Captain Christian Theodore Pedersen and the Western Arctic Fur Trade

by Captain Sven Johansson with contributions from John MacFarlane 1990

Captain Christian Theodore Pedersen

Captain Christian Theodore Pedersen 1925 (With permision from Saltwater People Historical Society (S.P.H.S.))

Few individuals have had more personal impact on the development of maritime commerce and navigation in the Western Arctic than C.T. Pedersen. Little known now he was in the early part of the Twentieth Century the driving force in opening up the fur trade and influencing the settlement patterns in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic.

Born in Sandefjord Norway about 1877, Pedersen went to sea as a very young teenager as an ordinary seaman. His first voyage was as a deck boy on a large sailing bark carrying a load of lumber from the St. Lawrence River to Dublin Ireland. Captain James McKenna owned several whaling ships and the brig Meyers. Bowhead whales had been discovered to spend the summer east of the Mackenzie River so McKenna required a steam vessel to engage in the pursuit of the Beaufort Sea whales. He purchased the whaling steam bark Elida in 1893 and re&–named her Fearless under Nicaraguan Registry. She was purchased at Sandefjord Norway and a Norwegian crew was engaged to delivery her to her new San Francisco owners at Point Barrow Alaska. As a seventeen year old ordinary seaman Pedersen signed on for the voyage.

Pedersen’s memories of the Fearless were vivid. He recalled that while outfitting the Fearless he was ordered by the Mate to dump boxwood into an oil tank for burning. The following day he was ordered to sweep up the ashes from the fire. He lowered a burning lantern into the tank and it was extinguished by the lack of oxygen. Reporting this to the Mate another sailor was sent into the tank to investigate. Entering the tank he collapsed at the bottom. Giving the alarm Pedersen watched several men rush into the hold with a rope and the collapsed sailor’s brother entered the tank. He too collapsed. By then anxious carpenters had chopped a large hole in the deck above the manhole for air and working space. The second brother was recovered alive but had suffered severe brain damage and the other had died.

The Fearless sailed at five knots, and made a slow passage to via the Suez Canal, Singapore and a stop at Japan for coal. They arrived in the Aleutians in August. At Unalaska they received bad news. The whaling bark James Allen carrying extra crew for the Fearless, from San Francisco, had foundered on a reef west of Unalaska losing 28 men. They proceeded with a short crew to Point Barrow in late August. There Captain McKenna forced several of the crew, including Pedersen, to stay on board while the rest of the crew left to return to Norway. He recalled saying his goodbyes to the Norway&–bound crew members with a lump in his throat. Captain McKenna had recently lost his sailing bark Reindeer in the ice off the sandspit west of Reindeer Island. They steamed to Herschel Island to winter in the ice. During the Fall his spirits began to rise and began to learn to speak English. He recalled only being able to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in English when he arrived and had to learn quickly to keep up. His progress was rapid and he was promoted to storekeeper in November. The unexpected delay for the winter in Arctic grew to four winters. Although he had never dreamed then of staying in the Arctic or of commanding the ships there he never left.


Clipping from San Francisco Call Jan 4, 1902 (From

The Fearless was lost at Dutch Harbour in 1901 returning from her third voyage. They spent the following winter at Herschel Island as well but the following winter they were trapped in heavy ground ice about 50 miles east of Herschel Island. Pedersen was kept busy all winter transporting supplies for the 45 crew members from the company’s warehouse at Herschel Island to the ship by sled. In the summer of 1897 they left Herschel Island for San Francisco at the beginning of September. They ran into a lot of ice and cold weather and were forced to winter 35 miles east of Point Barrow together with the whaling steamer Newport. The four&–masted steam freighter Jeannie spent the winter in heavy ground ice several miles offshore. Pedersen finally arrived in San Francisco in November 1898. He acted as caretaker for the Fearless while it was in San Francisco at Oakland Creek. In 1899 he shipped again on board Fearless as a boatsteerer (harpooneer) in addition to his duties as storekeeper. They wintered at Baillie Island about 200 miles east of the Mackenzie River and then headed for the western whaling grounds near the Siberian coast in September 1900. Bowhead whales were scarce that year but one was sighted in October.

The 22’ sailing whalers had both a rudder and a steering oar. The rudder was used while sailing and the steering oar partially pulled into the boat with about 3/5ths extending out over the water. A large bull whale could yield 2,400 pounds of baleen, then worth more than $12,000. Carcasses were usually set adrift. Also at season’s end the crew would strip off blubber to sell at Nome for which the ship would receive $5,000 for 50 tons of blubber. The blubber was used for fuel and dog&–feed during the winter. Whaling ships leaving the Arctic in the Fall usually took the western passage between St. Lawrence Island and the Siberian coast for the deeper water and better sailing.

The following year he went north again as a boat steerer and wintered 1899–1900 at Baillie Island. In 1901 he was promoted to Fourth Mate of the Fearless but the deteriorating equipment on board consumed almost all of the whaling season in repairs instead of whaling. When they arrived at Dutch Harbour in October the engine could not produce enough steam to prevent dragging up onto the beach in a gale. A company bought her for $500 and she was sunk at Unalaska the following winter when ice prevented the crew from getting out to pump her out. She settled on her keel with her masts sticking up out of the water.

Captain McKenna bought the sea otter hunting schooner Olga in 1902 and Pedersen went north with him as Second Mate. The Mate left them in the Spring and Pedersen was appointed as First Mate in 1903. In 1904 Pedersen went to work at Samalga Island working for a Mr. Applegate as a storekeeper. In the Spring of 1905 he decided he had had enough of Captain McKenna and went to work as storekeeper for Applegate. McKenna had offered him command of the Olga and McKenna was proposing to take the gas whaling schooner Charles Hansen himself. He was also installing a gas engine in the Olga. But he would never work for McKenna again. He returned to Unalaska and worked as a watchman in Dutch Harbour that winter.


Wreck of the Olga at Nome, Alaska (original photo Lomen Brothers, Nome With permission from Glenbow Archives)

In 1906 he went to St. Michael as a rigger in the shipyard there and spent the winter. During the winter he corresponded with Fred Schroder, a bookkeeper on the Pribilof Islands. Schroder agreed to put up the money with which to buy the sea otter sailing schooner Challenge in Unalaska and to put up the money to outfit her for floe whaling at Point Barrow. They bought the Challenge in the Fall of 1907. He again became a night watchman at Dutch Harbour for the N.A.C. Company while he hauled the Challenge up on the beach to work on her. He hired an Aleut boy to drive a horse which pulled the vessel out of the water above the high tide line. He sheathed the hull with ironbark and rigged her for carrying two whale boats. Other alterations and improvements were also made. The summer of 1908 was an icy one. No northeast winds came to slacken the ice. The ships were all waiting at the Sea Horse Islands on August 27th when a light breeze eased the ice pack. He started out with the steamers but the breeze soon dropped. The steamer skippers soon gave up the idea of going east that late in the summer so they headed for the western whaling grounds at Herald Island. It took Pedersen three days to get to Barrow. He wintered in the mouth of Elson Lagoon about 2.5 miles east of Point Barrow. During that winter Vilhjalmur Stefansson visited from the east and stayed with him for about a week before proceeding to Cape Smythe.

Pedersen’s First Mate was helpless with arthritis, the Second Mate refused to go east so both were sent down to Cape Smyth to travel out on the cutter. So his crew then consisted of an old Russian&–Finn sailor, a greenhorn Norwegian, a black cook and five Siberian Eskimos. There was little wind so the crew were sent ahead in a dinghy to tow the Challenge while Pedersen used a long sweep while tending the wheel in the cockpit. One of the two sailors would stand watch and row on the port quarter. It was slow and tedious work and at times the ice was so close that they had to run a line out far ahead and heave on the hand gypsy. Later Stefansson boarded them again at Demarcation Point having travelled there in early Spring. He travelled on board to Herschel Island. By that time it was so late that Pedersen had to give up the idea of travelling farther east to the whaling grounds and realized that it would hard to get out at Point Barrow. He turned and travelled out again landing the natives at their home at Indian Point. The wind picked up and they sailed down to Dutch Harbour. There the Government had seized a number of Japanese sealing schooners which were sold at auction. Shroder had purchased one of them which he named Elvira. Pedersen took her sea otter hunting in 1910. Shroder travelled with them and they carried a crew of 28 Aleut hunters each summer. The Government halted the sea otter hunt in the summer of 1911 but they had already quit that hunt. Pedersen sailed the Elvira down to San Francisco in the Fall of 1910, after landing the hunters at their homes, for a cargo of salt and barrels in order to start a salmon fishing station.


The Schooner Elvira in Ice, North Alaska Coast. (From Icy Hell by Will E Hudson, From page 193 "Icy Hell" by Will E Hudson, published 1937)

The whalebone market was improving so Pedersen talked Shroder into whaling up in the Arctic. The Elvira was a schooner 92’ x 22’ with a very blunt bow and a perpendicular stem. Pedersen felt she needed at least a 100hp engine to drive her but Schroder felt she would burn too much gasoline so settled on a 75hp engine. They experienced an almost ice&–free summer in 1912 and caught 12 Bowhead whales. They thought they had made a lot of money but during the voyage the price of baleen had dropped from $2.50 per pound to 75¢ at which price they had to sell. Pedersen decided to work for his acquaintance Vilhjalmar Stefansson. Early in 1913 he purchased the whaling steamer Karluk for the Canadian Arctic Expedition. He had been selected by Stefansson for command during the voyage which was to last about four years.


HMCS Karluk, Steaming In Esquimalt Harbour, (n.d.) (MIKAN 3611362, Archives Canada)

He took the vessel to the graving dock at the H.M. Dockyard in Esquimalt BC to have the refit work done. While the work was being carried out he happened to read the newspaper account of a speech given by Stefansson in New York stating that if the Karluk could not reach the intended destination then he was going to have her steam north as far as possible and freeze her in for use as a base on the ice pack from which to look for new land. Pedersen disagreed with this strategy. He felt that his experience was that freezing in that far in the ice pack was not possible to survive. Feeling that Stefansson would demote him and appoint an inexperienced master he resigned and went back to San Francisco. There he talked Shroder and his partner Allis into outfitting the Elvira yet once again for fur trading and some whaling. It turned out that 1913 was a very bad year. The northeast wind did not come to move the ice. Captain Cottle, former skipper of the Karluk, was there with the Belvedere one of the largest steam whalers, but even he could not navigate the waters. He was frozen&–in about ten miles west of Icy Reef. The small schooner Polar Bear also frozen&–in nearby. Pedersen worked close in to the shore and got past Demarcation Point. There he saw a sled on the shore with Captain Martin Andreason coming from Coronation Gulf heading for Nome. His gas schooner the North Star couldn’t make it and had been hauled out about six miles east of Demarcation Point.


Whaler Belvedere at Point Franklin. (Public Domain Photo Wikimedia Commons)

Pedersen bought 600 white fox skins from him and traded supplies to the beach in exchange for more white foxes and four fine silver foxes. A few days later a fine northeast breeze finally moved the icepack offshore. Thinking that this first northeaster of the summer would last for several days Pedersen got under sail and made good progress. He managed to pass the Belvedere but the wind shifted to the North which would bring the ice pack back in on the ships. He moved the Elvira in behind a large piece of ice aground in about 70 feet of water. He couldn’t get closer to the shore because the young ice was already 6" thick between the ice flows.

Captain William (Billy) Mogg, who had lost the schooner Bonanza on the shoal 15 miles east of Herschel Island a few years before, was mate with Captain Lois Lane in the gas schooner Polar Bear. Mogg visited Pedersen and told him that it would be safe to winter where he was then tied up. Pedersen disagreed. "I told him that I would not give ten cents for the Elvira in the first gale that would come along. The Polar Bear was stuck close to us. I started the crew hauling flour etc. the seven miles to the beach, while I walked up to the Belvedere and arranged with Captain Cottle to keep my crew for the winter. We kept hauling supplies to the beach for several days, but I had given instructions in the first place for the crew to have their belongings packed, ready to abandon ship when I would say so. It looked bad when I got up one morning, and I could see the snow blowing off the top of the mountains, so I gave orders to abandon ship after breakfast. The northeast blizzard hit us when we were half ways to the Belvedere, 13 miles to the east of us. I knew that she had a lifeline from ship to shore, so I felt safe as long as we kept going on the young ice. When we hit this line we headed offshore, and soon we could hear the wind howling in the ship’s rigging, but did not see her hull until we were about 30–40 feet from her." (From C. T. Pedersen papers in the collection of Sven Johansson, Victoria BC.)

In the calm of the next morning Pedersen climbed into the crowsnest of the Belvedere. There was no sign of the Elvira. The Polar Bear had managed to get inshore when the ice broke up using her power. She could slide up on the ice while moving forward. "(Captain) Lane told me later he had broken through twelve inch thick young ice, but I knew it was not that thick. He also told me that the Elvira had capsized. We would no doubt have lost our lives if we had remained on the Elvira." (From C. T. Pedersen papers in the collection of Sven Johansson, Victoria BC.) They had been carrying a lot of white fox pelts and they were insured for $12 each and the silver fox for $250 each. He didn’t haul them onto the beach for fear of losing them so they were lost with the Elvira. They were able to prove to the underwriters that the furs were on the ship when she sank and Pedersen was paid in full for them. Pedersen and Olaf Swenson, a part owner of the Belvedere, walked out 400 miles overland to Fairbanks to catch a boat to San Francisco.

In early Spring 1914 Pederesen was once again sailing to the Arctic, this time in command of the steam barquentine Herman. The Herman was built at Bath Maine about 1882 as the 131’ steam barquentine Morning Star for the South Sea Islands Mission. The original cost of construction was raised by subscription from thousands of New England school children who each donated ten cents in return for a certificate of part ownership. It was reported by Ripley’s Believe It or Not in their comic strip series that this ship had had more than 30,000 owners (the school children) which was supposed to have been the most for any vessel ever built. Later she was used for whaling. Pedersen recalled seeing the Morning Star for the first time in 1903 while still sailing on the small schooner Olga she was owned by Captain James McKenna, James. Under Captain Tilton the Morning Star was on her first whaling cruise after her career as a mission ship. When off Plover Bay, on the north side of the Anadyr Gulf on the Siberian coast, a canoe came alongside the Herman and an Eskimo handed Pedersen a letter from Captain Robert Bartlett.

Bartlett was at Emma Harbour in the bay and anxious to get to Nome to arrange for the rescue of the Karluk survivors on Wrangell Island. Pedersen went and picked him up and headed to Nome through the loose ice pack. Bartlett was in poor physical shape from his ordeal. The ice pack had not broken up at Nome and he was unable to land Bartlett there. He then headed for St. Michaels where Bartlett and Pedersen sent the cables which notified the world of the loss of the Karluk. When Pedersen stopped in Nome later on he wired his owners for permission to pick up the survivors on Wrangell Island. They replied that he should go about his business and let the US Revenue Cutter Bear go to the rescue. In the end it was the gas schooner King and Winge that picked them up and brought them to the Bear. Pedersen had a 20% share in the profit or loss on the whaling and trading business in the Herman.


The Herman, Whaling and Trading off Baille Island , Northwest Territories 1920 (With permission from Glenbow Archives)

There was a big loss that year because the trading cost for white fox was about $15 and the owners (H. Liebes & Company) would only pay about $6 on his return. Captain Fritz Wolkie refused his offer of $15 for each of the 600 white foxes at Herschel Island earlier in the season but he took a passage on the ship to San Francisco. He too sold his foxes to the owners for $6 but he never forgave Pedersen for taking him down to San Francisco. The owners received $6,000 from the Canadian Government for the loss of spring whaling time while taking Captain Bartlett to St. Michaels. The crew shared in half of that money and Pedersen ended up $13,000 in debt at the end of the voyage! The 1915 season was spent in Bristol Bay commanding the Santa Clara.

Early in 1916 Pedersen converted the Herman into a three&–masted schooner and installed a gas engine. In 1917 the gas engine was replaced by a diesel engine. In August 1920, Pedersen carried Inspector S. T. Wood, (officer in charge of the RCMP at Herschel Island) on board as his guest while whaling in waters east of the Mackenzie River. A bowhead whale was towing the Mate’s boat so Pedersen took out the motor whaleboat in order to kill it inviting Inspector Wood to come along. Pedersen recalled, "The two bombs that I fired wrote finis to the American Bowhead whaling industry as this was the last one taken by an American commercial whaling ship in the Bering Sea and western arctic. Hundreds of ships had engaged in this industry since 1848. Many ships and lives were lost. In 1871, the most disastrous year, 31 ships were wrecked by ice north of Wainwright." (From C. T. Pedersen papers in the collection of Sven Johansson, Victoria BC.)


Whale "kicking" After Being Shot With Shoulder Gun Bomb. Arctic ca 1922–1928. (With pernission from Glenbow Archives)

At Diomede Island in 1921 Pedersen received a note from Captain Raold Amundsen, Raold asking for a passage to Nome. He was stranded on the Siberian coast. Pedersen obliged by travelling over and landing him at his desired destination. Typical of the exerted effort Pedersen would go through to beat the competition, in those days, is exhibited in one episode where he heard that a Nome fur buyer was trying to beat him to the fur market at St. Lawrence Island with a chartered gas schooner. Pedersen stayed in the crowsnest for 24 hours navigating the ship through the ice to reach Gambell Island. Time being precious he began trading with the Eskimos immediately upon arrival. He purchased several hundred white fox and some blue fox pelts and was busy packing them when the cry was let out that a steamer was arriving. The Nome trader only got two foxes. Pedersen had gone 72 hours without sleep or rest. Pedersen made eight voyages to the Arctic in the Herman. He claimed to have been caught in the ice only once in her. in 1916. She was withdrawn from service after Captain Louis L. Lane took her on her last trip in 1924 to hunt walrus or whales although she was almost exclusively engaged in trading and freighting after 1913. She apparently was wrecked on the coast of Vancouver Island later on in the service of her new owners.


Captain Roald Amundsen and C.T. Pedersen on a Warm Day at Amundsen’s camp at Wainwright, Alaska 1922. (With pernission from Glenbow Archives)

The Herman was too small to cope with the increasing trading business so Pedersen converted a 4–masted sailing lumber schooner into a motor vessel and equipped her for Arctic service. He She was renamed this vessel the Arctic. Through his personal reputation with the RCMP he got the contract to carry the materials for the construction of the new RCMP detachment at Cambridge Bay on Coronation Gulf. Within three days he had the ship loaded and ready for sailing when the new president of the Company decided to fire Pedersen after a disagreement. Pedersen tried in vain to find the backing to outfit another ship in San Francisco. He recalled meeting a fur buyer in Nome one summer who had come down the Yukon River on a trading trip. He had given Pedersen his card and Pedersen had kept it. It turned out that he had left Herskovitz & Company, the large New York firm for which he worked. The firm asked Pedersen to come to New York. Pedersen, anxious to get north that year, told them he needed $96,000 for a ship and outfit. On the basis of three or four telegrams he had the money and the Northern Whaling & Trading Co. Inc. was launched.


The Nanuk waiting for the ice pack to open up near Barrow, Alaska. (With pernission from Glenbow Archives)

Utilizing an option on an old 3–masted lumber sailing schooner he put her in the drydock and installed a 150hp Atlas gas engine. Pedersen and his wife were steaming under the Golden Gate Bridge in the Nanuk just six weeks after the Arctic had sailed for the north. At Icy Cape they sighted a 4–masted vessel which they knew had to be the Arctic. The ice that year had delayed the Arctic which would work to the benefit of the Pedersens. Anxious to get the jump on his old Company Pedersen watched the behaviour of the ice carefully. He wanted to sneak around the Sea Horse Islands so they got underway. The ice pack was slack around the edge and the fog had let up. After proceeding about 1.5 miles Pedersen noticed the loose ice beginning to overlap. A sure sign of the pack closing, so he headed for open water. The Arctic had realized that the Nanuk was gone so proceeded full speed to catch up. Captain John Bertonccini was carrying an ice pilot, Jim Allen from Wainwright, and they reached the pack and stopped just as the Nanuk was reaching clear water. About 3/4 of a mile apart Pedersen could see Allen and Bertonccini in their crowsnest looking north into the ice pack with their binoculars. Then they started into the pack. Pedersen predicted that they wouldn’t last more than about thirty minutes in the ice. Twenty minutes later they tried unsuccessfully to turn around Pedersen, thinking that the Arctic would escape the next morning steamed up in the shore lead to Peard Bay inside the heavy ground ice. The Arctic was caught in the squeeze. The ice bent a propeller blade against the rudder post so they were drifting. For three days the crew laboured to cut of the bent blade with a hand saw on the end of a long pole. Eight days of drifting in the ice brought them close to Barrow Village where Mr. Brower had sleds bring in the crew.

Bertonccini had abandoned the ship to the ice. Suddenly a Northeast wind slackened the ice and the ship, joined again by her crew, steamed out under her own reduced power. Pedersen, taking advantage of the misfortune of his old Company, collected ninety percent of the furs along the coast and at Herschel Island They then steamed into Amundsen Gulf where there was no sign of ice. Steaming toward Coronation Gulf Pedersen sighted a small schooner in the harbour at Pierce Point. It was the Anna Olga with only the engineer, Pete Brandt aboard. The owner, Captain Martin Andreassen had died of a heart attack while in winter quarters at Coppermine. They had more than 1,600 white foxes on board.

Anna Olga

The Anna Olga owned by Martin Andersen (sic) at Anchor, Baillie Island 1921. (From album of Gladys O’Kelly – Arctic Institute of North America, University of Calgary)

Hoping to profit from this unexpected turn of events Pedersen offered to help them get the Anna Olga to Baillie Island and then to Herschel Island. He hoped that the RCMP Inspector at Herschel Island would put the skins up for sale. Arriving at Baillie Island he saw the Arctic unloading all of the supplies for the RCMP buildings there instead of at Cambridge Bay. Inspector S. T. Wood was there and took the skins back to Herschel Island with him. Pedersen made a brief foray for Bowhead whales in the area to the east of Baillie Island but soon started to head home. The Arctic had already left for San Francisco from Herschel Island. Inspector Wood asked the Hudson’s Bay Company manager and Pedersen to bid on the fox skins. Pedersen bid more than $2,000 more than the HBC and was able to purchase the entire lot. Pedersen’s trading calls to the Siberian coast were interrupted by the Russian Revolution. In 1924 Soviet soldiers arrested the Nanuk claiming he had violated Soviet territorial waters. They planned to take him to Vladivostok to stand trial but instead levied a fine of $20,000 which they took in furs selected from the cargo the ship was carrying. He was then freed to continue his voyage.

Pedersen went to the Arctic on the Nanuk three times. Pedersen then bought an ex–US Government Coast and Geodetic Survey vessel condemned in 1925 and sold at auction which he converted for Arctic Service. She was built at Brooklyn New York in 1882 and had been based out of Seattle. Pedersen commanded her for eleven trips to the Beaufort Sea (1926–1936 inclusive.) He converted the Patterson in 1926 to an arctic trading vessel by cutting it down and removing the elaborate decorative work from its government service days. He never missed a year carrying those small schooners up from San Francisco, although he did spend one year in the Santa Clara in 1915 in fisheries at Bristol Bay. He missed one year with the Elvira, in 1913, when she sank, crushed in the ice.

The Patterson While Owned by the US Government

The Patterson While Owned by the US Government

Pedersen had mixed feelings about his ship. He felt that it was actually unsuitable for Arctic service but it was the best he could obtain. When ramming heavy ice her perpendicular stem made her bounce back several feet instead of riding up onto the ice and breaking it. Her lines caused sliding ice along her sides to drift into the propeller often bending blades. He had to develop a rig for straightening blades at sea to deal with this recurring problem. Commanding the Patterson in 1931 he encountered another icy season, especially between Icy Cape and Point Barrow.

At Icy Cape they were joined by the Hudson’s Bay Company ship Baychimo from Vancouver. Designed for the ice the Baychimo used her shape and power to break her way through to the Sea Horse Islands with the Patterson following. Pedersen followed shore leads in the ice until early in the morning on August 10th he saw the lead closing so he turned to return to the Sea Horse Islands. At that point the Baychimo passed him heading into the icepack where the Patterson had turned. She was quickly trapped but a day and a half later the ice released her allowing Baychimo to join the Patterson at Sea Horse Islands. They reached Barrow after 43 days to make 120 miles from Icy Cape. On August 26th they arrived at Herschel Island eight hours behind the Baychimo. Pedersen ordered around the clock shifts landing cargo. By September 5th they were homeward bound. About 30 miles from Point Barrow a fogbank lifted to reveal continuous pack ice.


Schooner Arctic at Herschel Island 1923. (Accession YA 9204 with permission Yukon Archives.)

From the crowsnest, Pedersen tried to read the weather signs. He had learned ice piloting during the many years in the Arctic. "I started reading the low perfect ceiling. It told a different story. The reflection was white over ice-pack westward, but spotted offshore, meaning slack ice to beyond the horizon, where it connected with long narrow black streak, extending into large black water reflection north and southward along land from Point Barrow. Outside narrow black streak, reflection was solid white over main drifting ice–pack. Time was precious. Using the ceiling for [a] map, I steamed offshore about 10 miles through slackest ice, worrying because long black streak whitened. This meant that the main ice pack was closing against inshore pack. Finding lead full of small ice, I ordered utmost revolutions. Stopping could spell disaster! Avoiding hitting the heaviest cakes, we barely reached open water.quot; (From C. T. Pedersen papers in the collection of Sven Johansson, Victoria BC.)

This ordeal lasted for many more hours until they managed to clear the Blossom Shoals off Icy Cape. Later reports told Pedersen that the icepack pushed up onto the beach only nine hours after his passage and remained fast for the winter. The Baychimo was locked in the ice about ten miles from the Sea Horse Islands. A skeleton crew lived on the beach but the shifting ice carried the Baychimo away to become an Arctic ghost ship travelling high and dry in the ice pack for years afterwards. On a typical voyage the Patterson would return to San Francisco with 7,000 arctic fox skins, several thousand pounds of walrus ivory, assorted mink, ermine, marten, lynx and muskrat pelts. One trading ambition was to trade for an albino mink which he had seen but could not make a bargain for from the northern owner.

Many trips to the Arctic included his wife May who, as a trained nurse, provided health care to the crew as well as to the fur trading clients they met during the voyage into the north. Pedersen always had high words of praise for his wife’s abilities. "She can climb to a crow’s nest with the best of them – and does. She was the only woman on board with the crew of 22 men, but she is as good a sailor as anyone, besides being a registered nurse and able to care of any sickness we might have on board. She has travelled with me ever since we were married in 1920, and I feel now that I just couldn’t get along without her.– (Oakland Trader Comes Home For Winter. In Oakland Tribune. (Date unknown) Clipping from the collection of Sven Johansson)


Herschel Island, Y.T., summer 1935. Pedersen’s Patterson with with the schooner North Star on Board. (MIKAN 3651486, Archives Canada)

C.T. Pedersen, was a very dynamic and honest businessman who was not particularly interested in establishing American sovereignty in Canadian territory. He was however very interested in building up a fur trading enterprise in the Western Arctic regardless of ownership. All of the activity in Western Arctic was based at Herschel Island in the early days. Pedersen was very effective at competing with the Hudson’s Bay Company through his charm and winning personality. All the trappers, both native and white, trusted him. The Inuit called him "Peelerson". In order to be able to trade and operate in Canadian waters he established the Canalaska Trading Company.

Hearing from Stefansson about the numbers of white foxes on Banks Island in 1916 he brought Alaskan natives and trappers from St. Lawrence Island and Diomede Island in the Bering Sea to the southwest end of Banks Island. At that time there were no inhabitants of Banks Island. There are remains of early Inuit settlements there but the island had apparently been uninhabited for some time. The trappers were contracted to remain one year when they would be picked up by Captain Pedersen. The following years the ice conditions were too poor to return and in fact the trappers were marooned there for three years. They ran out of all of their supplies. During the last winter they had so little ammunition left to hunt for food that they could not afford to shoot a single caribou. So that they didn’t waste a bullet they had to line up two caribou which were despatched with a single bullet. The lead bullet was recovered from the second animal and recast for future use.

Captain and Mrs. C.T. Pedersen

Captain and Mrs. C.T. Pedersen Dressed in their Arctic Finery. (With permission from Glenbow Archives)

In 1920 while on a "honeymoon trading cruise" in his ship Herman he sighted a strange craft built by the desperate trappers who were attempting to sail off the island. Out of driftwood and whatever lumber they had they built a craft and were attempting to travel to Cape Parry when they met at sea near Cape Kellett. The trappers were so happy at being rescued that they were crying. All of the furs trapped during the three years were stored back on Banks Island. The cache was a valuable one including arctic fox skins. They returned with Captain Pedersen to Banks Island and recovered them. That was the only attempt by Americans to control the islands through enterprise, accidental or otherwise. The Patterson was sold to Gilkey Brothers in Seattle in 1937. On her second voyage, under Captain Harry Bune, to Alaska in 1939 she ran into problems with the longshoreman’s union who refused to unload her at Kodiak because she had a non–union crew. Still with part of the Kodiak–bound cargo on board she headed south and was wrecked at Yakutat losing two members of the crew.

C.T. Pedersen

Christian T. Pedersen and Walrus. (Accession ASL-P377-0069 with permission of Alaska State Library)

Pedersen sold out the trading portion of his operation to the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1936. A forty year tradition of hard work and taking risks was at an end. The Nigalik was sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company and remained in service for some years. After 50 years in the Arctic, Pedersen and his wife retired to Pacifica California where he then entered into a mail–order fur trading business buying and selling polar bear skins. After all his adventures and near brushes with death his only remaining ambition was to live to be 100 years old. This ambition was however never achieved as a then 92–year old Pedersen was beaten to death in his home by two escaped convicts in 1969. His ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.

Ted ‘Teddy’ Pedersen born c1902 was the son of Captain C.T. Pedersen by an Aleutian first–marriage. He served as crew member in his father’s ships for many years, going to sea as a young boy. He also served as lightkeeper at Cape Sarichef. His most taxing assignment was several years as lightkeeper at the light at Cape St. Elias. He was living in retirement near Kodiak AK.

Ted Pedersen

Ted Pedersen, ca. 1986. (Accession ASL–P377–1067 with permission of the Alaska State Library)

Editor’s Note: We are very grateful to historian George Duddy for arranging permissions from their owners to use the photographs that illustrate this article. It took him considerable time to track them down and negotiate the rights and this has brought the article to life.

To quote from this article please cite:

Johansson, Captain Sven with contributions from John MacFarlane (1990) Captain Christian Theodore Pedersen and the Western Arctic Fur Trade. (1990).


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