Sometimes you read something or hear something or something happens that changes how you look at the world. For me, reading Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, and thinking about world history in terms of the “Columbian Exchange” did that. For the first time, I connected the fact that potatoes originated in the Andes—that I had picked up somewhere along the line, with the potato famine in Ireland and the potato lefse that my grandmother made every holiday. That the Americas were vibrant places full of humanity and human influenced landscapes before the Pilgrims settled Plymouth suddenly became obvious—how did the corn, beans, and pumpkins get to the far north anyway?
How I wish I could have talked with Alvin about Charles Mann. Better yet, how good it would have been to put them together. That is kind of what we did in our class this Wednesday (“Introduction to Indian Studies and the Nez Perce Story” on Wednesday mornings at the new Josephy Center). We were reading Alvin’s “The Hudson Bay Company and the American Indians,” which first appeared in three parts in the Westerner, and then again as “By Fayre and Gentle Meanes” in American West Magazine in 1972.
We discussed beaver hats. The fur trade, after all, supplied furs—at a dizzying pace—to England and Europe for the purpose of making felt hats, beginning in the early 1600s and continuing for at least 200 years. Why the hubbub about beaver furs and hats? It turns out beaver fur is extraordinarily good for felting—something about the small hooks on hairs meshing together in the felting process—and that hats were already, in the sixteenth century, signs of status and socio-political points of view in the old world. And that the beaver on that continent (I think they are not exactly the same as the new world beaver, but we’ll leave that side road to other investigators) were all but trapped out.
In the new world, early white settlers were finding it tough to make a living with farming. And there are records of Dutch settlers sending furs across the Atlantic in the early 1600s; the Plymouth colony soon followed suit. And fishermen plied the Atlantic Coast, and occasionally put in to pick up Indians to sell as slaves across the sea, and occasionally added furs to their trade goods (it is thought by many that white fishermen were responsible for bringing smallpox to the coastal Indian peoples, and thus reducing the indigenous population—and their potential resistance—by 90 or 95% just a few years before the more famous Pilgrims arrived).
Soon French and English trappers and traders were vying for trapping ports and Indian tribes to provide them with furs. Eventually, the Hudson Bay Company, chartered in 1670, became the dominant trader with Indians and supplier of beaver pelts to the old world. There were differences in how French and English traders worked—the French were more likely to intermarry with Indians and adopt more of Indian culture. Traders brought guns and diseases along as they pressed north and west. There were issues of control of tribal lands—the Crown gave Hudson Bay a “charter” for a huge hunk of what is now Canada; the Louisiana Purchase transferred “claims” to Indian lands from the French to a young United States, etc., and wars among French, English, American, and Indian forces grew alongside the fur trade.
Alvin chronicles the movements of traders and of tribes, the diseases, the growing dependencies of tribes on white men’s goods, the place of alcohol, the peace making and the confrontations, and the “softening” of tribal lands for the waves of settlers who would soon follow. He doesn’t tell us much about the beaver and beaver hats. I think Mann would have talked with him about that. For your edification and fun, here is a web site that has a lot of information on the topic: http://people.ucsc.edu/~
kfeinste/beaverhat/Main.html. The site will also tell you about issues of class and gender in Europe, and show you pictures of some of the finest hats.
Alas, the fur trade and the place of beaver hats in national life and international diplomacy is a fascinating one that gets sleight treatment in standard history texts. Imagine felt hats getting all the way back to the Andes!
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