White Fox and Icy Seas in the Western Arctic

The Fur Trade, Transportation, and Change in the Early Twentieth Century

Written by Nelle Oosterom 

Posted August 1, 2019

John Bockstoce’s White Fox and Icy Seas in the Western Arctic explores a period from the turn of the last century to the early 1930s, during which a flourishing trade in white fox furs led to economic boom times for trappers and traders in much of the Arctic. Fashion trends of the Edwardian era (1901 to 1910) led to what one observer called the “great age of fur display” when fox-fur wraps, coats, and stoles were all the rage.

This happened at the same time that another fashion trend — the whalebone corset — was on the decline, leading out-of-work Arctic whalers to switch to trapping. Those new to trapping faced a steep learning curve, as the white Arctic fox is a wily creature that is hard to trick. But the rewards were great. Some ambitious Indigenous trappers in the 1920s earned as much as eighteen thousand dollars in a year, at a time when most people in southern Canada were making about one thousand dollars annually.

Bockstoce is an independent American scholar who, during the 1970s and 1980s, spent his summers working on boats in the Arctic — including a ten-season stint with an Indigenous Alaskan whaling crew. This allowed him to interview many elders who had taken part in the heyday of the fox-fur trade.

While White Fox and Icy Seas is dense with detail, it presents a view that is not often expressed — that sometimes the Indigenous people of the North came out ahead in their dealings with southerners. Readers interested in the history of the Arctic will find much to ponder in this well-illustrated and engaging book.

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Nelle Oosterom is the former senior editor of Canada’s History magazine.

This article originally appeared in the August-September 2019 issue of Canada’s History.

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