The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

"[Otters] Are Your Principall Object": Fur Trade in the Dorr Family Papers, Part I

"...perhaps you will find that you are to far up the Country for otters," Boston merchant Ebenezer Dorr advises his son Ebenezer Dorr, Jr. who served as the supercargo onboard the schooner Amelia in a 10 December 1787 letter contained in the Dorr Family Papers. The elder Dorr continues, "if so one of you can scower the Seashore for them, they are your principall object, we are now making our first shipment on the new plan & making preparation for the second, the third expect you will proceed with if business turns out as I expect."

The fur trade between the United States and China boomed in the late 18th century after the gates of Canton's markets opened to United States merchant shipping in 1784. The Dorr family invested heavily in the fur trade expeditions of the schooner Amelia (1787), the sloop Lucretia (1792), and the snow Pacific Trader (1799-1801). In this letter Ebenezer Dorr instructs his son to collect otter pelts from the Pacific Northwest for trade in Canton where such furs commanded substantial returns. The Chinese merchants sought American furs, paying premium prices for luxurious otter pelts. The crew of the schooner Amelia engaged in sealing and trapping in the Pacific Northwest in efforts to bolster their wares before continuing passage to Canton.

The market of pelts employed not only the efforts of Chinese and American merchants, but Russians too. While otter fur exacted better prices, other furs sold in this market included seal, beaver, buffalo, wild cat, and even raccoon. In the very same letter the elder Dorr writes to his son that he should seek out, "rackoon if blackhaired & well furr'd ... & wild cat they being furrs fashionable in Russia." Those savvy Dorrs in Boston understood the unique demands of the participating powers in the fur trade and aimed to capitalize on their fur trading endeavors in the Pacific Northwest and Canton.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 25 September, 2013, 1:00 AM


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