to six hundred thousand hairs per square inch. So fine is their fur that it can be brushed in any direction; the result is a pelt of unparalleled softness. Lacking the insulating fat of other marine mammals, it is this dense mat of filaments, which the animals manually load with heat-retaining air bubbles, that allows these creatures to survive in North Pacific waters. Sea otters seldom go ashore, preferring to eat, sleep, relax, and copulate while floating on their backs. They carry flat stones in skin flaps under their forelegs which they place on their chests and use like anvils for breaking open shellfish (these stones are confiscated in aquariums because their owners will also bang them against the glass walls of their tanks). Sea otters are famously playful and affectionate, and they may float for hours holding “hands” with another otter. Mating, however, is a joyless exercise preceded by the male grasping the female’s snout in his teeth and flipping her, belly up, onto his stomach. Apparently, they were extremely easy to kill.

The otter traders’ route took them, literally, around the globe on a highly profitable journey that came to be known as the Golden Round. While some traders embarked from colonial bases at Macau and Calcutta, many others shipped out from their home ports in the North Atlantic; from there, it took three or four months just to reach Cape Horn, a gauntlet of fog, icebergs, gale-force winds, and huge waves, all of which flow in the opposite direction of Pacific-bound ships. Square-riggers weren’t designed to sail into the wind, and for this reason it might take a month of tacking just to get around the Horn, an ordeal that exacted a heavy toll from ship and crew alike. Some captains simply gave up and turned their vessels around though one fur-mad trader made the journey in a thirty-three-foot schooner. From Cape Horn, just shy of the Antarctic circle, these vessels would tack northward again for thirteen thousand kilometres until they reached the thick fog, fickle winds, and ferocious currents of the Northwest coast. It was here, after half a year of hard sailing in cramped, vermin-infested conditions, that the real work began, and there was no respite for travel-weary sailors. The coast’s overwhelming dampness not only led to frequent respiratory ailments but it rotted food, canvas, and rope at alarming speed. Poor visibility, along with fluky winds, whirlpools, and bizarre tidal upwellings made for hazardous coastal navigating. In some surge channels, tides run at speeds only slightly slower than Niagara Falls. Frequent losses of anchor and chain due to the region’s rough “holding ground” led one captain to recommend embarking for the coast with no fewer than five spare anchors and cables. The chronically foul weather further demoralized the crews, who employed a veritable thesaurus of gloomy descriptors to express their experiences there: “dreary,” “inhospitable,” “wretched,” “savage,” “barbarous,” and the “wildest of the wild” being but a few. Some of their shipboard experiences sound like they were conjured up by Hieronymus Bosch: ice-cube-sized hail would cause birds to drop, dead, from the sky. One sailor compared the seasickness he and his mates suffered en route to “shitting through one’s teeth.”

Once a load of otter skins had been procured, a ship would head south to Hawai’i for resupply, ready sex, and perhaps an ancillary load of sandalwood. From there the ships would cross the Pacific to Canton, braving both Asian and European pirates along the way. (The Russians, who had a half-century head start on the Europeans, sent their furs overland, mainly through the town of Kiakhta on the northern Chinese border.) All profits from the sale of skins would be reinvested into Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain. Once reloaded, the Nor’westmen would make their way south into the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, and back up through the Atlantic to their home ports. A typical “round” might take two years and cover more than sixty thousand kilometres, during which the Nor’westmen emptied and reloaded their holds twice and traded with dangerous and widely divergent peoples speaking a minimum of four unrelated languages. In addition to English and French, the Chinook trading jargon was popular on the south coast as far as Vancouver Island while a Haida-based equivalent came in handy up north. Someone on the ship also had to be familiar with Hawaiian and Cantonese.

Meanwhile, up and down the coast the locals were having surreal first contact experiences with strange craft inhabited by beings who could do things that no ordinary human should be able to do: they could remove the tops of their heads at will (wigs); they could shed their colourful skins and pull objects out of their bodies (close-fitting clothes); they had weapons that could pierce battle armour made from wooden slats and the thick hides of sea lions. And their eyes were blue. As the Natives got to know them better, these aliens became known, first, as Iron Men and, more specifically, as Boston and King George Men. They appeared to be of only one gender; with the exception of the occasional captain’s wife or Hawaiian mistress, there were rarely women aboard. However, this and their peculiar smell were overlooked because they carried with them a wide variety of amazing items they seemed eager to part with, including chisels, nails, copper pots, scissors, mirrors, buttons, blankets, and brass bells. But travelling with them, too, were the Four Horsemen in the form of rum, guns, contagious diseases, and a strident worldview. These visitors from afar were not, it turned out, returning from the land of the dead; rather, they were bringing it with them. Within a century a stranger travelling the West Coast and seeing, firsthand, village after village strewn with the bones of the unburied might have reasonably supposed that the Land of the Dead was right here, in North America. It wasn’t that the people of the Northwest Coast were strangers to murder and mayhem, or even to disease—not by a long shot: the Haida took their enemies’ heads, after all, and smallpox almost certainly preceded the traders. It would be the scale, as well as the range, of devastations that they would find so overwhelming.

Without a doubt, the advantages of novelty and surprise did give the foreigners the upper hand in the first rounds of trade. Some of Cook’s men, for example, realized a profit of 1,800 percent on the otter skins they procured from the Nuu-chah-nulth, thereby setting off a near mutiny among some of his crew who wanted to abandon their “voyage of discovery” and head back to the coast for more skins. However, the Natives quickly reassessed the value of these new trade items in relation to their own, and from then on every deal became a game of wits.

As much as they might have liked to believe otherwise, the new world the Nor’westmen found themselves in was not an innocent or naive place by any stretch of the imagination. Intertribal trade was well developed by the time the foreigners showed up, and a wide variety of goods, ranging from copper and puffin beaks to human slaves and the scalps of woodpeckers, were finding their way back and forth from California to Alaska, and from the outer islands to the Prairies. The newcomers learned, much to their annoyance, that such fundamental laws and practices as supply and demand, false advertising, gouging, circumventing the middleman, not to mention the old bait and switch, were already in wide usage on the coast. As one Nor’westman put it, “These artists of the northwest could dye a horse with any jockey in the civilized world, or ‘freshen up’ a faded sole with the most ingenious and unscrupulous of fishmongers.” Throwing the horny all-male crews still further off-balance was the fact that North Coast women, who tended to be less sexually available than the Hawaiians, often played a major role in trading negotiations.

For well over a hundred years, there has been a strong tendency throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere to idealize Native Americans; this extends, in many cases, to the Natives themselves. They are often depicted as proto-environmentalists—stewards of a continental Eden who revered their prey and nurtured the land until it was laid waste by invading Europeans. Such rose-tinted hindsight is surprising given that so much information about the realities of tribal life survives to this day. But it wasn’t just the likes of John Muir, Edward S. Curtis, and Grey Owl who subscribed to this view; even George Armstrong Custer, of all people, was known to wax rhapsodic about the passing of what he and many of his contemporaries called the “noble race.” And yet, before the westward expansion, before any of these romantics was yet born, the West Coast otter trade was helping to set the tone for every extractive industry that has come after.

Though food was generally plentiful on the Northwest Coast, Natives would certainly have been familiar with hunger and hard times in the form of bad winters and poor fish runs. While it was not a common food item, the sea otter provided some of the finest clothing available anywhere. And yet, despite its practical importance, and despite a necessarily keen sensitivity to the rhythms of the natural world, the West Coast Natives pursued this creature to the brink of extinction. In doing so, they demonstrated the same kind of profit-driven shortsightedness that has wiped out dozens of other species, including the Atlantic salmon and, more recently, the Atlantic cod. It is an eccentric and uniquely human approach to resources: like plowing under your farmland to make way for more lawns, or compromising your air quality in exchange for an enormous car.

From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, it is hard to say who was more inebriated by greed: the Europeans who were seeing profits in the hundreds of percent, or the Natives who were suddenly able to leapfrog their way to the top of the social hierarchy and put on spectacles of largesse hitherto unimaginable by any potlatch host on the coast. So eager were the Natives to get their hands on the traders’ various technological marvels that a man would readily sell the otter cloak off his wife’s back and, on occasion, her back as well. And so desperate were the Iron Men to acquire these skins that they would trade away virtually anything that wasn’t crucial to the journey home; this included Native slaves from down the coast, firearms, silverware, door keys, and the sailors’ own clothing. These were boom times for all concerned, a rapacious festival of unrestrained capitalism.

Despite the claims of western movies and popular history, the West, in fact, went “wild” seventy-five years before the arrival of the railroad, Jesse James, or Sam Steele and the North-West Mounted Police. By the time Lewis and Clark arrived on the Pacific coast in 1805, the local Natives were already heavily armed. As early as 1795 the Haida were returning the traders’ cannon fire with cannonades of their own—the guns having been pillaged from captured European ships. By 1810 some chiefs possessed such formidable arsenals that they were selling top-of-the-line swivel-mounted cannon back to the Nor’westmen. The Haida reportedly had such weapons mounted on the bows of their canoes. The Haida had understood the art of fortification since well before the arrival of Europeans, and at least one Haida village near Masset had a stockade armed with plundered cannon. Farther north, the Tlingits were taking measures of their own; annoyed that the Russian American and Hudson’s Bay Companies were encroaching on their role as middlemen between inland and other coastal tribes, they reduced the Russian and British forts to smoking ruins. Meanwhile, of the dozen or more trading vessels taken by West Coast tribes before the collapse of the otter trade in the 1850s, fully half were seized by the Haida.

AN EARLY SOURCE OF TENSION emerged around the fact that theft was an accepted practice among virtually all the people the traders encountered. To say that Natives would take anything that wasn’t nailed down was, apparently, an understatement: John Meares, one of the first of the Nor’westmen, reported that “it has often been observed when the head of a nail either in the ship or boats stood a little without the wood, that they [Natives] would apply their teeth in order to pull it out.” Thefts were perpetrated with a sporting attitude, similar to the Plains Indian practice of counting coup;*5 the assumption seemed to be that whatever you couldn’t effectively protect—whether it be a soupspoon or a schooner—you didn’t deserve to own in the first place. The white traders were, of course, practicing their own version of this: while the Natives were making off with tools, laundry, and rowboats, traders thought nothing of coming ashore and helping themselves to water, timber, and game—all items that Natives considered to be their property.

Because of this, deals were often brokered in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and contempt barely hidden beneath a thin veneer of carefully orchestrated protocol: gift giving, invitations to dine and visit the other’s living quarters, etc. However, as competition and inflation grew with explosive speed, it didn’t take long for the presents and feasting to degenerate into tense, heavily armed encounters that bore a strong resemblance to a contemporary drug deal or hostage exchange. Much of the character of an individual transaction came down to the personalities of those involved, and there were honourable square dealers to be found on both sides. But bad news travels fast, and one man responsible for the early and rapid deterioration in trade relations was James Kendrick, who will go down as one of the most destructive (and prophetic) trade ambassadors in early American history. Kendrick was, among other things, the first man to sell large quantities of arms to the West Coast tribes, including the Haida, and it is thanks in part to him that the Queen Charlotte Islands have the bloodiest history of any place on the coast.

Things might have turned out differently if Captain Kendrick, one of the “Boston Men,” hadn’t had his underwear stolen one day in June 1789 and decided to teach the local chief, Koyah, a lesson by sticking his leg in a cannon barrel, cutting off his hair, and painting his face. This was a devastating humiliation for Koyah, a renowned and wealthy chief, and restoring his lost status became an obsession. When Kendrick returned two years later, Koyah was waiting for him; he managed to capture Kendrick and his ship, but was out-gunned in the end. A massacre ensued in which as many as forty Haida were killed and scores more were wounded (the battle was later commemorated in a broadside called The Ballad of the Bold Northwestmen). Koyah survived, and the next ship to visit his territory was burned to the waterline and her crew slaughtered, with the exception of one man who was enslaved. That same year, one of Koyah’s allies gave another vessel the same treatment. In 1795 Koyah led an attack of more than forty canoes carrying approximately 1,200 warriors against yet another American ship called the Union; the assault was repelled by overwhelming force and as many as seventy Haida were killed. “I could have kill’d a hundred more with grapeshot,” wrote the Union’s twenty-year-old captain, “but I let humanity prevail & ceas’d firing…. None of us was hurt.”

Chief Maquinna, the same man who had given Captain Cook such a warm welcome, was driven to a similar extreme. Five years after Cook’s visit, he was paid a call by the Sea Otter, the first fur-trading vessel on the coast. Maquinna was invited aboard and shown to a seat of honour that had been booby-trapped with a charge of gunpowder. The chief was subsequently blown out of his chair; he survived but was scarred for life. When Maquinna’s warriors attacked in retaliation, dozens were killed by gun and cannon fire. On other occasions, traders ransacked Maquinna’s home and summarily executed his subchiefs. Nearly twenty years after the exploding chair incident, Maquinna oversaw the seizure of the Boston and the massacre of all but two of her crew; only the highly valuable armourer and a fortunate sailmaker were spared.

Of all the sticky endings met by Nor’westmen, Captain Kendrick’s may have been the most poetically just. In 1795, six years after his first battle with Koyah, the moody, alcoholic Kendrick was in Honolulu Harbor where he requested a cannon salute from a British ship called the Jackal. The Jackal obliged—accidentally, with live ammunition—and James Kendrick went down in a hail of grapeshot. A month later the Jackal’s master was killed by Hawaiians. Kendrick’s brother was subsequently killed by an ally of Koyah’s.


WHILE THE LOCALS could always retreat to their village forts or, if worse came to worst, into the deep forest, the Nor’westmen had nowhere to go but their ships, and at anchor they were sitting ducks. Traders reported being surrounded at times, by hundreds of canoes, some of which would have been longer than the ships themselves; they were also far more manoeuvrable in close quarters. Escape, under these conditions, would have been impossible, and there was always the possibility of attack, even in the most apparently benign situations. William Sturgis, a veteran fur trader from Massachusetts who would become one of the harshest critics of his colleagues’ behaviour on the coast, created a formula for an efficient, nonviolent trading environment. His recipe for success was, in short, a seamless defence coupled with a compelling display of ready firepower.

It is hard to overemphasize the importance of these vessels to the sailors whose lives depended upon them. The journeys these men were engaged in would be considered epic today; for all practical purposes, they were closer to being interplanetary than intercontinental. Like a spaceship, each vessel was a life-support system unto itself, serving as dormitory, mess hall, clinic, storefront, warehouse, board-room, fortress, armoury, and escape module rolled into one. Without it, there was no way home. If something went wrong en route, you would probably die; there was no way of calling for help, and rarely anyone to hear you even if you could. In the event that your ship was lost and you managed to make it to shore, it would, in most cases, merely prolong your suffering. A sailor separated from his mother ship was an extremely vulnerable individual; he stood an excellent chance of being killed outright or enslaved by people who were alien in every sense of the word. The difference between his experience and that of contemporary West African slaves would have been only a matter of scale.

In retrospect, it is difficult to fathom why the traders were so willing to arm the Natives, particularly when one considers that, as one French trader observed, the Natives would frequently turn their weapons on the very men who sold them, and on the same day they had been acquired. (The Spanish had a policy of never trading arms with Natives.) In some cases, the sale of guns was intended to buy loyalty, as was the case with British fur traders who had cut arms deals with several Plains tribes. Because they often traded inferior weapons, some traders may have felt confident that they could always outgun the Natives if it came to a fight; others probably thought they would never return to the area so it didn’t matter what they left behind. Or maybe they just weren’t thinking. In any case, the speed with which the Native peoples adapted to new technologies and changing conditions caught many of the traders by surprise.

IT SEEMS IMPOSSIBLE that participants on either side of the fur trade would have failed to envision for the sea otter the same fate that John J. Audubon could see awaiting the buffalo in 1843, when vast herds still blackened the plains. “Before many years,” wrote Audubon in his Missouri River Journal, “the Buffalo, like the Great Auk, will have disappeared; surely this should not be permitted.” In 1730 millions of sea otters flourished in the kelp beds that dotted the Pacific coast, from Baja California north to Alaska, and south again along the Aleutian Islands and Kamchatka, all the way to Japan; by 1830 the species had been all but extirpated from most of its range. And yet, while the Natives appeared, in most cases, to have been willing, even zealous, agents of the species’ destruction, the white traders had them over a barrel. Coercive techniques, including threats and hostage taking, were used by some traders, but in a sense the Natives were hostages, first and foremost, to the trade itself: once the market for skins had been created, they really had no choice but to participate. Any village or tribe that didn’t would become the losers in the inevitable race for new arms, technology, and wealth. Once aboard a juggernaut like this, it appears suicidal to jump off—even if staying on is sure to destroy you in the end.

As the sea otter population dwindled, intertribal warfare grew so vicious, and trade relations soured so completely—on all sides—that commercial ventures were no longer worth the risk. Increasingly mutinous crews, as well as the kidnapping and ransoming of Natives for skins, further exacerbated the situation. William Sturgis, who lost a brother to the Haida, gave what may stand as the fairest assessment of the situation on the coast at the start of the nineteenth century. Recalling his experiences in the otter trade, he wrote:

Should I recount all the lawless & brutal acts of white men upon the Coast you should think that those who visited it had lost the usual attributes of humanity, and such indeed seem to be the fact. The first expeditions were…entrusted to such men as could be picked up ready to undertake a hazardous adventure. These were often men of desperate fortunes, lawless & reckless, who, upon finding themselves beyond the pale of civilization and accountable to no one, pursued their object without scruple as to the means, and indulged every brutal propensity without the slightest restraint…. I do not exaggerate when I say that some among them would have shot an Indian for his garment of Sea Otter skins with as little compunction as he would have killed the animal from whom the skins were originally taken.

The quick and dismal failure of trading relations on the Northwest Coast can be traced to a pair of lethal ingredients: the fact that both parties brought extremely violent cultures to the bargaining table, and that neither side was willing to see the other as fully, “legitimately” human. This combination of violence and disdain, coupled with a strong sense of entitlement, helped set the tone for future settlers’ and investors’ attitudes, not just toward the New World’s human inhabitants, but toward its resources as well. Little, in fact, has changed since King William III declared from an ocean away that the forests of Maine were “the King’s Pine.”

While the sea otter “gold rush” was capturing people’s imaginations and poisoning them with greed, cooler heads were noticing a commodity that would prove far more lucrative over the long term. In 1787 Captain John Meares, who could be considered the father of the Northwest timber trade, received the following orders from his backers in London: “Spars of every denomination are in constant demand here. Bring as many as you can conveniently stow.” A year later, his decks stacked with Vancouver Island timber, Meares himself was moved to write, “Indeed the woods of this part of America are capable of supplying…all the navies of Europe.” It may have been the sea otter that brought them, but the timber is why they stayed.