In my last post I wrote about the various biomes in North America and how Indigenous groups were adapted to the local conditions. It’s safe to say that we know very little about the thousands of years pre-contact in North America especially from the perspective of Indigenous people themselves. There are tons of accounts of European colonialism and the history of Europe is accessible to us all although it may not be as objective as some people think. The question is: Who gets into the history books? Why, kings and Queens, Knights, Bishops, and Popes. You’d think it was a giant chess game!
That said, and getting back to beaver, the trade in beaver fur was largely concentrated north of the 49th Parallel and in most cases, north of the 55th up to the barren lands of the Canadian Shield. In the south, beaver fur was of lighter and poorer quality that in the north and beaver were nowhere near as abundant. On the eastern seaboard, beaver were soon wiped out in the Hudson-Mohawk River system. By the mid-17th Century, the beaver were virtually wiped out along the eastern shores of North America they were so heavily trapped.
The hunt for beaver makes for a fantastic story because it is nowhere near as straightforward as it might seem. The image of a beaver graces our nickel in honour of its role in the creation of the country. See the beaver on the nickel:
It has a rightful place there, I believe, but it would be just as right to have it grace a one-pound British note or a Euro because the trade in beaver fur had as much of an impact on European economic development as it had in North America. During the 17th Century in Britain the mercantile capitalist elite and the gentry were able to capture the British government (we sometimes call it the Cromwellian Revolution) but the newly-created industrial capitalist class was just getting a full head of steam, and employed over fifty percent of the working population. The situation was not the same in France where the Absolutist Monarchy maintained a much higher grip on economic activity. The need in North America for European trade goods like knives, kettles, awls, guns and steel traps created a huge impetus for European industrial development and innovation. That impetus was the result of the North American Indigenous peoples’ desire or craving for tools that made their lives so much easier than they had been previously.
So, the beaver fur most sought after by European hat makers was called castor gras d’hiver or fat winter beaver which is also called coat beaver. It was fur that had been worn by indigenous people for fifteen to eighteen months, fur on the inside which tended to loosen the long guard hair leaving the soft, velvety ‘wool’. As I noted before, the early fur trade was incidental to the fishery on the St. Lawrence. Even in 1534 as Jacques Cartier sailed into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Indigenes, probably Abenaki and other coastal groups he encountered, offered him coat beaver that they waved over their heads stuck on long poles. He traded with them in 1535 and 1541 meaning that they already had knowledge of the European market for beaver pelts before Cartier even showed up. No doubt Basque and other European fishing boats had landed on the coast and sailors had recognized the value of the clothes that the Indigenes wore and traded some European tools for a few skins. However, the fishers had no organization to exploit the fur trade so it stayed incidental to the fishery until well into the next century after the arrival of Samuel de Champlain in 1602 when he brought organization to the trade and build Québec in 1608. The Montagnais who lived north of the St. Lawrence traded with the Europeans at Tadoussac, having come down the Saguenay River fully clothed and leaving naked after trading the very clothes off their backs for European trade goods.
Another grade of beaver fur was called castor sec or parchment beaver. It was beaver that had not been worn but prepared immediately after the animal was killed, dried and readied for sale. Hat makers in Europe used both types of fur when making beaver hats like the ones below:
Beaver hats were, for the most part, felted hats. That means that the beaver ‘wool’ was shaved from the beaver skin and then felted by a process of applying heat and moisture which causes the hairs to mat together to create a smooth ‘cloth’. Beaver hats in these styles were popular from 1550 until 1850 or so when Chinese silk became the fabric of choice in the making of hats for the well-to-do.*Incidentally, there is a Eurasian beaver (castor fiber) but it had been virtually wiped out in Europe by the mid-sixteenth century. The Russians were manufacturers of beaver hats too and they turned to new sources when the Eurasian beaver disappeared from their territories due to indiscriminate hunting and trapping. The Russian invasion of Siberia was largely due to the fur trade. My focus here, though, is on North America.
In my next post I trace the growth of the North American Fur trade as it spread across what we now know as Canada and its transformation of Indigenous groups into hunters and trappers or middlemen for the European trade.
*The story of the European hat making industry and market is intriguing in itself. Many of the hat makers were in Spain and Portugal but the hats in many grades were sold all over Europe although at times they fell out of favour and the North American Fur trade faltered.