The Sea Otter Hunters

Donald Thomas Clark’s encyclopedic Monterey County Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary (1991) contains a listing for a “Nidever Spring” in Big Sur.

Eighty-six-year-old Esther Pfeiffer Ewoldsen, who had lived her whole life within a few miles of the spring, remembered that it was situated along the Big Sur River, just downstream from the River Inn. Jeff Norman, the preeminent Big Sur historian of his generation, located Nidever Spring along Brewer Road, up Pfeiffer Ridge, west of the River Inn.

In the 21st-century, there’s a scarcity of drinking water in much of Big Sur. But back in 18th and 19th-centuries, coastal California was much wetter than it is now, and the ground water was closer to the surface.

Consequently, not many people alive today remember the days when one could stop for a long, cool drink at Nidever Spring.

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Nidever Spring is named for a 19th-century American sea otter hunter, Captain José George Emigdio Nidever, who was born in Santa Barbara, California, in 1847.

His father and namesake – Captain George C. Nidever – was born into large family outside Middletown, Sullivan County, Tennessee, just south of the Virginia state border, 1802. He remembered being taught to shoot firearms before he was nine. By the time he was eighteen, had had such expertise with a rifle, he was once made chief buffalo hunter in a party of men his father’s age. Although he was an extremely skillful marksman, he was quite modest regarding his abilities.

In a contest, he shot three rifle bullets through a piece of paper three inches square, from a distance of about 200-250 feet – a trick he could still perform at age seventy-five. (His biographer, William Henry Ellison, saved the scrap of paper with the bullet holes.)

Captain George C. Nidever, age 80, photographed in Santa Barbara, California, 1882

George C. Nidever lived in North Carolina and Missouri before he was fourteen. In 1822, his family moved to the Fort Smith, Arkansas area. At the age of eighteen, he made his first hunting trip to the western plains. In the 1820s, he visited Stephen F. Austin’s colony in Texas, but declined to join them. By 1830, he was supporting himself as a mountain man and fur trapper during the zenith of the American fur trade, as part of a small trapping party led by Alexander Sinclair. He was at the rendezvous at Pierre’s Hole, in 1832, just west of the Idaho-Wyoming border – one of the largest gatherings of Rocky Mountain trappers in history. He fought against the Blackfoot Indians. He went to the 1833 Green River Valley Rendezvous outside Pinedale, Wyoming.

Fur trappers were, by and large, mercenary, driven, motivated, impervious to temperature and pain, and able to withstand the isolation, danger, and uncertainty inherent in the job description. Nidever crossed over the upper Sierra Nevada mountains and into Alta California, on foot, with Joseph Reddeford Walker’s 1833 expedition. He was “one of the first white men to settle” in the tiny Mexican pueblo of Santa Barbara, Alta California, in November of 1834.

He raised sheep and made a living hunting the southern sea otter for its valuable pelt and killing California grizzly bears. In 1837, alone, he killed forty-seven grizzlies, “not counting those that got away in the brush…” He estimated that he killed, in total, more than two-hundred grizzlies on the coast.

In 1841, Nidever was baptized at the Santa Barbara Mission, enabling him to marry society belle María Sinforosa Ramona Sanchez, whose family owned the 14,000-acre Rancho Santa Clara Rio del Norte, east of present-day Oxnard, California. The captain and his young wife lived in a large and conspicuous waterfront home on Burton Mound in Santa Barbara.

Captain George C. Nidever became one of the most skillful and successful sea otter hunters in southern California.

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The Nicoleño tribe lived on San Nicolás Island in southern California’s coastal semidesert Channel Islands, seventy miles due south of Santa Barbara. The islands were prime habitat for the southern sea otter. The Nicoleños and the sea otters had co-existed in this environment for more than 10,000 years.

Unlike most marine mammals, sea otters have no blubber to keep them warm in the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean. Instead, they have an exceptionally, thick, dense, waterproof fur coat that insulates them, year-round.

The sea otter’s pelt is the most desirable of all the marine mammals. Sea otters spend hours each day, grooming their luxurious fur.  A sea otter pelt has approximately one million hairs per square inch, whereas a human has approximately 100,000 hairs on their entire head.

The sea otter hunters called the pelts “soft gold,” for they were nearly as valuable, by weight, as precious metals. At the end of the 18th-century, the lucrative international fur trade brought an increasing number of sea otter hunters, from many nations, to the California coast.

Around 1814, the Russian-American Company – a Russian imperialist state-sponsored chartered trading company – contracted an American sea captain to take thirty Aleut Indian sea otter hunters from the Kodiak Islands in southern Alaska, to the remote Channel Island of San Nicolás, which was teeming with sea otters and a few hundred Nicoleño Indians.

The Aluets murdered most of the Nicoleño men and boys. Many of the women were raped, killed, or captured. By the time the Kodiaks left the island with their otter pelts, there were only a few dozen Nicoleño remaining.

Captain George C. Nidever

On April 26, 1902, the central California newspaper, the Santa Maria Times, published the following:

“According to [Captain George C.] Nidever and others who hunted around here as early as 1835, the Alaska Indians were in the habit of making periodic visits to the islands for otter and other skins. They were a savage race, and made fierce attacks against all who attempted otter hunting on any of the islands. They were supplied with firearms, and were dangerous foes even to the white man, and much more so to the natives who had only stone implements of warfare. In 1836, a company of these Indians who were left on the islands by a Russian vessel, chased Nidever and his party to their landing, and were only repelled by a sharp fire which killed several of their men. The chase was on the water in boats, and the contest was in trying to prevent them from landing at the only practicable place.”

A Nicoleño woman, whom the Catholic priests later named Juana María, is remembered as “Lone Woman of San Nicolás Island.” Some versions of her story say she was a very small child, in 1814, when this slaughter took place. Others say she was from a different tribe and that her parents arrived on the island after the massacre. Some scholars believe she was fathered by one of the Aluet invaders.

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Isaac J. Sparks

In November 1835, Lewis T. Burton and Isaac J. Sparks hired a small boat and went to Baja California to hunt sea otters. The little schooner was built in Monterey, the home of its Spanish owner, and it had been christened Peor es Nada – literally “Worse than Nothing.” It was commanded by Charles Hubbard and the crew, “with two or three exceptions, was composed of Kanakas.” (“Kanaka” is the Hawaiian language word for “human being.” In this context, it refers to persons Indigenous to North America.)

The trip to Baja California was a bust; they didn’t catch any otters. But while reprovisioning at the port of San Pedro, south of Los Angeles, a local official told them about the need for a boat to transport Indians from San Nicolás Island to the mainland.

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Lewis T. Burton

Burton and Sparks received instructions that the Catholic missionaries in Santa Barbara wanted the entire Nicoleño tribe – only twenty souls ­– evacuated from San Nicolás Island.

Unable to understand what was going on, the small band of terrified Nicoleños were forcibly corralled into the schooner Peor es Nada. In the confusion of her capture, Juana María panicked because her baby was left on shore. She ran back to find the child, but by the time she returned to the beach, the Peor es Nada was already out to sea.

Most of the nineteen Nicoleños on the Peor es Nada wound up at the San Gabriel Mission, east of Los Angeles. One of them – a man named Black Hawk, who had suffered a severe head injury during the 1814 massacre, moved in with some other Indians in San Pedro. He became blind, fell from a steep bank, and drowned.

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2012 Russian postage stamp depicting Fort Ross, on the Northern California coast, in the 19th-century

In the 1830s, there was a shortage of sea going vessels in the sparsely populated Mexican territory of Alta California. Although Burton and Sparks fully intended to return for the “Lone Woman of San Nicolás Island,” according to Captain Nidever, they received instructions to return to Monterey “to take a cargo of lumber to San Francisco. At the entrance to the Golden Gate the Peor es Nada capsized, and her crew were washed ashore. It was afterwards reported the schooner drifted out to sea, and was picked up by a Russian vessel, though the report was never confirmed.”

In the summer of 1848, Captain Nidever and his otter hunting crew were up at Fort Ross, the Russian fur trading outpost on the California coast, ninety miles north of San Francisco Bay, when he learned that gold had been discovered at Sutter’s Mill. He remembered, “the prospect of getting $16 a day when their monthly wages barely amounted to that was too great a temptation for our men, who insisted on leaving us at San Francisco [for the gold fields].”

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According to an 1880 article in Scribner’s Monthly, in 1850, Father González Rubio offered Thomas Jeffries, a British sailor $200 to find Juana María on San Nicolás Island and bring her to Santa Barbara. “The island he described,” Emma Hardacre remembered, “as seven or eight miles long, by three or four in width; the body of the land near six hundred feet above the beach, the plateau falling in steep gulches to the sea.”

In his 1878 Captain George C. Nidever dictated memoirs to William Henry Ellison. Nidever remembered how he and Tom Jeffries, accompanied by an Indian, walked five or six miles up the beach looking for the “Lone Woman of San Nicolás Island:”

“Soon after starting out they found the footprints of a human being, that, in all probability, had been made during the previous rainy season. There were some quite deep in the ground, that was now hard and dry. They were distinctly defined, and from their size we concluded that they were those of a woman … Near the huts are inclosures [sic] there were stakes of driftwood stuck in the ground, and suspended upon them were pieces of dried blubber, which had the appearance of having been placed there within a month or two, if they were still in a good state of preservation.”

But they returned to the mainland, without having found the lost woman. Juana María was presumed dead.

But into the 1850s, Captain Nidever continued to hear rumors about the mysterious “lone woman” said to be living on San Nicolás Island, and he wanted to return and find her. To that end, he convinced Charles Brown to help him bankroll another sea otter hunt.

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In 1853, Captain Nidever sailed to San Nicolás Island with a seven-man sea otter hunting crew.  The November 11, 1874, issue of the Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, Valley Spirit reported:

“In wandering over the island, he found traces of human life; ashes yet warm – a footprint in the soil. But, again, the storm beat down upon the shore, and compelled the small crew to put out to sea. With clear skies and becalmed seas they returned. Again, the smoldering fire – the tracks in the sand; and after a short search, to their amazement, Hona [Juana] María herself – the Hermit Monarch of this lonely Isle! Without the least sign of surprise she gazed, for the first time in eighteen years, upon human faces. The unintelligible language, but with expressive, savage gestures, she made them understand that the dogs killed her child. “

Supposedly a photograph of Juana María, the “Lone Woman of San Nicolás Island,” taken in 1853. Scholars disagree on whether it’s her.

A crew member is said to have first spotted her, high on a ridge, surrounded by dogs, sitting cross-legged before a small fire, skinning a seal with a knife she’d crafted from a piece of an iron hoop. She made no attempt to run away but walked toward her visitors.

She appeared to be about forty or fifty years old, of medium height and a “rather thick build.” Her black hair was matted and short and bleached by the sun. Nidever remembered, “Her features were pleasant with an unwrinkled face, but her teeth were worn to the gums.” She was clad in a sleeveless, ankle-length dress made of cormorant skins, and tied at the waist.

The Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, Valley Spirit described her hand-made dwelling:

“[A] rude hut, constructed of interlaced branches, sticks, and leaves [and whalebone] constituted her shelter. A fantastic robe of gayly feathered bird skins, neatly dressed and adroitly stitched with fine tendons by the aid of needles manufactured from fish bones, covered her dusky limits, and another of brighter hues was ready for time of need, or possibly reversed for her solitary festivals. Many rude treasures, collected during her hermitage, were transferred to the boat, and afterward landed at Santa Barbara…

“The Bishop took possession of her ingeniously manufactured robes, and carried them to Rome.”

It is said that she used thread made of seal sinew, to sew together the shiny green feathers – arranging them carefully, so the coat appeared to be made of a single piece of fabric. Regrettably, her handmade garment, sent to the Vatican, has never been found.

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Captain George C. Nidever

In his 1878 memoir, Captain George C. Nidever explained:

“When they kill otters they usually, after skinning them, throw the bodies into the sea. One day they killed a large female which was with young. When about to cast it into the sea, as usual, [Juana María] in her mute way, protested. The young one, which was nearly grown and covered with fur, was taken out and the skin stuffed by one of the party and made to look quite natural. She took a great fancy to the young otter, and suspended on a pole of her shelter and would swing it backward and forward for hours, talking to it in a singsong tone…

“After hunting successfully for about a month [on San Nicolás Island] they put everything on the schooner and sailed for Santa Barbara. Not long … after landing, horsemen, among others, came to the beach. [The horse] was a new creature [which Juana María had never seen before], but she had the courage to examine it, touching horses and men in succession. She turned to her friends, for so may be considered her captors, and straddled the first two, fingers on her right hand over her left thumb and imitating the galloping of a horse with her fingers, gave a shout of delight.”

Juana María had lived alone on the island, like Robinson Crusoe, for eighteen long years. But no one could understand her epic story as she spoke a language unrecognizable to any of the local Indians.

Like Ishi, she appeared to be the last surviving member of her tribe.

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Juana Maris’s story was told in Scott O’Dell’s popular 1960 children’s novel Island of the Blue Dolphin.

Fernando Librado (Kitsepawit)

According to Fernando Librado (Kitsepawit), a Chumash Indian who worked as a consultant for the American linguist and ethnologist John Peabody Harrington, there was a shoemaker and saddle maker in Santa Barbara named Norberto, who was the only person who could converse freely with Juana María in her native language. It is possible that Norberto and Juana María were then, the last two speakers of the language.

A Cruzeño Indian (from Santa Cruz Island) named Aravio Talawiyashwit, who was barely acquainted with the Nicoleño language, made a rough translation of a song Juana María sang during her years alone on the island. However, due to his unfamiliarity with the Nicoleño language, the reliability of his translation is dubious at best. It is known today as the Lone Woman’s Toki Toki Song:

“I live contented because I can see the day when I want to get out of this island.”

Fernando Librado learned the song from Melquiades, another Chumash Indian, who had heard Juana María sing it, in 1853.

Librado’s 1913 wax cylinder, recorded by linguist John P. Harrington, can be heard on YouTube.

Professor Pamela Munro of UCLA’s Department of Linguistics has studied the two songs and four words transcribed by Juana María’s contemporaries. Professor Munro determined that Juana María’s language showed the influence of the Luisenos of Northern San Diego County and of the Juanenos of San Juan Capistrano. Historically, both of these tribes traded with Channel Island Indians. This suggests that Juana María was a native Nicoleño.

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Captain Nidever’s wife, Sinforosa

Horatio Gates Trussell, a sea captain from Maine offered Captain Nidever $1,000 to exhibit Juana María in San Francisco as a “circus curiosity,” but Nidever refused. Instead, he brought her back to his own home in Santa Barbara, in September 1853, where his wife, Sinforosa, looked after her.

But Juana María became ill and died seven weeks later. Nidever claimed her fondness for green corn, vegetables, and fresh fruit – after years of a diet of sea mammals, shellfish, wild birds, and wild roots – caused severe attacks of dysentery. Before she died, Father Sanchez baptized and christened her Juana María. Her native name is unknown. She is buried in an unmarked grave in the Nidever family plot at the Santa Barbara Mission Cemetery.

According to Fernando Librado, a man named Hilario Valenzuela, known as “The Yaqui,” is said to have received handmade fishbone needles from Juana María, while he was on San Nicolás Island, in 1853. What became of it is unknown.

Plaque at old Santa Barbara Mission

Juana María’s handmade clothing, water-tight basket, and various artifacts, including some of her bone needles, fabricated during her years of isolation, became part of the collections of the California Academy of Sciences on Market Street in San Francisco. They were lost in the April 1906 earthquake and fire, which destroyed all but a wheelbarrow full of the Academy’s library and specimen collections.

Juana María had crafted a hairpin from whale baleen which she had given to Nidever’s wife, Sinforosa. In 1882, James Terry, a private anthropological collector from the east coast visited Captain Nidever in Santa Barbara, and purchased the item, which is now part of the collection of the American Museum of Natural History, New York.

In 1870, the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a rather trite poem about Captain Nidever entitled, “Courage.” Although it’s certainly not Emerson’s best work, it was widely published in children’s magazines and elementary school textbooks at end of the 19th century.

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Sir George Simpson

In December 1812, some of the largest earthquakes in California history – an estimated a 7.0 on the Richter Scale – damaged or destroyed most of the missions between Lompoc and San Diego. Santa Inés and La Purísima were leveled – reduced to “rubble and ruin, presenting the picture of a destroyed Jerusalem.” The great stone church of San Juan Capistrano collapsed, killing approximately fifty people. Mission Santa Barbara suffered major damage. The San Gabriel mission had to be rebuilt.

On January 16, 1840, there was an earthquake and tidal wave in Santa Cruz, California, that toppled a church tower. The following summer, on July 3, 1841, there was a severe earthquake in Monterey. Sir George Simpson, the highest-ranking officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company in North America, remembered seeing the shattered churches and a “rent in the earth a mile or so in length and thirty or forty feet in depth.”

Captain George C. Nidever and his wife had six children. Their son, José George Emigdio Nidever, was born in 1847. He was named for Saint Emygdius, protector against earthquakes.

Raised in Santa Barbara during the California gold rush, young George Emigdio Nidever witnessed the small pueblo burgeon into a major coastal city. He distinguished himself as a crack marksman and grew up to be an expert otter hunter – like father, like son.

After his retirement, in a 1922 interview, the seventy-five-year-old George Emigdio Nidever reminisced about going to San Nicolás Island with his father to hunt otters, in the late 1850s, and his dad shot “half a dozen untamed canines” that had belonged to Juana María.

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James Ohio Pattie

The October 6, 1915, issue of the Monterey Daily Cypress, reported:

“In the early days … Monterey Bay was full of sea otters, the skins of which are worth at present $700 and $800. James O. Pettie [sic] went hunting sea otters [said]: ‘Feeling it necessary to do something towards supporting myself, during the remaining time of my stay in this part of the country, I took my rifle and joined the Portuguese, April 10th, 1830, to kill otters along the coast. We hunted up and down the coast, a distance of forty miles, killing sixteen otters in ten days … We sold the skins, some as high as seventy-five dollars, and none under twenty-five. Three hundred dollars [about $9,100, today] fell to my share from the avails of our trip.'”

Captain John Rogers Cooper

By 1841, otter hunter Captain John Rogers Cooper, of Rancho El Sur, reported that there was not a single otter to be found on the entire 250 miles of coastline between Fort Ross and Big Sur. The mammal had been over-hunted to the point that it was no longer profitable for entrepreneurs like Cooper to remain in the trade.

That said, the southern sea otter population on the California coast was still large enough to continue to support a small cadre of commercial otter hunters, including Captain Nidever and his son, George Emigdio.

Through the late19th early 20th-century, rifle technology improved as otter populations diminished. By the 1910, the sighting of a southern sea otter in California was an extremely rare occurrence. A decade later, there were few living Americans who had ever seen a sea otter except in a book.

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Philip Crosthwaite

On May 19, 1885, the Santa Barbara Daily Independent published Phillip Crosthwaite’s description of San Diego, California, in 1845, when he was one of the few Americans residing at the pueblo:

“Sea otters were plentiful in the kelp along the coast of lower California and around the islands. There were two companies of otter hunters in San Diego. They were usually fitted out for the hunts by captain Fitch. Each company had three canoes and during the spring and summer months hunted along the coast, paddling through the surf every night in places known to them where there was wood and water for their camp. Prime otter skins were worth $40 each and were sold to captain Fitch, who sent them to China where they were disposed of at a good profit. Sea elephants were very plentiful along the coast and islands of lower California, until the whale ships heard of them, when they were killed by the thousands. Some ships filled up with [sea] elephant oil in one season…

“There were a great many foreigners, estranegeos as the native Californians called them, living in what is now San Diego County and lower California, several of whom were married to native women, Captain H. D. Fitch Captain Edward Stokes, Captain Joseph Snook, Captain Stevens, Captain John S Barker … I believe they were all seafaring men with the exception of J. J. Warner, who I’ve been told came over the Rocky Mountains as a trapper.”

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George Francis Ellis was married to the sister of Eugene and Herbert Rogers

Some of the first Yankee otter hunters in California were veteran fur trappers, like Captain Nidever and J. J. Warner who, a decade or two before, had decimated beaver populations in the Rocky Mountains.

The commercial sea otter trade on the California coast was dominated by men whose names are now forgotten – Captain Nidever and his son George Emigdio, the Rogers Brothers, Captain George F. Ellis, and Captain Samuel H. Burtis, in Santa Barbara; J. E. C. Evans, Nonolle Merigo, and Ramon Buelna, in Monterey County; and Captain Martin Kimberly in San Francisco.

The Rogers Brother – Eugene Frederick and Herbert Augustine –were born in Vermont, in 1854 and 1857, respectively. Their father, a farmer, merchant, and hotel keeper in frigid Walden, Vermont, moved the family to sunny Santa Barbara, in the 1870s.

His sons, Eugene and Herbert, were enterprising businessmen, like their dad. The brothers owned several boats which were crewed by professional otter hunters. They also owned a general store on State Street in Santa Barbara, that also sold supplies used in the fur trade.

The Jan. 25, 1884, issue of the Santa Barbara Daily Independent reported:

“A most interesting collection of hunter’s accoutrements are now gathered at Rogers Brothers store. This is a lot of hunter’s rifles all of the finest make and the most perfect order.”

According to the November 8, 1883, Daily Independent:

“The Santa Barbara Channel Islands is the only point of any importance in [the sea otter pelt] industry south of San Francisco. Regularly equipped schooners are at all times in the waters of Alaska and the Chinese seas engaged in hunting these valuable animals…

“Most of the curing and dressing is done in Europe. The fact that Rogers brothers have a number of employees in this business, and have kept them at it for several years proves that it is remunerative. Truly it may be said that this strange little place, jestingly termed the Zenith City, is headquarters for all the peculiar out of the way industries in the country…

Herbert A. Rogers

“Santa Barbara claims three-quarters of the men and capital engaged in the prosecution of this business. There’s been one firm in San Francisco who have parties out hunting the otter in these southern waters.

“The usual and most successful method pursued is to hunt with three boats to a party, each boat containing three men, one or more of whom is a sharpshooter. Rifles of the very finest make a required and some of the weapons brought into requisition our beautiful specimens of the gun makers art. The firm of Rogers brothers of this city have now three parties up on the island of San Miguel, San Nicolas, and others. They are taken over and left upon the islands on the schooner convoy, belonging to this energetic firm, will keep a vessel employed attending do their abalone, seal and otter operations. The skin of an otter is worth all the way from $45 to $500, a wide margin. Points of excellence are the size of the skin, heaviness and length of the hair, and in the best ones called “silver tipped” skins, a beautiful color is added to the ordinaryshade. The fact that but about 150 skins were obtained in these waters last year and that their value is roughly estimated in the neighborhood of $10,000, will give us an idea of the value and scarcity of the animals. It requires long practice to enable a man to become a successful otter hunter.

“About the most expert of the sharp shooters in this business, is George [Emigdio] Nidever, now upon the islands. His father, now dead, was an expert hunter, and the first man to shoot otters on this coast.”

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George Emigdio Nidever and his wife, Dolores

In 1877, Captain Eugene Rogers sailed his forty-foot, two-masted schooner Surprise to Guadalupe Island, Mexico with a crew of six, including George Emigdio Nidiver and his son, Jake, to hunt of sea otters. Near San Vincente they killed fifty-five otters with muzzle-loading rifles.The pelts brought $50 apiece.

On August 30, 1884, the Daily Independent printed the following news:

“The otter boat being built by Mr. Forbush to the order of C. C. Hunt, is about completed and will be ready to launch about the middle of next week. The design of the boat is handsome, her keel being 18 feet, overall 24, and calculated to carry 2400 pounds. She is also rigged that she will carry more sail than any boat in the harbor according to her size, and judging from her symmetrical figure she will show her ‘heels’ to all of them, not barring the larger crafts. The boat is to be run by the Nidever boys…

“One of the boys, George [Emigdio Nidever], is, without doubt, the best otter hunter on the Pacific Coast, and brave enough to enter a lion’s lair. The cost of the boat will be something like $100 (that includes the woodworks only).”

The Channel Islands, off the coast of southern California were prime otter habitat. It was common for the boat to deposit the otter hunters on one of the islands and return several weeks (or months) later to retrieve them. Sometimes they were lucky and sometimes they were not.

The Daily Independent reported on April 9, 1895:

“Last December, Mr. [E. B.] Pratt went to the island with Captain Burtis and four otter hunters and leaving them there took the sloop to San Pedro, put her in winter quarters and returned here…

“Their trip was not very successful, for although they killed five otters, none of them were secured, the strong undercurrent carried them out to sea, and the sea being so rough that to launch a boat was impossible.

“Soon after arriving at the island the men found a box of butter and some wreckage, presumably from the steamer Los Angeles [wrecked ten months earlier, on April 21, 1894], as no other American vessel has been wrecked on this coast which would be apt to have just such freight. This is a wonderful find as the island is about 200 miles from the place of the wreck [which occurred at the Point Sur Lighthouse in Big Sur].”

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The Independent reported on June 22, 1885:

“Schooner Angel Dolly, Capt. Ellis arrived Saturday from a two months’ trip otter hunting, with 45 fine otter skins valued at $3 to 100. This is the most successful otter hunt that has been made on the California coast since the days of Captain Kimberly and Vasquez.”

The Cygnet, oil painting by marine artist, Frank Wildes Thompson, circa 1870

Captain Martin Morse Kimberly came to Santa Barbara in the 1850s. He’d damaged his lungs while diving for a tangled anchor cable in San Francisco Bay. He moved to Santa Cruz Islansd, with an old English sailor companion, to cure his consumption and after three years, he recovered.

In 1858, five years after Juana María’s departure, he filed a claim for 160 acres on San Nicolás Island, where he raised sheep. But the droughts years of the late 1860s put him out of business.

In 1871, Captain Kimberly commanded the schooner Cygnet on a whaling voyage to the Okhotsk Sea, east of Japan and west of Russia. He was nearing the end of his journey, and the hold was nearly filled with casks of whale oil.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported:

“[H]ere she fell in with countless multitudes of sea otters, and the whole cargo of [whale] oil with which the vessel was loaded was poured upon the water and the crew set to work killing otters. The schooner, which was 42 tons register, was loaded with skins, which brought $25,000 in Yokohama [about half a million dollars today]. Of course she went back for another lot. The [Cygnet] left this port May 13, 1872, on a whaling voyage.”

Six years later, on his second trip to Japan in 1878, Kimberly’s ship, the Cygnet, was lost at sea in a typhoon off Japan. There were no survivors.

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Captain James Cook

José Maria Soberanes was just sixteen years old when he marched with the Portola expedition to San Francisco Bay, in 1769.  The March 24, 1939, issue of the Salinas Morning Post reported:

“An early-day document records that on September 15, 1787, Jose M. Soberanes charged $55 for dressing 95 sea otter skins, called ‘nutrias marinas’ in Spanish. This was in connection with the scheme of the government to open trade between [the] California [missions] and China, the intention being to exchange sea otter pelts for quicksilver, and make the fur trade a [Spanish] government monopoly.”

In late 1778, on his third voyage, the Englishman, Captain James Cook, spent a month among the Yuquot Indians at Nootka Sound, on the Pacific Coast of Canada. The captain and his crew departed with “a quantity” of sea otter pelts. Having no idea of the unbelievable value of otter skins, the furs were unwittingly cut and punctured by the sailors, who sewed them into cold-weather garments and bed clothes. Even in their battered condition, when they reached China, the pelts sold for a reported $10,000. Word of this spread quickly through Europe, accelerating interest in the fur trade.

Asian mariners had a much greater awareness of the value of the sea otter pelt than most 18th-century Europeans or Americans. However, they were among the least documented otter hunters. That said, in 1885, one Santa Barbara newspaper reported, “a Chinese junk at anchor; its captain assumed that he would receive instructions to take his crew south in search of otter and whales.”

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Sea otter pelts, circa 1880

The otter’s fur was of such astounding value, much care had to be taken to spear or shoot the animal in the head, so as not to make a large hole in the pelt.

The April 5, 1911, issue of the Salinas Californian provided a detailed description of the process of removing the otter’s pelt with as few incisions as possible:

“A full grown sea otter is from four to five feet long and perhaps a foot or more wide. When a hunter secures one, he loosens the hide from the nose and head, and without cutting it lengthwise at all he pulls the skin down over the body, the hide being so elastic that this is not a difficult job. It is then stretched over a smooth board six and a half feet long, nine inches wide at one end and ten at the other end. Each end of this board is tapered to a point. Another board exactly the same size as then inserted, and the skin is stretched a foot or eighteen inches longer than its original length. A third board half the length of the other is wedged in and the skin lightly tacked at the ends to hold it in place. If any flesh adhered to the skin it is then cut off, and the hide is cured and dried in this condition. In a few days it is taken off the boards and turned fur side out, when it is ready for market.”

Sea otter pelt, 1892

The larger the pelt, the larger the price. One can stretch a sea otter pelt, making it 50% larger than its original size – and still not be able to force one’s fingers through the thick hair to touch the hide. In 1912, the New York Sun newspaper explained how the pelts were processed:

“A fur skin must, of course, be treated more carefully and by a different process from that followed by the tanner of hides. Tannic acid would ruin the pliability of a fur skin, weaken and discolor the hair. The furrier’s process is designed to retain the natural oil of the pelt, which in turn preserves the color of the fur and keeps it soft and pliable. The first step in this process is accomplished by placing the skin in an alkali bath. After it has been softened in the bath the moisture is worked out of the skin with a blunt wooden instrument. Then the flesh side is drawn carefully back and forth over a straight edge knife, which removes any flesh that might be clinging to the pelt and also evens it off.

“Specially prepared grease is rubbed into the skin for softening purposes, and the process is carried still further by placing the skin in the machine which is arranged to beat it softly until the grease has been entirely absorbed. A slowly revolving drum fitted with wooden paddles and containing fine hard sawdust, the kind of sawdust differing with the variety of fur, next takes charge of the pelt. A moderate degree of heat is supplied during this stage of the dressing. The skin is thoroughly cleaned of grease by this machine, and the dressing is completed by tapping the skin with smooth canes of a flexibility adapted to the strength of the fur on a leather cushion stuffed with horsehair. Often a skin will be changed in shape and made smaller by the dressing process.”

*          *          *

By the 1870s, the fur trade in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska’s Bering Sea, dwarfed the industry in California and the Pacific Northwest. The presence of the fur trappers and hunters – and the astronomical prices paid for fur pelts – severely disrupted the native culture and economy.

Woman from Hoonah Island in canoe, 1903

In the early 1860s, a young Russian naval lieutenant named P. A.Tikhmenev noted:

“[A]t present only [Alaskan] natives of  Yakutat and Lituya Bays hunt sea otters, because there are more otters there than in other places along the northwest coast of America.” In 1892, the natives of the Alaskan Island of Hoonah killed sixty sea otters at Lituya Bay.

According to V. N. Berkh’s A Chronological History of the Discovery of the Aleutian Islands or the Exploits of Russian Merchants (1974):

“Between 1743 and 1823 Russian fur cargoes harvested in North America totaled more than 2.3 million fur seals and more than 200,000 sea otters…

Native Alaskan mother and child

“Less they alert the animals, the men had to avoid making fires and leaving wood scraps on the beaches. And observer noted that ‘the sufferings to which the natives subjected themselves every winter on the island, going for many weeks without fires, even for cooking, with the thermometer down to zero in a northerly gale of wind, are better imagined than described.’ Of the sea otter he added that ‘this animal, of all the wild animals, seems to be possessed of the greatest diversion to or dread of the presence, or even the proximity, of man.’ Otter hunting succeeded best immediately before, during, or after storms which drove the otters near or onto the shore. Young Aleuts using rifles acquired from traders patrolled the shores year-round, firing at any otter near enough to hit. Otter seemed unable to disentangle themselves from the nets western Aleuts threw over seaweed or stretched across cave openings.’ American regulations restricted the taking of otters to natives and, after 1878, to whites married to natives. Nevertheless, in territorial waters whites commonly hunted illegally and seldom got caught.

Captain “Hell Roaring” Michael A. Healy, first commissioned African American officer in federal service, 1880

“In the 1870s and 1880s hunters employed a wasteful practice of shooting otters at sea. Captain Michael Healy of the U.S. Treasury Department revenue cutter Corwin reported that as of 1884, ‘unprincipled white hunters tempted by the great value of otter skins come here and marry the simple girls, force them to accompany them on their otter hunting trips and do their cooking and work for them, bring two or three children into the world, and then leave their families to get their living as best as they can, while they themselves return to enjoying their earnings with other wives and civilization.’ He noted that the hunters illegally used breechloading rifles and set numerous nets along the shore. He warned of the impending extermination of the otters adding that ‘as the Aleuts live almost entirely upon the profits derived from the sale of skins, extreme property, if not actual starvation, must follow.’ In the 1880s, white crews using guns increasingly searched for offshore otters in international waters. Ships carried up to 60 pursuit boats, some driven by steam, permitting longer ranges and periods of hunting.

“Compared to a sustainable-yield annual catch of 1,000 to 2,000 by the Russians between the 1840s and 1867, Americans harvested 12,200 otters in their first four years. The kill rose to nearly 5,000 per year between 1881 and 1890 and by 1909 totaled 107,372. Captain C. L. Hooper, commander of the Revenue Marine Bering Sea Patrol, complained in the 1890s that despite regulations, the lack of resources made it impossible for agents to protect the sea otter: ‘being constantly harassed, clubbed and shot on shore, caught in nets by white men, their hauling-grounds made uninhabitable by the campfires of hunters and defiled by fisheries and the decaying bodies of their companions, the sea otter of the Aleutian Islands has not only decreased in numbers, but has actually changed its habits. It no longer comes out on land to feed, rest, or give birth to its young. A floating raft of kelp serves as its only resting place, and banks of thirty fathoms of water are its feeding grounds. Even there it is haunted and harassed by hunting schooners from March until August.”

The sea otter didn’t receive federal or state protection until 1911, when the USA, Great Britain, and Russia signed the Northern Fur Seal Treaty that ended the hunting of marine mammals.

*          *          *

Sea otter hunters, 1896

The July 27, 1890, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle reported:

“Owing, however, to the organization of hunting parties and the introduction of better weapons the catch is considerably increased of late years, and it is probable that unless prohibitive measures are enforced the sea-otter will soon be extinct…

“The young Aleuts of Alaska have nearly all been supplied with rifles by the traders and with these they patrol the islands and inlets, and whenever a sea otter’s head is seen in the surf, even at 1000 yards [more than half a mile], they fire at it. The distance and the noise of the surf prevent the animal from taking alarm until it is hit, provided the wind blows right, and in nine times out of ten when it is hit in the head – the exposed part – the shock is fatal, and the hunter waits patiently for hours until the surf brings in his quarry, if it is too rough for him to venture out in his canoe. This shooting is kept up now the whole year round, and this constant ‘pop,’ ‘pop,’ ‘pop,’ by the vigilant, experienced and tireless marksman is the danger that threatens the sea otter with extinction…

“The nets are taken out to the kelp beds and spread carelessly here and there over a floating mass of the ‘sea-cabbage.’ After a few days absence the hunters return and frequently find the sea otters entangled, having, as they say, died of excessive fright…

“The sea otter is not unknown to California … A good year’s catch averages from 75 to 100 skins, worth $3750 to $5000.”

On January 7, 1892, the Salinas Californian reported:

“The otter is being hunted out in Washington state.”

*          *          *

Aleut seal hunter paddling a baidarka, near Saint Paul Island, illustration by Louis Choris, 1817. Note the Russian ship in background.


Alaskan hunter in a handmade waterproof parka made from sea mammal intestines, holding a toy boat built for his children, circa 1900

The indiscriminate killing of otters was not then considered a crime. They didn’t start calling sea otter hunters “poachers” until well after the turn of the century.

On May 15, 1896, the San Francisco Call reported on the Treasury Department’s recent passage of the first federal laws regulating the fur trade:

Article One

Every vessel employed in sea otter hunting, or in transporting sea otter parties, shall have in addition to the papers now required by law that special clearance and license.

Article Two

No vessels propelled by steam shall be employed in sea otter hunting within territorial waters, that is, within three miles of the shore, or for the purpose of transporting sea otter hunting parties within said territorial waters. Only sailing vessels and boats propelled by oars or paddles shall be so employed.

Article Three

The master of any vessel having on board skins of sea otter, mink, martin, sable, fur seal or other furbearing animal, shall before unloading the same, report to the collector of customs at the first port of arrival of his vessel in the United States, and shall file a manifest in detail of such skins with said collector.

Article 4

… No person shall kill any otter, mink, martin, sable or fur seal or other furbearing animal within the limits of Alaska territory or in the waters thereof.

*          *          *

In 1897, a U.S. Treasury Department report warned that, “Under present conditions the sea otter is becoming extinct, and, as many of the hunting schooners are manned by white hunters from San Francisco, the natives are receiving only a part of the benefit.”

In February 2004, historian Richard Ravalli wrote in a blog for the Alaska Historical Society:

“This image of a sealskin coat with sea otter trim was included in an 1893-1894 season catalog of H. Liebes and Company.  It depicts a time when the San Francisco-based furrier founded by German-Jewish immigrant Herman Liebes was expanding its influence in the Pacific fur trade.  Conversely, it was also a time when sea otters were beginning to disappear from Pacific waters. Decades of hunting facilitated by American trade ships after the Alaska Purchase of 1867 had brought the species to its environmental nadir, and entrepreneurs like Liebes played a distinct role in that process.  Advertisements for garments with sea otter fur were therefore on the verge of becoming as extinct as the animals themselves…

Herman Liebes

“… in [1887] one trader specified that H. Liebes ‘has been engaged in dealing and bartering for furs on the Aleutian chain for ten years or more last past.  They have had several vessels on the coast every year carrying up supplies and carrying back peltries.’  A document from earlier in the decade claimed that the company had “8 small vessels hunting seals and trading for furs in northern waters. While sea otter skins came to San Francisco from throughout the Pacific in this era, it was these Alaskan trading ventures in particular that supplied the raw material for the city’s otter fur industry.”

By turn of the century, indications of otter pelt scarcity began to appear.

In 1899, a report on fur sales in London warned prospective buyers that, “with the probability of greatly reduced supply next year, and the possibility of the animal’s early extinction, the advance is 50 per cent.”

*          *          *

Aleutian hunter demonstrates dart-throwing form

Although these fur trade laws were well intentioned, they were, at best, only sporadically enforced. In the early 1890s, treasury agent Joseph Murray, in a rare moment of candor, commented on the government’s failure to adequately protect the sea otter:

“Thus for a quarter century did the United States throw every possible safeguard of law around the seals and other fur animals of Alaska … while during the same period of time the sea otter, which, owing to its pelagic habitats, was necessarily left to the tender mercies of the pelagic hunter, who knows no law higher or holier than avarice and selfishness, has been practically exterminated.”

The Monterey Cypress reported on October 27, 1900:

“According to law the Alaskan Indian may kill seals for food, but in selling the skins he must make affidavit that the animals were killed for food purposes and you must not kill too many for that purpose, either.

Mother sea otter and pup, photo by Milo Burcham

“The most valuable and most nearly extinct animal now in Alaska is the sea otter. Ten or fifteen years ago a hunting party would go out and kill perhaps twenty of these splendid animals in one hunt. Now the same party may go out and get one, or may come back without any. Going to the scarcity of the animals, too, the hunting of the few left is becoming more and more difficult. A skin now brings from $200 to $500 to the Indian hunters, and in London they sell for $350 to $1200. Most of these skins are bought in London by the Russians.

“At least eleven [native] canoes, each holding a hunter, are necessary in the killing of sea otters. They can be hunted only when the water is glassy smooth, as their habits are such that they are invisible on a rippling surface. They’re strangely human sort of creature. The mother otter nurses her baby in her arms, and they sleep on their backs in the water. When frightened or suspicious they keep only their noses and eyes out of the water.”

*          *          *

Although few sealers also took sea otters, according to historian, Briton Busch, “otter hunters could and did take seals.” Near the end of the 19th-century, the United States lifted restrictions that limited hunting in Alaska to natives, or whites married to native women. Once rifles supplanted traditional weapons for killing, over-hunting ensued.

In Alaska, the fur trade produced about 3,000 pelts a year, in the late 1860s, and about 5,000 a year in the 1880s.

However, by the end of the century, the count was down to about 600 a year. By 1910, only thirty-four pelts were acquired in the entire year and the value of a sea otter skin was up to about $1,700.

Historian Richard Ravalli, author of Sea Otters – A History (2018) wrote:

Sea otter hunters in Oregon

“The last specimen from Oregon was reportedly taken in 1906 … 1910 marks the total extinction of the creatures in Washington. Generally, pelts from these areas –and from Alaska during the same period – were sold in San Francisco and later found their way to the London market, although rich Chinese buyers in California appear to have acquired them as well…”

“According to the wildlife biologist Carl W. Kenyon … ‘The sea otter apparently became extinct on the British Columbia coast during the 1920s.’  The last sea otter in Mexico was reportedly taken in 1919; Kenyon did not report any sightings when he visited the area in the mid 20th century…

In the 1890s, newspapers reported that sea otter pelts were selling for as much as £260 [more than $8,000 today] in London. The New York Times wrote that such high prices were paid “almost entirely [by] Russian nobleman who specially prized the sea otter fur for the collars of their overcoats.”

Historian John Scofield believes that the reason why the fashion trend for otter fur never caught on in the USA, is because the Boston merchants, “thousands of miles away in their comfortable counting houses, probably never saw so much as the skin of one” sea otter.

Whaler Charles Melville Scammon

Richard Ravalli wrote:

“One of the earliest works that offers some data on American see otter hunting after 1850 is Charles Scammon’s Marine Mammals of the North-western Coast of North America, published in 1874 … Scammon reported that American hunters out of California were pursuing otters in the Kurils [the island chain between Hokkaido and Kamchatka] and in that the area between Grays Harbor and Point Greenville in Washington Territory constituted ‘the most noted grounds’ north of San Francisco. ‘Hunting in California,’ he wrote, ‘is no longer profitable for more than two or three hunters, and we believe of late some seasons have passed without anyone legitimately engaging in the enterprise.'”

*          *          *

The June 10, 1883, issue of the San Francisco Examiner reported:

“The hunting of the otter has greatly changed in the last 25 years. Boats were formerly used from which to shoot them, but it no longer pays. Now men shoot them from the beach, using no boats. This is done on the coast of Washington territory, between Port Granville and Grays Harbor, and scarcely anywhere else at present … The very best marksmen average at least 25 shots for every otter killed. Then he must wait for it to drift in, and there is another chance against him – the Indians may have been watching him, and if nightfall arrived before the dead otter drifts and the man who owns it by right of conquest will scarcely hold his own – the chances are the Indian will get it.

A towering sea otter hunting derrick, erected on the beach at Grays Harbor, Washington, circa 1900. At one time, as many as ten of these derricks were set up from Copalis Beach south to Point Brown.

“The Aleuts of Alaska both spear and club the otter. They attack only at night, several canoes, with three to paddle and one to spear in each, advances quietly as may be to a spot where the otters have been seen during the day. The first to discover an otter darts his spear, and generally with successful aim. The animal dives, and all the boats at once former circle sufficiently large to be sure that they have surrounded him and that he must rise within, and then they wait patiently…”

According to Richard Ravalli:

“Both Native Americans and whites took sea otters on the Washington coast in the late 19th century. Local Indians used traditional spears and canoes as well as rifles. Sold to white traders, the sea otter furs fetched hundreds of dollars apiece by the turn of the century. Some local hunters established wooden derricks … from which they shot at otters, a runner on the beach recovered the carcasses, which sometimes had to be done before awaiting native took off with the kill … [Charlie McIntyre] and his partner, Steve Grover, claimed to have killed 47 otters in one year. Charlie quit in 1903 when the hunting ceased to be worthwhile.”

Clubbing fur seals on St. Paul Island, Alaska, circa 1895

The San Francisco Examiner reported on June 10, 1883:

“The “clubbing [of otters] is equally characteristic of these strange [Aleut] people, and may only be done by those who have as little fear of the rough sea as have the sea otters themselves. It is done only in the winter, and at the end of one of the terrible gales which sweep the coast. Two men in a baidarka [kayak] paddle out on the very tail of the gale to the low, rocky islets, which are only just high enough to be out of water. The sea otters are lying there with their heads thrust into the kelp to escape the fury of the wind. The noise of the wind in the sea enables the hunters to approach unheard, each is armed with a short, heavy club, and blow comes down after blow as fast as their strong arms can swing them, each blow leaves and daughter dead, and in the crash of the gale, before the otters could take the alarm and escape, two Aleuts were known to kill 78 in a single onslaught.”

*          *          *

Alaskan otter hunters, 1880

In his 1878 memoir, George Emigdio’s father, the frontiersman Captain George C. Nidever, told of hunting otters on Santa Rosa Island, south of Santa Barbara:

“We had no boats so we were obliged to hunt from land … I had with me a Kanaka Indian, employed to swim out for the otter killed; at $16 a month.”

A July 27, 1890, article in the San Francisco Chronicle explained:

“Samuel Higgins, pioneer sea-otter hunter …  gives an interesting account of the manner in which the otter is caught. The hunters build an inclosed [sic] framework on the beach, and provide themselves with a rifle and a pair of glasses…”

Otters were hunted at flood tide to ensure their valuable carcasses would wash ashore – and not out to sea.

The May 31, 1890, issue of the Santa Cruz Surf reported on how:

“Each hunter marks his bullet with a mark known to the other hunters, and when an otter is found on the beach the first duty of the finder is to look for the bullet and ascertain who is the rightful owner, for this sign is respected among the hunters as sacredly as marks and brands are among stockmen. When an otter comes ashore with no bullet in him, as frequently occurs, the bullet having gone clean through the body, and no notice having been given, it is regarded as a ‘slick ear,’ in stockman’s parlance, [a steer without an earmark or brand] and belongs to the finder.”

The San Francisco Chronicle noted on April 3, 1892:

“If, for some reason, an animal that has been shot fails to come in when or where it is expected, and a whole day has gone by in fruitless search, then the Indian who finds it is given $10; two days after the Indian gets $30 for bringing it in and if a week elapses from the time a hunter shoots a sea otter to the time it is found, he gives half its value to the Indian, for he has then nearly despaired of ever seeing it….

“These prices do not indicate the true value of the skins, for the locality is a long distance from railways and it is very difficult and expensive to get freight of any kind from this out-of-the-way beach.”

*          *          *

Joseph Grinnell

Every decade, the prices paid for otter pelts increased. The June 8, 1890, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle reported:

“The seacoast in the vicinity of the Sur rancho [Big Sur], about 30 miles South of Monterey, is the home of large numbers of sea otters that are hunted for their pelts, which sell in San Francisco at from $80 to $600 each.”

The March 11, 1908, issue of the Salinas Californian, claimed:

“Captain Bentley has reported yesterday to have shot a black sea otter off Carmel-by-the-Sea. It was 3 feet 8 inches long and very fat and its pelt is said to be worth $1000.”

The Salinas Californian reported on January 16, 1913:

“Professor Joseph Grinnell, of the University of California, is at the head of this lobby in the interest of the fur animals … he uses the valuable sea otter as an example of the way these fur-bearers are being exterminated. The pelts of these animals are now valued at $1000 each, and they are so rare that now three or four a year is  a good catch. Formerly they were plentiful.”

*          *          *

Aleut otter hunter in kayak

Ernest Thompson Seton wrote in Lives of Game Animals (1925):

“‘In 1880- 1881,’ says Chase Littlejohn, ‘because of the persistency with which the animals were hunted by both whites and natives, between 6000 and 8000 were taken, some of which I am myself secured, and that I helped, I am ashamed to say, in the general extermination. In 1890, the use of the modern rifle and destructive nets so reduced the income to be derived from Sea-otter hunting, that the hunters were obliged to engage in other occupations.'”

In Alaska, in the time before the rifle, Indigenous hunters used the ancient atlatl – a 30,000-year-old technology whereby a harpoon is launched from a hand-held throwing board. The harpoon was attached a seal-bladder float, so the hunter could track the targeted otter and the harpoon didn’t sink to the bottom of the sea. A group of twenty or thirty hunters in kayaks surrounded the otter in their kayaks, waiting for the moment when the animal came to the surface to breathe.

*          *          *

On February 23, 2004, the Salinas Californian reported that the brass bell used during the CSUMB college basketball games was salvaged from a pilot vessel that “once terrorized” the otter hunters in the Monterey Bay.

As the years went by, the southern sea otter population diminished. Soon, they could only be found in the more remote sections of coastline. Consequently, Captain George Emigdio Nidever – the son of the mountain man and pioneer otter hunter, Captain George C. Nidever – found himself spending more and more time in Monterey County. In 1887, he moved his wife and children from Santa Barbara to a house in New Monterey. During the 1890s, it was not uncommon for local newspapers to report when otter hunters’ schooners were in port.

The July 8, 1899, issue of the Monterey Cypress told of a close call experienced by Captain George Emigdio Nidever and his son – third-generation otter hunter and fisherman, Francis “Frank” Edward Nidever:

“Geo. and Frank Nidever had a narrow escape from death on the afternoon of the Fourth [of July]. They had been hunting sea otter in a small sailboat when about two miles northeast of the Japanese whaling station [at Point Lobos] their boat was capsized, as the waves were running very high at the time. The boat is a round bottomed one and it turned completely over, spilling out two rifles, gold watch and other articles. When it righted, the boat contained so much water that they were completely at the mercy of the waves, and must have perished had not the Japanese whalers seen their signal of distress and gone to rescue the imperiled men. They were taken ashore and brought to their home in this city, thoroughly drenched, but otherwise none the worse for their perilous experience.”

*          *          *

Like most of his neighbors in that time before radio and television, Captain Nidever and his wife, Dolores, subscribed to several newspapers, including the Monterey Cypress, the Salinas Californian, and San Francisco Chronicle. One wonders if Captain Nidveer was away at sea, on Sunday, December 28, 1890, the day the following article was printed in the Chronicle. It discusses a report by Harry Clifford Fassett of the United States Fish Commission, including details about the traditional beliefs and customs of the Aleuts of Alaska pertaining to the hunting of sea otters:

“On his return from a prosperous [sea otter hunting] expedition the Aleut of former times destroyed the implements used on his trip, the hunting clothes, weapons, etc., being all cast into the sea, that the relatives of the dead sea-otters might find them there, which would lead them to believe that the murderer had also met his death by drowning. This accomplished, the hunter was free to enjoy himself without fear of molestation from the powerful spirits supposed to be the champions of these creatures, and who were in duty bound to avenge the deaths of all good sea-otters.”

*          *          *

George Robert Phenegar, circa 1880

Although no photograph of him exists, John James Pheneger was nearly six-feet tall, with blue eyes and dark brown hair. He was born in Perry Township, in 1841, fifteen miles north of Columbus, Ohio. His mother and father were Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Mennonites. His dad was a carpenter who built many of the frame houses in the township.

J. J. Pheneger attended Capital University in Columbus, and Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, fifteen miles north of his parents’ farm. He fought in the American Civil War, enlisting in the Union Army on June 30, 1863.

After the war, he co-owned a business that manufactured ink, in Columbus, Ohio, before coming west to California. It is unknown when he crossed country – or whether he came by ship, wagon, or railroad.

He had a relative, one George Robert Phenegar (spelled differently) who’d come to California in a covered wagon, in 1854. George was one of the first Americans to raise fruit in Selma, in southern Fresno County. When J. J. arrived in California, he stayed with George.

He became the co-owner of the Piedmont Dairy, in Oakland, but quickly sold out his interest in the dairy to his partner, during the economic “Panic of 1873.”

George Robert Phenegar settled in the small farming community of Plainsburg, in the San Joaquin Valley, eleven miles southeast of Merced, California. Soon, J. J. also moved to Plainsburg, where he registered to vote in April of 1875.

J. J. must have been doing pretty well, as he checked into the American Exchange Hotel at 319 Sansome Street in San Francisco’s financial district, for the Fourth of July weekend, in 1875. The swank establishment advertised all the modern amenities – running water, bathrooms, and the latest craze, spring mattresses.

*          *          *

It is unknown exactly when J. J. Pheneger first came to down the coast to Big Sur. His well-chosen “homeplace” was just east of the confluence of the Big Sur River and the stream that meandered down the southwest slope of Posts Summit, which is is still called Pheneger Creek.

In 1888, he flied his homestead application for 160 acres – south of present-day Molera Park, north of the present-day Big Sur Lodge, and east of the present-day River Inn. He bought cattle and raised stock.

In August of 1890, Pheneger was appointed a Deputy County Clerk for the purpose or registering voters in Monterey County. In November, he was one of the election officials in the Sur Precinct. In those days, voting took place at the small store run by Sur postmaster Thomas S. Cleland, a local timberman.

*          *          *

Topographical map indicating the location of Pheneger Creek in Big Sur.

For years Captain George Emigdio Nidever, the son of the notorious mountain man and pioneer sea otter hunter, had hunted sea otters along the Big Sur coast, from Point Lobos to Lucia. In 1890, he filed a claim in Big Sur, on property adjacent to J. J. Pheneger’s spread.

One wonders if, one afternoon, while hunting otters off the coast of present-day Andrew Molera State Park, in Big Sur, Nidever discovered the flowing spring ­­– Nidever Spring. Perhaps a neighbor told him about it, or one of the Indians on his otter hunting crew.

Sailors made careful notations of the location of sources of fresh water, returning to them regularly to refill the casks in the hold their boats.

Prior to Nidever’s arrival on the coast, the early settlers surely had a different name for the spring, likewise did the residents of the village of Jojopan, 250 years ago, in the pre-contact Esselen-Rumsen district of Sargenta-Ruc, in Big Sur.

When Nidever finally decided to file a claim for land in Big Sur, in 1890, he selected property on the southwest slope of Posts Summit, just uphill from the hospitable spring that still bears his name.

Nidever was arguably the best sea otter hunter in the state, which was likely fortuitous for his nearest neighbor, J. J. Pheneger. His parcel, which abutted Pheneger’s, was just inland from one of the sea otters’ favorite habitats. It is unknown whether Pheneger hunted sea otters prior to meeting Captain George Emigdio Nidever.

Nidever Spring is less than half a mile away from the confluence of Pheneger Creek and the Big Sur River. One wonders if there are two places named for 19th-century sea otter hunters, in such close proximity, that retain those place names in the 21st-century, anywhere else on Earth.

Today, the sea otter is protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, California state law, and the Endangered Species Act. Killing a sea otter is today, punishable by fines up to $100,000 and possibly even a jail sentence. Ironically, the properties George Emigdio Nidever and J. J. Pheneger owned long ago, are now encompassed by the Otter State Game Refuge wildlife reserve.

*          *          *

The fur trade proved a profitable business for Pheneger, even though, there were fewer and fewer otters to be found, with each passing year.He sold his otter pelts to a dealer in San Francisco’s Chinatown, saved his money, increased his land holdings, and labored to construct his farm and homestead.

A man of principled beliefs, his parents had raised him in the traditions of the Pennsylvania Mennonites – in which faith is voluntary, hard work is expected, injustice is to be overcome with good, happiness is more than material well-being, moral authority is more than political power, and life is to be lived simply.

Editors Glenn R. VanBlaricom, James L. Bodkin, and Shawn E. Larson wrote in Sea Otter Conservation (2014):

“Laws prohibiting sea otter hunting within three nautical miles of shore were present in California and Alaska in the early 1900s. Even where laws were enacted, it is likely that enforcement would have been minimal over vast and sparsely populated regions and there may have been an acceptance at the time of dwindling wildlife and a belief in the inevitability of extinction.”

There were few regions in the lower 48, as “vast and sparsely populated” as the Big Sur Coast. No man in Monterey County was more cognizant of how close the local sea otter population was to the brink of extinction, than Pheneger.

A towering pile of American bison skulls, circa 1875

Some seventy-five million American bison had roamed North America in pre-contact times. But bison hides were a commodity – they sold for $3 apiece, in 1880.

General William T. Sherman shared the then-popular belief that bison hunters, “did more to defeat the Indian nations in a few years than soldiers did in fifty years.” Colonel Richard Dodge, who was stationed in the Black Hills of South Dakota, wrote in 1867: “Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”

In 1873, more than one and a half million American bison were slaughtered in an effort make Indigenous Americans less independent. And so, the American bison was over-hunted, so rapidly, that by the late 1880s, fewer than one hundred remained in the wild.

So, one can appreciate how the fatalistic belief “in the inevitability of extinction” was far more widespread and unchallenged in Pheneger’s time, than in ours.

Although he was acutely aware of his own responsibility for their diminishing numbers, it was obvious that it was, in fact, already too late. No doubt, he was unaware of the traditional native customs and taboos employed by Indigenous hunters to appease the sea spirits who were “in duty bound to avenge the deaths of all good sea-otters.”

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On Thanksgiving Day – Thursday, November 24, 1892, the San Francisco Examiner printed the following:

“Monterey, Nov. 23 – Intelligence by courier reached this city to-day of a fatal accident which supposed to have occurred at 5 o’clock yesterday afternoon on the coast road below what is known as the Little Sur river about thirty miles south from here.

“The particulars as near as can be ascertained are as follows: a four-horse team attached to a heavy farm wagon, which was driven by J. J. Phenegar, [sic] was descending a steep and precipitous grade on that rough mountain road, when in some unknown manner the wagon left the narrow road and capsized, drawing the fractious horses with it and throwing Phenegar from the seat and under the wheel-horses’ hooves.

“The horses being wild and uncontrollable commenced kicking, and it is supposed that a kick from one of the horses struck the entangled driver on the head, killing him instantly, as when found he was lying under the wheel-horses, which were also dead.

“The supposition is that the horses were killed by the heavy wagon falling upon them. The dead teamster and his horses were not discovered until this morning. Phenegar was 45 years of age and unmarried.”

The Salinas Californian added:

“This morning his body was found at the bottom of a steep embankment, where his team had gone over the grade, near the Doud ranch, hurling him to death upon the jagged rock some fifty feet below. The wagon was found completely wrecked and two of the horses were dead.”

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The schooner Santa Cruz

The sun was setting on the otter hunting trade. The last known sea otter in Oregon was shot at Otter Rock, south of Depoe Bay, in 1906.

George E. Nidever, the son of a mountain man, was rough fellow. He made his living killing sea otters and he most certainly didn’t think much of sea spirits or traditional Indian customs.

In the fifteen years since John James Pheneger’s untimely death, Nidever had witnessed the southern sea otter’s swift disappearance from the coast of California. There were so few of them left, it hardly paid to hire a crew to hunt them.

At the age of sixty, he realized the jig was up.

In October 1907, he took a job as captain of Santa Cruz, a 45-ton supply schooner that transported sheep shearers, grape-pickers, and supplies to Santa Cruz Island, and hauled island-raised walnuts, almonds, wine, grapes, wool, and sheep back to mainland markets.

*          *          *.

The September 20, 1913, issue of the Monterey American reported:

“The steam schooner Santa Cruz went on the rocks at Rincon during a heavy fog today the heavy surface slowly pounding the boat to pieces. Captain Nidever and the crew are reported to have reached safety.”

Nidever ran aground in a dense and impenetrable fog on a notorious reef at Rincon Point, south of Santa Barbara, that he had carefully avoided for fifty years.

Though he never discussed it, the experience affected his self-confidence – as is often the case with aging mariners. A few months later, in 1914, he hung up his hat and retired from the sea, after half a century spent at sea.

ON January 29, 1923, his fifty-four-year-old son, Frank was lost at sea in a storm off the east end of Santa Cruz Island. Pieces of his wrecked 35-foot fishing boat Eagle, later washed up on the island, but Frank’s body was never recovered. His elderly, widowed father was heartbroken.

In 1935, arthritic, half-blind, and eighty-seven-years of age, the old captain died at 219 East Victoria Street in Santa Barbara, the home of his daughter, Mamie Ruiz, with whom he had lived the last fifteen year of his life.

In his obituary the reporter called him “the last of the early day otter hunters of the channel.”

Of course, by 1935, the southern sea otter was presumed to be extinct.


Categories: California History.