Tanning

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The most profitable industry run by the Russians in California was hunting sea otters for their pelts. These pelts need to be treated and prepared at the Fort Ross tannery before they could be shipped back to Russia or traded with the Spanish. The tannery was built “for tanning, dressing, and preparing hides,” and the tanners used lime from sea shells and tannin from oak bark in the area. Besides sea otters, the tanners also prepared cow hides, deer hides, seal skins, wild goat skins, and sea lion skins. The goods made from these hides included shoes, leather, and deer hide suede. Sea otter pelts were the most popular item for trade, however, but they were soon hunted to near extinction along this stretch of coastline.

 

From The Khlebnikov Archive – Unpublished Journal (1800-1837) and Travel Notes (1820, 1822 and 1824), © 1990, University of Alaska Press. ISBN #0-912006-42-0

  • “Ivan Aleksandrovich suggested that it would be a simple matter to set aside the best small furs to be sent to Russia along with the wool and to use those of lesser quality in the tannery. He also said that there used to be a demand for seal skins in Kiakhta, which sold for a fairly good price.” p.59
  • “The extract produced here from real oak bark is excellent for tanning. Lime is produced from shells, shoe soles are made of cow hide, Russian leather from deer, black leather from young sea lions, and suede from deer. The suede, which is tanned a brown color, is eminently suited for clothing, and water does not make it lose its softness. The promyshlenruks use it to make their hats and trousers. Ivan Aleksandrovich thinks that this would be a very suitable spot for building a small tannery, and it seems to me that that is an excellent idea and would not entail any difficulties. The craftsman Andrei Chechul’ka has demonstrated his skill; with just four helpers from among the Creoles or the Aleuts, who would be paid, he could surely supply the whole colony with fur articles and still have some to spare.” p.59
  • “Mr. Schmidt and I inspected the activities at the fort, including the preparation of wood for the ship and the work at the tannery, where hides are tanned in large numbers. I requested that more be prepared for sending off to Sitkha.” p.101
  • “The prikazchik Dorofeev reported that he had hunted in February and March from Santa Cruz to Monterey and that when the hunting agreement had expired, the Governor had urged him to stay on to continue hunting, hecause the weather had just then started to improve. But as Dorofeev had been ordered by Mr. Schmidt to leave as soon as the agreement had expired, he had to return. The Governor told him that he could take all the sea otter pelts with him so as to prepare them at Fort Ross before delivering the half owed to the California authorities.” p.131
  • “Twenty-eight sea otter pelts were treated and soaked in preparation for dyeing, so that the Aleut men and women could be kept busy when there was nothing else for them to do.” p.177

From So Far From Home – Russians in Early California, edited by Glenn J. Farris, © 2012, Heyday and Santa Clara University.
ISBN# 978-1-59714-184-0

  • “Other projects included brick-making, tanning hides, milling grains, and even building prefabricated wooden structures. When Karl Schmidt took over as the second commandant of Fort Ross, he made greater efforts toward the development of gardening, cattle husbandry, and the growing of crops, and also continued the colony’s shipbuilding industry.” p.153
  • “Below the hill by a landing for baidarkas [kayaks] have been built a spacious shed and a cooperage, a blacksmithy, a tannery, and a bathhouse.” p.158
  • “Besides butter they get from the cattle: salted beef for Sitka and a small proportion of tallow and hide made at the factory here for local use and for sending to Sitka.” p.161
  • “Beside them were found piled up some sacks of flour, then some bundles of cattle hides or deerskins, tanned and destined to be made into shoes for the colonists.” p.240
  • “Outside the enclosure at the foot of the hill on the banks of the brook [ed: Fort Ross Creek]: … 2) A shop equipped with various machines for tanning, dressing, and preparing hides, 10 meters long and 6 deep.” p.287
  • “Riding down by the water’s edge, I inspected the tanning vats and boat- houses where ornaments of the chapel and other furniture lay ready for shipping to Sutter’s establishment.” p.299

From Russian California, 1806-1860, A History in Documents. Volume I, edited by James R. Gibson and Alexei A. Istomin, © 2014, The Hakluyt Society, ISBN# 9781908145062

  • “The only clothing made at Ross was an underskirt for workers that they made from chamois; one of the Aleuts, who had learned tanning, fashioned the chamois from the hide of deer killed by the hunters or obtained from the Indians.” p.28
  • “Kuskov also started tanning. Khlebnikov noted in 1820 that shoe soles were made from cowhide, Russian leather from deerskin, black leather from the skins of young sea lions, and suede (tanned brown and made into hats and trousers) from deerskin, too; tannin was extracted from oak bark and lime from sea shells.” p.30
  • “By the time of Wrangell’s visit in 1833 Fort Ross enclosed two large stockyards, a dairy ‘for keeping milk and making butter, a shed for the Indians, a threshing floor, and two rows of small Company and private houses with [vegetable] gardens and beds occupied by employees of the Company’. The windmill stood at a distance. ‘Below the hill a spacious shed, a cooperage, a blacksmithy, a tannery, and a bathhouse have been built beside the landing for kayaks.’” p.44
  • “Moreover, most of these secondary activities (hide tanning, tallow making, flour milling, barrel making) were offshoots of what soon became Russian California’s mainstay – agriculture.” p.66
  • “Nonetheless, Khlebnikov gave a rather glowing assessment of the counter’s economic prospects with respect to the cultivation of both alimentary crops (grain, vegetables, fruit) and industrial crops (tobacco, flax, hemp, poppy), sheep breeding (for wool), shipbuilding, tanning, pitch and turpentine extraction, and the exportation of millstones, whetstones, and mother-of-pearl.” p.68
  • “An 1834 list illustrates the quantity and variety of the counter’s livestock production: 7,800 pounds of salted beef, 3,756 pounds of butter, 433 pounds of tallow, 506 pounds of wool, and 95 hides.” p.77
  • The Russians and Creoles were primarily guards, overseers, cooks, tanners, and such and the ‘Aleuts’ hunters; in late 1823 only twelve of Fort Ross’ fifty promyshlenniks were engaged in farming, which was then on the verge of becoming the counter’s foremost activity.” p.79
  • “This country abounds in various kinds of grains, livestock, tallow, sheep’s wool, butter, cowhides, and the like and they are sent nowhere, and that is why there is no circulation of money, which is found there in a small amount, and even that has been minted by insurgents; the waters of this country harbour sea otters, whose hunting would bring the Californian Spaniards great profits, but they do not exploit them and do not know how to hunt.” p.410
  • “In bringing it to the favourable disposition of Your Honour, I consider it my duty to attest that the zeal for duty of the workmen named above that I have come to know has been evinced in success in other useful but unrelated practices and always in good conduct. Cooper Chechulka, besides his own current work, dresses various hides very well and thereby completely obviates the need to import such goods to the settlement.” p.450
  • “At the first opportunity it would be good to erect a small tannery for the curing of hides, and for this there is no site more suitable [than that] where Grudinin has a small garden. The tannery will occupy as much of the right bank of the stream [Fort Ross Creek] as is necessary, or a little farther upstream.” p.473
  • “Establish a tannery, if you can, but beware of major expenses. If it is possible, and you know how to make something useful from wool, then you are totally free to do so.” p.490
  • “The horse harness has been repaired, and the tannery, where a substantial number of tanned hides are made, has been strengthened.” p.499
  • “It would be nice if you would send a small amount of wool, for the girl’s school on Kodiak stands in need of it for its work; the remaining wool and hides will be used as you see fit.” p.505
  • “In his report to me the manager of the counter, Mr Shmidt, complained about the small number of carpenters in his jurisdiction; now, having an opportunity to shift men from Sitka, I am sending a reinforcement of skilled men on the brig Golovnin, namely, 4 carpenters (including a joiner), 1 cooper, one tanner, and 2 sailors who should join the the brig Kyakhta on its return to New Archangel.” p.515
  • “Even a good tannery has been established there, and it produces a sizeable number of good hides for soles. Generally speaking, all of this brings obvious benefit to the Company’s colonies, not to mention a sufficient number of sea otter and other skins taken in the counter.” p.515
  • “It is not posssible to ship many hides, for the tanner is seriously ill, and God knows when he will recover.” p.543

From Russian California, 1806-1860, A History in Documents. Volume II, edited by James R. Gibson and Alexei A. Istomin, © 2014, The Hakluyt Society, ISBN# 9781908145079

  • “Already in reports of 9 May 1813 and 18 June 1814 the following is noted: ‘Skilful promyshlenniks used oak bark to dress cattle hides and goat skins for soles, and to blacken the goat skins they used alder bark and iron cinders. The hides were excellent [Zavalishin’s italics], as good as the best Californian tanned hides. Dyeing of the goat skins was also very successful. Mr Kuskov intends to establish a tannery there, and he requests that an experienced tanner be sent.’” p.31
  • “On the same brig send as many bricks as are ready, and on subsequent occasions in the autumn send hides, pitch, 100 puds of salted beef, butter, and vegetables. Last year all of these items were of very good quality, especially the bricks and hides, attesting your indefatigable efforts in all of the sectors of the economy of the colony entrusted to you, and I will bring this to the attention of the Board of Directors.” p.92
  • “The latest information on the welfare of the settlement of Ross comes from Mr Shelikhov on 10 February of this year, received on the brig Okhotsk, which also delivered from its [the settlement’s] farm salted beef, butter, bricks, and tanned hides but no grain at all because of a harvest failure.” p.100
  • “Four female herders and their husbands, one horse doctor, one furrier, and a man who knows how to make felt from cattle hair are being sent to Ross on the sloop Baykal. The counter will not fail to employ these persons in their designated occupations, and I hope to see progress already next year in the dressing of leather and the making of felt, which could be very useful for various purposes at the port of New Archangel.” p.129
  • “Dressed hides are valued at 15 rubles apiece. The tanner is a Kodiak Aleut [Konyaga] who was taught by a Russian; he also dresses deer and wild goat hides into chamois, which is used to advantage by workers for inner garments.” p.183
  • “Leather making. At present only shoe soles and Russia leather are tanned; they do not know how to tan sheepskins, so they are wasted. The making of these skins would meet the demand for shoes in the colonies. The local oak bark is very good [for tanning]. It is also possible to make chamois and suede from the hides of deer, bison, and wild [feral] goats. It would be very easy to rear domestic goats, whose hides could then also be used in tanning.” p.189
  • “The brickmaker made up to 11 thousand bricks; the tanner dressed 180 hides for uppers and soles and up to 149 other sorts of hides; the cooper made up to 60 barrels and 130 small containers of various sorts.” p.213
  • “The brickmaker, the tanner, the feltmaker, and the other craftsmen successfully engaged successfully in their respective duties, as is evident from the cargo that was sent.” p.234
  • “From stock rearing it would be possible to obtain – besides salted meat – up to 200 puds of butter annually, tallow (required for the making of candles), and hides for the making of soles and Russia leather, which are now successfully produced in proportion to the current number of cattle.” p.257
  • “According to the latest reports to me, all is well there: during the year there were 20 births of both sexes and 17 deaths; the personnel did not lack food; the usual work proceeded properly; bricks, redwood shingles, hides, and laurel wood were stocked for shipment to New Archangel; the fort’s wall was renovated, so that it can serve for another 4 or more years; the manager’s house and the granary were repaired; timber was prepared for the projected kayak shed, a new windmill (on account of damage to the old one by strong winds), and other necessary buildings, such as a sheep barn, a blacksmith’s shop, a coppersmith’s shop, and a new house inside the fort; at the settlement of Kostromitinov a hut, a storehouse, a threshing floor, and a bathhouse were recently erected at new sites, and a barracks was built, as well as an incline [earthen ramp?] to the dry river for the prompt and easy loading of wheat.” pp.324-325
  • “Herds of bulls can be kept in Alta California solely for the value of their hides and tallow; their well-salted meat would provision our northern colonies and coastal mariners very cheaply. Hides, horn, and tallow would be exported in either raw or processed form.” p.428
  • “The brickworks and tannery were in a fairly satisfactory condition; in particular the latter produced a considerable number of good tanned hides. Coopering was improved as much as possible. On the brig Kyakhta, which arrived at New Archangel in 1826, 50 shoe-upper hides, 10 yuft hides, 100 sea lion skins, 150 chamois skins, 4 thousand bricks, 10 barrels of clay, and 5 barrels of pitch, besides a thousand puds of wheat, were shipped from the settlement.” p.475