Place in archives: mapping the fur trade of Christian Theodore Pedersen

In the archives we deal with a lot of dates. If you look at the finding aids on our website, you will see the dates the collections were created, the life dates of the creators, and dates for subdivisions within the collections, from series to folder. When we process a collection to make it available for use, we piece together a timeline of the creator’s life from materials in the collection or description already accompanying it. This timeline gets incorporated into the biographical note in the finding aid, where there are, you guessed it, more dates. However, all human activities occur in both time and space, and two recent events got me thinking about place.

The first is that I just recently moved up here to Alaska. When I move to a new area, I immediately begin trying to put together a mental map of my surroundings. When someone mentions a place I’ve never heard of, I  head to the Internet and look up where it is. Alaska is an enormous place where cities and towns are more spread out than they are in the Midwest, where I have always lived, and consequently, my mental map has had to expand.

The second thing that has contributed to the idea of place being at the forefront of my mind is my work updating the guide to the Christian Theodore Pedersen papers. Captain Pedersen, who was originally from Norway, was involved in whaling and trading furs, primarily in Alaska and northern Canada during the first half of the twentieth century. All of our collections have a component of location, after all, everything has to happen somewhere. However, Pedersen’s collection is especially rich in information about location. Most collections contain information about locations, such as an address on a letter or a flyer for an event. What makes Captain Pedersen’s collection particularly interesting from a geographical standpoint is that the various business ventures Pedersen was involved with recorded their transactions by date and by trading post. So, when I looked at the records, instead of putting together a just a timeline of Pedersen’s life and the various companies he was involved with, I was making a map.  I decided it would be fun to physically (well, digitally) make an actual map of his activities. This map is in no way an exhaustive source for locations mentioned in the collection, but a tool to help visualize one man’s life and career and the many places that career took him.

What struck me the most when I actually plotted locations on the map was how far-reaching Pedersen’s activities were and how many places they touched. In articles he wrote, we see that from a young age, Pedersen was sailing around the arctic on whaling voyages that took him from Norway to San Francisco to Barrow, Alaska, to the Mackenzie River in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Most of the collection documents Pedersen’s involvement in the trading of furs, primarily fox, but also seal and polar bear. The activities of the companies he owned and worked for extended to nearly every aspect of the fur trade, as well as across the continent of North America. He captained a ship, the Patterson for the Northern Whaling and Trading Company, transporting people, furs and supplies from between cities and remote trading posts. He oversaw trading posts in the most northern parts of Alaska and on islands in Nunavut, Canada. He was involved in two fur farming operations, one in Quebec, Canada and one on Attu Island in the Aleutians, which was invaded by Japanese forces in 1942. The furs farmed, purchased, or trapped by Pedersen and his associates were sold at auction in Seattle, and in New York. Throughout his career, Captain Pedersen was based in San Francisco and lived near there in later years.

So much for my mental map of my new surroundings in Alaska being enormous, although its size has increased through searching the Internet for every single location I came across in the collection.

The newly updated guide to the Christian Theodore Pedersen papers can be found here.