Russian Blue Trade Beads, History

My purposes for blogging about Trade Beads is to present various historical quotes and facts about beads that were traded up and down the northwest coast of North America. I hear some saying that trade beads were not used prior to 1875, but I’ve found many references in my research to show that trade beads were very basic to the Fur Trade beginning in the 1740’s on the North West coast and earlier travel throughout North America.


Ivory Orca and Blue Russians

The involvement of the Russians in the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest gave the Blue Russian Trade Beads the romantic aura that has made them so collectible. “According to ship cargo manifests the Russian expeditions carried beads in addition to other cheap trade goods, and while we do not know what beads they carried, there are reasons they are called “Blue Russians”. To the traders and promysloviki at Kamchatka the significance of the expedition lay in the cargo of sea otter pelts the SL Peter brought back from lands where the waters abounded in fur-bearing animals. As they had in Siberia, the Russians used the enticement of their trade goods and cheap tools, copper kettles, beads, trinkets – and coercion such as holding women and children hostage, to ensure their supply of furs from Native hunters.” (3)

Furs were a major source of foreign exchange and the Russians had been working their way across Siberia making off with the animal furs. A dear old friend introduced me to a marvelous book, “Fur, Fortune and Empire” by E.J. Dolin (4). I was amazed to be woken from my mental slumber to learn of the almost total decimation of all the small animals in Europe to provide fur trappings and hats for royalty and lordly individuals. The discovery of Alaska in 1741 by Vitus Bering and stories of plenty of wildlife for fur opened up a new area for exploitation. A group of Russian nobles organized the Russian American Fur Company and proceeded to govern this distant part of the empire. The English got wind of the game and wanted to get in on the plunder so they sent Capt. James Cook in 1778 to see what the Russians were up to.


Silver Hummingbird and Blue Russians

After trading with the natives for sea otter pelts, the foul weather in the North Pacific caused Cook to turn south to the Hawaiian Islands where he was killed and the crew sailed on to Canton. There they found out just how valuable their Fur cargo was to the Chinese. The Americans on the North American east coast found out about what was going on and wanted to get in on it. The Boston merchants in the late 1770’s were fortunate with good sailing and plenty of stores to trade with the natives so the trading was very profitable. The stores the Americans were able to bring created a partnership with the Russians as they were a long way from home. This fact created an arrangement where the Russians delivered the furs to the Chinese, but the Chinese didn’t like the Russians. In 1780 Cook’s crew sold their sea otter skins in Canton. Then the war of 1812 effectively ended the English participation in the trading. The Americans were in the number one spot. “They sailed around the Horn to Alaska and then made several voyages between Alaska and Canton, always by way of Hawaii for fresh food, water and women before retuning home. On the voyage home they carried a cargo of Chinese luxury goods for which there was a ready market in New England. Each trip lasted several years. The risks were enormous, but so were the profits.” (5) At least by the 1770’s the North Pacific was floating with opportunists and one of the things they used for trade was beads (trade beads).


(3) Pethick, Dereck, First Approaches to the Northwest Coast, 1976
(4) Dolin, Eric Jay, Fur, Fortune, and Empire, 2010
(5) Harris, Elizabeth, Introduction to Vol. 5; Russian Blues, Faceted and Fancy Beads from the West African Trade, John and Ruth Picard, 1989

About Janet Walker

3 Responses to “Russian Blue Trade Beads, History”

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  1. Eric Vollmers says:

    I have a large number of coboldt blue beads I would like to show you for identification purposes.

  2. Jeryll says:

    Hello – I have acquired these beautiful old blue beads, of which I was told were Russian trading beads. However, all of the photos that I see on line all have facets. These do not. One strand looks frosted, not sure if its from wear or made that way, The other strand looks darker and the beads are smooth. But all let light through. All of the beads are about 8mm by 5mm. They are not uniform, they appear each hand made. Is there anything you can tell me about them? I can send pictures if needed. Thank you.


  1. […] Blue Russians.  These are the real deal in the world of “Blue Russians”, of Pacific Northwest Coast Fur Trade History.  And the molded, faceted Red 3/8ths” glass beads are very old Venetian-made.  […]

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