New England’s Gold: The Beaver Trade

King Charles I of England’s favorite hats were made of the expensive felt of beaver fur. By the late 1500s, the beaver were already extinct in Western Europe and close to extinction in Russia and Scandinavia. The abundance of beaver in North America kept the trade prosperous for a couple more centuries. The Hudson Bay Company, which later traded for beaver in Canada, sold as many as sixty thousand beaver skins in one year. Fortunately, the change in fashion in the 1800s to silk hats allowed the beaver to grow back in numbers. Today, the population has returned to what it was before the reign of King Charles.

A hat made from beaver fur that, it is believed, belonged to Constance Hopkins Snow who sailed to America on the Mayflower in 1620. Made between 1615 and 1640. On display in the Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts. (1)

In 1630, the price of one beaver felt hat cost £25. That was £5 more than a ticket to New England on one of Governor Winthrop’s ships. One hat required the skins of from one to five adult male beaver, depending on the quality of the hat, the richness of the felt, and the size of the beaver.

Since the Indians had no use for pounds sterling, the English traded or bartered for the furs. One Made Beaver [tanned beaver skin, often noted as MB] could buy an Indian one brass kettle, or two pounds of sugar, or one gallon of brandy, or two yards of wool fabric, or twelve dozen buttons, or one pair of English style breeches, or one pair of shoes, or eight steel knives, or two steel hatchets, or twenty steel fish hooks, or one woolen blanket, or three-fourths pound of colored beads, or two English style shirts.

A pistol cost 4MB. A musket cost 11MB. Not long after Plimouth Colony was founded in 1620, the English drafted laws against trading armament, gun-powder, and English spirits [liquor] to the Indians. Naturally, a black market for those items soon developed.

The term fur referred to tanned skins and came from the French and Germanic words forrer and forre, which meant to line, or sheath. Before a skin was tanned, it was referred to as a peltry, shortened to pelt, from the Latin word for skin, pellis. Other skins and hides were popular. The numerals after the names of the following animals reflect how many beaver skins equaled their value in trade: black bear [1], otter [1], mink [8], marten [4], raccoon [4], woodchuck [2], fox [2], seal [4] and moose [1/2]

The Indians collected the furs inland during the winter. As spring approached, they transported the furs to the rivermouths to sell to the arriving Europeans. The French started trading with the Indians in 1524 when Giovanni Verrazzano explored the coast [story coming up]. By 1580, fur traders from Basque(2) [northern Spain] and France had developed fur trading stages in Newfoundland and along the St. Lawrence River. Oftentimes, fishing stages served as fur trading stages since, initially, it was the fishermen who bartered for the furs.

The Beaver

The amphibious beaver, the largest rodents on the North American continent, are cunning, intelligent animals. The Latin term for the North American beaver is Castor Canadensis. Many American Indians believed that beaver could think like men, and that their colonies, headed by their own chief, created their own laws and language.

The most significant member of a beaver colony is the mother. A colony averages about eight members. Usually two to four older beaver live with several middle-aged beaver and several young beaver.

The beaver body is covered with a layer about one inch thick of soft under-fur of barbed hairs called fur wool. A protective layer about two inches thick of course guard hair covers the under-layer. The farther north a beaver lives, the thicker his fur. Fur with both layers, or fancy fur, is used for coats because of its warmth and luster. Fur with the outer protective guard hairs removed, called staple fur, is used for hat making. Because of the nature of the hair fibers, hats made with beaver fur keep their shape through repeated handling and successive wetting better than hats made with other pelts or wool. Besides hats, beaver skin was used for gauntlets [armored gloves], cuffs, muffs, and collars.

Creating Coats and Hats

The Indians sold the pelts in two forms: parchment beaver (called castor sec in French Canada) and coat beaver (castor gras).

Parchment beaver pelts were simply stretched flat to dry and sold immediately. Coat beaver pelts needed tanning to extract the long coarse hair, make them more supple, reduce the weight of the pelt, enhance and thicken the fur, and eliminate any fat. The tanned fur was called staple fur. In Europe in the late 1500s and early 1600s, only the Russians knew how to do this. But in America, the natives had another method. They trimmed the skins to rectangular shapes, then stitched five to eight prime skins together to make a coat with the fur-side facing inward. Then the Indians wore the coats for twelve to eighteen months with the fur next to their body, during which time the long coarse hairs dropped off. The Indian’s sweat and skin oils made the skins more supple, enriched, and thickened. The English preferred the coat beaver because they did not need to be sent to Russia, an additional expense. The only disadvantage to the coat beaver was that the Indians wore off the coarse hairs unevenly.

Once the rough, greasy skins reached the hat maker, he went through an extremely complicated process with over thirty steps and procedures for combing, beating, shaving, weighing, matting, heating, dyeing, strengthening, shrinking, molding, toughening, and drying to create hats from them(3). That is why the hats were so expensive.

Catching the Beaver

Probably the most difficult procedure was capturing the slippery critter in the first place. It called for such patience and skill that the Europeans left the task to the Indians. As George Mogridge described it in his narrative, History, Manners, and Customs of the North American Indians(4), catching beaver required the trapper “to trudge on foot … to swim across brooks and rivers; to wade through bogs and swamps and quagmires; to live for weeks on [raw] flesh, without bread or salt to it; to lie on the cold ground; to cook your own food; and to mend your own jacket and moccasins?” The Indians were more ready to, “endure hunger and thirst, heat and cold, rain and solitude.” Most Europeans lacked the “patience to bear the stings of tormenting mosquitoes; and courage to defend [his] life against the grizzly bear, the buffalo, and the tomahawk of the red man, should he turn out to be an enemy?”


Beaver lodge. Photo from BBCNews Online.

Beaver are known for the dams they build across creeks and rivers. They cut down trees for their dams using their sharp teeth. Beaver also build houses for themselves on the banks of the rivers and creeks using mud, sticks, and stones. They cover their houses with mud, sometimes five to six feet thick at the top. The mud hardens to a crust that is so hard and difficult to penetrate that the beaver hunter needs a long, strong, and sharp tool.

Beaver trappers need to be quiet and cautious when approaching a beaver lodge. When a beaver senses danger, it warns its neighbors by slapping its tail on the surface of the water making a thwap sound that is so loud it can be heard for miles around.

The first thing the trapper must do once he finds a beaver house is determine if a beaver colony is in residence there. The best time to catch a beaver is in the winter when its fur is the thickest. But beaver seldom leave tracks in the winter because they do not move around much. Most of their construction work is done during the night hours of the warmer months. When the snow is deep, the clue for knowing a beaver is in his lodge is that the snow on top of the house will be lower, sometimes even melted by the heat emitted by the beaver inside. Another test is to cut a hole through the ice and poke a green poplar or other young sapling into the house. After a week, if the stick has been gnawed away by beaver teeth, there are beaver around.

The beaver has other predators besides man. Long ago the species learned to dig escape-tunnels or holes known as washes or burrows, into which they scurry if their house is under attack. The washes sometimes run under the ice or into the riverbank.

The Indians left beaver traps in the washes, through which the beaver had a tight squeeze. The Indians found the washes by striking the ice with a tool, preferably metal, and listening for a hollow echo. The echo meant there was a tunnel underneath. They lured the beaver into the traps with a bait comprised of the liquid secretion of the beaver’s own sex glands called castoreum.

Most often the American Indians captured the beaver by stalking them, digging them from their lodges, and then spearing them. Usually the entire Indian tribe helped with the beaver hunt, closely synchronizing their movements. First the tribe blocked the entrances to the lodge and to all the washes by pounding sticks through the, blocking the passageways like a fence. Then, using stone axes and spears, the Indians broke open the lodge, reached in, and grabbed the beaver.

Sometimes the Indians dug holes in the ice over the washes before they attacked the lodge. When the beaver ran into the washes, the Indians were waiting to reach in through the holes and grab them.

In order to find beaver that were already in the washes, the Indians looked above the wash’s entrance for the motion of the water made by the beaver’s breathing.

Rapier Blades

By 1630, some English traders were illegally supplying the Indians with rapier blades. The long, skinny, cylindrical, and extremely sharp swords could most easily pierce the thick skin of the beaver. Rapier blades were also effective for piercing humans, which is why the Europeans did not want the Indians to have them. They were afraid that one day the Indians might turn the weapons upon the colonists. Eventually they did.

Next article: The First Houses in New England: Wattle and Daub

Notes

  1. Constance Hopkins Snow’s beaver fur hat. Housed in the Pilgrim Hall Museum, America’s Museum of Pilgrim Possessions. Photo source: http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/ce_17_century.htm
  2. Basque people, known in Spain as Vascones, lived in an area that straddled modern day north-central Spain and south-western France. The Basques were often mentioned in writings from the seventeenth century, particularly in relation to shipping. Some historians believed the culture existed before the invasion of Indo-Europeans, since Vasconia is mentioned in Roman records. And some scholars think the culture has Celtic origins.
  3. Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, hat makers used a solution of mercury nitrate to treat the skins. The constant exposure to the mercury fumes often caused muscle twitching, difficulties of speech, and mental disillusion. From this came the expression, “mad as a hatter.”
  4. Mogridge, George (aka Old Humphrey). History, Manners, and Customs of the North American Indians. Revised by Thomas O. Summers, D.D. Southern Methodist Publishing House, Nashville, Tennessee. 1859.