The Great Jewish Fur Rush

The fur trade played an important role in Canadian history. Generally speaking, it was an industry rife with competition, rivalry, unsavory activity, and lots of drama. And this applied to the Jews in this business as well.

Indigenous peoples have relied on fur bearing animals for food and clothing since settling on these lands many years thousands of years ago. Europeans ‘discovered’ this area and the soft and luxurious sea otter pelts in the 1500’s when Spanish explorers first sailed these waters. Soon after, the British explorer and pirate, Frances Drake, visited the area. The Spanish made no real attempt to settle in the Pacific Northwest, concentrating their activities in the south (Mexico and California) instead. In the late 1700’s the Russians, already familiar with the features of cold-water otter skin, followed the species east and south into what we know as Alaska. Although technically Spanish territory, the Russians set up trading posts in Alaska.

Beginning in 1774, British explorers Captain Cook and then Captain Vancouver lead their own expeditions. They charted the area, traded with the indigenous peoples, and thus learned the commercial value of the local furs, the sea otter pelts in particular. About this time, the Spanish abandoned their claim to the Pacific Northwest which opened up an opportunity which the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) used to their advantage.

The fur trade had been flourishing elsewhere in Canada and was pushing ever westward. The HBC established trading posts along the waterways in British Columbia. With this area no longer officially Spanish, Chief Factor of the HBC, James Douglas set up the western headquarters of the HBC in 1824 on the Columbia River at Fort Vancouver, Washington, opposite present-day Portland.

Fort Vancouver was originally isolated and in a remote location. However, there started to be some pressure on Fort Vancouver both from fur traders coming north from the California area as well as immigration from the east.

The Oregon Trail was being created. Tales of fertile grounds attracted farmers and ranchers west. They began settling in what is now Washington State, constantly moving westward and settling around Fort Vancouver. As a consequence, the American government became interested in incorporating this area into its boundaries. Negotiations with the British government began.

Keenly aware that it would be imprudent for a British owned company to have its western headquarters on American soil, James Douglas began the task of finding an alternate location. In 1843, before the negotiations were complete, Douglas made arrangements to transfer the entire fort to Victoria. As most of the employees of the HBC were French Canadian fur traders and trappers, when Victoria was first established the dominant language was French.

The Oregon Treaty of 1846 was signed. With the exception of Vancouver Island, the 49th parallel was established as the border between America and Britain. As Victoria was an outpost, far away from the seat of British power, the British government leased the land to the HBC. The lease agreement required that the HBC take responsibility for the local population in exchange for the exclusive rights to trade with them. Once the fort was established, the HBC began to develop the coastal fur trade by establishing trading posts all along the coast and into Alaska.

The HBC negotiated deals with the Russian American Fur Trading Company for trading rights, and storage space in Alaska. In exchange, the HBC became the sole and regular supplier of well-priced goods and provisions for the Russians living and working in Alaska. The Russian connection was also part of the commerce and social structure of Victoria. Russian ships would come to Victoria for supplies, to fix their vessels, and for shore leave. When they were in town, the local newspaper often published articles of interest to the Russians. At this time, Victoria was a quiet, orderly British outpost surrounded by subsistence farms. Suddenly, in 1858, everything changed.

The discovery of gold on the mainland came at the time that the gold rush was waning in the San Francisco area. News of gold on the Fraiser River traveled quickly. During the summer of 1858, between 20-30,000 people descended on the sleepy outpost. Miners, prospectors, and some merchants left San Francisco and flooded to Victoria. In those days, unless born in Britain, whomever came into Victoria from California were considered Americans. The fear of American expansionism informed much of James Douglas’ policies.

Swamped by Americans pouring into Victoria, Douglas advised the British government to make the British presence here more widely known. To that end, the lease agreement with the HBC was voided, thus putting control of the area firmly under the British flag. The Colony of BC on the mainland and the Colony of Vancouver Island, were created to cement British control.

Flag of Vancouver Island (1858-1866) was designed by Benjamin Wyon, an engineer with the Royal Mint. The trident represents King Neptune, God of the Sea, and symbolizes the water surrounding the island. The wand of mercury with two snakes represents commerce while the pine cone stands for the forests. The beaver is symbolic of the fur trade.

Although Victoria was de facto still a company town, the HBC lost its legal jurisdiction and exclusive trading rights with the indigenous peoples. This created an opening, and Jews stepped in. Due to anti-Jewish laws in Europe, ways of earning a living were limited. Jews began to take up a variety of trades, among them tanning, fur dressing, tailoring and millinery. The knowledge gained in the old country positioned them perfectly for entering the fur trade in Victoria.

Jews used their discernment when purchasing or trading with the indigenous people. They were unwilling to pay much for inferior furs, but would sometimes offer a higher amount then quoted for the ‘good’ ones. Jewish knowledge of furs impressed Indigenous traders, some of whom would travel great distances to trade with the Jewish merchants, most of whom had shops in the general area of the Blue Bridge, on Wharf Street, and on lower Yates and Johnson Streets. Jews could get their furs to markets in San Francisco, New York, London and Europe quickly and easily by using their own trading networks. They were not reliant on the HBC for any part of their business operations.

In addition, Jews often conducted their business differently from some other shopkeepers. They were willing to barter. Although some of the First Nations customers traded their furs for alcohol, most wanted such things as clothing, pots and pans, hunting and fishing equipment, and foods like flour, molasses, rice, coffee, bacon, beans. Jewish merchants stocked goods specifically to serve Indigenous customers. Also, many Jews were willing to learn Chinook, a trading language used for communications among the various First Nations on the Island and beyond. In fact, there is a record of at least one Jewish merchant acting as an interpreter for First Nations people in court.

There were many Jewish fur traders. Some Jews traded furs as part of their daily business, but were not fur traders per se. These merchants were referred to as “Indian Traders” which was a niche market run almost exclusively by Jews. There were also a few Jewish men who bought or commissioned schooners. Some lead the expeditions, and negotiated directly with Indigenous peoples all along the western coastline and into Alaska.

Notable Jewish fur traders included the Shirpser and Boscowitz brothers.

From the British Colonist

David Shirpser, a Polish Jew came to California for the gold rush (1850) and opened a clothing store. He married Rebecca, a young widow originally from Poland and adopted her 2 sons. Upon hearing the news of the discovery of gold on the mainland, David and his family moved to Victoria (1859). Shortly after his arrival, his brothers Herman and Leopold joined him. There were three “Cheap John Clothiers” in Victoria, David and Herman were proprietors of one of them. In order to set themselves apart from the many clothing and general stores in town, Cheap Johns held nightly auctions. These soon became a main event.

From the British Colonist

The Shirpser brothers were among the first Jews to enter the coastal fur trade. In 1861, they bought a schooner and hired a captain. David stayed in Victoria while Herman lead some of the expeditions. His first voyage was a 10-week trading mission to Alaska. Although he received furs in exchange blankets, yards of cloth and other items, he also traded large quantities of liquor. Herman traded one pint of liquor for mink, half a gallon for martin or bear. The Shirpsers were among the first to disregard the prohibition against selling liquor to Indigenous peoples. In order to remain competitive with the Shirpser brothers, other fur traders, including the HBC traders soon began trading liquor as well. The Shirpser brothers’ first schooner was once described as “The most notorious smuggler and whiskey trader out of Victoria”. Although technically illegal, trading liquor soon became a standard practice in the fur trade.

Herman lead a number of trading missions with mixed results. There was all kinds of trouble aboard the fur trading schooners. Drunken brawls among the crew and with Indigenous peoples were common. The Shirpsers’ schooner returned from their second trip without the captain OR the cargo. David Shirpser demanded that the incident be investigated. It was learned that on the previous trip, the wife of the Nishga chief had been taken aboard the ship and the chief’s nephew had been crippled in a drunken brawl with the crewmen. In retaliation, the next time the ship arrived at the village, the Nishga boarded the ship and removed the captain and the cargo. Although the investigation concluded that the captain acted with ‘gross misconduct’ and ‘greatly provoked’ the Nishga, the judgement was to dismiss Shirpser’s complaint about the theft of their cargo. After some negotiations the matter was settled when the judge decided that the Nishga should return the goods that were taken in the hope of dissuading the Nishga from repeating their action.

After other difficulties involving the captain, the Shirpser brothers sold their schooner but continued in the fur trading business. They acquired furs mostly from traders who came to Victoria. Both brothers were successful in business and active members of the community. David was a member of the Hebrew Benevolent Society, and often visited the sick. In addition, he donated generously to the building fund of the synagogue and was the first president of the congregation.

In 1867, the Americans bought Alaska from the Russians which opened new business opportunities. David Shirpser was among the first Jews to leave Victoria and head for Alaska. In an effort to attract Americans to Alaska, land was offered for free to any American who was willing to homestead. As David Shirpser was considered American, he took up the offer. Sitka soon became the new wild western frontier. David was one of the men who signed the city’s charter. Land speculation drove prices wild. One example: in November 1887, a property which cost $50 was sold 10 days later for $411.

There was a period of transition before a mass immigration to Sitka occurred. At that time, the Russian American Fur Trading Company began the process of dismantling their business and divesting their properties. The company executives were eager to sell off their large remaining inventory of furs. David became aware of this and on a trip from Victoria to Sitka shared his knowledge with two other men. Leopold Boscowitz, brother of the eminent fur buyer and Victoria merchant, was one of these men. The three men verbally agreed to share the expense of buying and transporting the furs and to share the profits of selling them. However, David Shirpser was cut out of the deal by Leopold Boscowitz who, behind David’s back, formed a new agreement with other players. Together with his new business associates, Leopold Boscowitz bought the entire stock of furs for 40 cents apiece and sold them for $1-$2 each. Following this success, Leopold Boscowitz along with his new business associates and others formed the San Francisco based Alaska Commercial Company. Most of the principals were Jewish.

The Alaska Commercial Company was awarded a contract from the American government for the exclusive rights to harvest seals in the North Pacific and Bering Sea. Although it was a very lucrative deal, Leopold Boscowitz was forced to relinquish his shares in the company because he was not considered American. According to the Americans, because of his residency in Victoria, Leopold was seen as a British subject.

Leopold Boscowitz had at least one another encounter with David Shirpser. A shipment of furs consigned to David Shirpser was being transported from Sitka to San Francisco on a ship owned by one of Leopold Boscowitz’s business partners. The ship got caught on a rock outside Victoria, but stayed afloat. David Shirpser’s cargo valued at $10,000 was said to have disappeared. However, David didn’t believe that and under the cover of darkness he crept around Leopold’s backyard. David discovered a number of barrels of furs with the name Shirpser stamped on them hidden in Boscowitz’ shed. David took the matter to the police, but settled out of court.

David Shirpser returned to California, first to San Francisco and finally to Los Angeles. His brother Leopold joined him there. They owned and operated a clothing business in Los Angeles.

It’s unclear what happened to Leopold Boscowitz.

He and his brother Joseph Boscowitz dissolved their business partnership in 1868. Joseph (who is buried in the Jewish Cemetery) went into a number of businesses including being an investor in the early days of the local sealing industry. He bought low and sold high and used his profits to establish what would become the largest copper mine in BC.

Jewish Museum and Archives, JMABC L:08496

Another key player in the sealing business was Simon Leiser.

Simon Leiser ventured into the sealing business in 1894. Two of his schooners were seized by the Americans and declared as British vessels. As Simon had been a long-time resident of Victoria, he disputed this and filed a claim opposing the seizure. In the hope of getting more support for his claim, he became a board member of the Victoria Sealing Co. The hunting of seals for their furs ended in large part due to the long and drawn out international negotiations involving Simon Leiser

Information for this article came largely, but not exclusively from articles written by Sarah H. Tobe and the late Cyril Edel Leonoff which were published in the Jewish Museum and Archives publication; The Scribe.

The title of this article is a play on a phrase used by Sarah H. Tobe.