COX, CLARENCE NELSON, sealing captain; b. c. 1862 in Maitland, Hants County, N.S., son of Charles Cox, a shipbuilder, and Margaret Graham; d. 2 June 1901 in Victoria.
A seaman for all of his short life, Clarence N. Cox came from a seafaring family that included both mariners and shipbuilders in Maitland, then a major maritime centre. Having learned his trade in his early years on the east coast, around 1889 he relocated himself in Victoria in order to pursue the pelagic sealing trade, a business in which he would excel. As master of various sealing ships, he returned to his home port again and again with record catches, the most notable being in 1894 when he brought back the schooner Triumph with 4,560 sealskins. This catch surpassed the all-time record of 4,268 skins set by Dan Maclean in 1886.
Pelagic sealers spent 10 or 11 months a year following the migration of the northern fur seals from their feeding grounds off the California coast to their breeding grounds in the North Pacific. Seals were harvested by men using rifles or spears from small boats or canoes; in 1894, for example, Cox had with him 17 canoes manned by 34 native hunters. Two thousand pelts a season was considered a good catch. Pelagic sealing was, however, extremely wasteful. It has been estimated that two seals were killed and lost for every one taken; moreover, it was impossible at sea to distinguish between male and female. In 1886, after the herd began to decline, the United States moved to restrict the pelagic hunt by seizing sealing vessels found in the Bering Sea, arguing that the sea formed part of its territorial waters. A superb seaman, Cox consistently outmanœuvred the American revenue cutters and was never seized. In 1893 an international tribunal dismissed the American claim to the Bering Sea but recognized the seriousness of the situation. Pelagic sealing was prohibited during the summer season in the North Pacific and the Bering Sea and banned completely within 60 miles of the American Pribilof Islands.
As the constraints on seal hunting increased, Cox moved over to a different type of seafaring and became a master on the stern-wheelers operating on the Yukon River. His confidence and daring in navigating the tricky passages along the twisting river course, and in handling hazardous journeys along the exposed northern coastal waters to the Yukon delta, brought him renown. At one time he took Governor General Lord Minto [Elliot*] and Lady Minto on a trip from Whitehorse to Dawson, for which exploit he later proudly wore a monogrammed pin presented to him by the governor general.
Cox’s brothers were prominent seamen in their own right: Captain John Graham Cox was master of a sealing ship as well as a member of a prominent sealing firm; Captain Rupert Cox was a master on Yukon River boats; and Captain William Cox served with the Union Steamship Company of British Columbia Limited, headquartered in Vancouver.
On 28 Sept. 1892 Cox had been married to Victoria Shaw, whose father, Thomas Shaw, was associated with the Albion Iron Works (an industry well known to the maritime trade). Some four years later, in the early months of 1896, Mrs Cox became the first woman to make a trip from Victoria to Yokohama, Japan, on board a sealing schooner. It was her husband’s ship Triumph – and the transpacific voyage lasted 50 days.
Cox died on 2 June 1901, survived by his widow and brothers. His funeral was held on 5 June both at the family home in the James Bay area of Victoria and at Christ Church Cathedral. By all accounts, he had been a popular, generous, and gregarious man. The funeral procession was over a quarter-mile in length and included, in groups, members of the several societies of which he had been a member. Interment was in Ross Bay Cemetery.
[Details concerning Cox’s place of burial were supplied to the author by the Old cemeteries committee of the British Columbia Hist. Federation, Victoria Branch. l.g.mcc.]
NA, RG 31, C1, 1871, Maitland, N.S., div.1: 7–8. Daily Colonist (Victoria), 29 Sept. 1892, 12 May 1896, 4 June 1901. Victoria Daily Times, 6 June 1901. B. C. Busch, The war against the seals: a history of the North American seal fishery (Kingston, Ont., and Montreal, 1985). Lewis & Dryden’s marine history of the Pacific northwest; an illustrated review of the growth and development of the maritime industry . . . , ed. E. W. Wright (Portland, Oreg., 1895; repr. Seattle, Wash., 1967), 435 [Cox’s second initial is cited incorrectly in this source]. Thomas Miller, Historical and genealogical record of the first settlers of Colchester County . . . (Halifax, 1873; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1972). Peter Murray, The vagabond fleet: a chronicle of the North Pacific sealing schooner trade (Victoria, 1988).