We know now that the fur trade in North America began in the 1500s with English, and French and Spanish Basque, fishermen off the Atlantic coast. When the fish weren’t enough—or when economies suggested—the fishermen went ashore and took and traded for beaver pelts and other animal hides, and Indian slaves. (That’s how Squanto got to Europe, learned English, and returned to become a translator for the New England colonists.)
Fashion took a turn in Europe in the middle of the 16th century, and felted beaver hats became the rage. European and Russian beaver had been or were soon trapped out, and North America offered unlimited quantities—or so the fishermen and traders thought. And for almost 200 years, until the 1820-40s, when cheaper silk hats began another fashion trend, French, British, Spanish, and American traders, trappers, and business tycoons made every effort to take all of the estimated 40-60 million beaver of North America. The silk hat saved the beaver from extinction, as the felted beaver hat had promoted it.
American Indians were of course instrumental in the fur trade. They provided most of the furs, and they controlled the lands and waterways where the beaver flourished. But it was the fur companies that turned the profits, urged on and promoted by the French, Spanish, English, and eventually the American governments. French explorer-traders were early leaders in the fur trade, which reached from east to west across what is now the northern US and southern Canada. The British Crown “chartered” the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670; the charter granted the company a monopoly over the region drained by all rivers and streams flowing into Hudson Bay in northern parts of present-day Canada.
There were breakaways: the Canadian Northwest Company sent David Thompson ever West; he would eventually find the Columbia headwaters, and map much of the Canadian-American border. John Jacob Astor and his American Fur Company joined the competition for furs—which included a competition to find a way to the Pacific so that furs and trade goods would not have to travel so far over and back through hard country. Astor’s crew landed at the mouth of the Columbia in 1811, founding Astoria. Thompson and the Northwest Company lagged behind—he thought there had been an alliance made between the two companies, and was not worried that the American Fur Company might reach the ocean first.
In all of this, the traders used guns, iron kettles, needles and threads, and alcohol in pushing Indians to provide more pelts directly, or clear the paths for the mixed European and Euro-Indian trappers and traders to acquire pelts—mostly and most profitably beaver pelts.
Which caused me to wonder just how much beaver pelts were worth? It was enough to cause a great international competition for North American trade, enough to bring shiploads of manufactured goods from Europe to America, and send shiploads of pelts the other way. And it was not easy even when the beaver were trapped or shot, used as rugs or sewn into coats and worn for a year or two by Indians to get the rough outer hairs off and the inner fur desired for felting exposed. The newly killed beaver, processed by Indian women, were not quite as valuable. In this table from Canadian Northwest Company archives, we get some idea of beaver value at the trading post. I take it that “made beaver” is the equivalent of the worn beaver described above. This from early 1800s.
Here are the values of many of the NWC trade goods in Made Beaver:
1MB = 3/4 pounds of coloured beads
1MB = 1 1/2 pounds of gun-powder
1MB = 1 brass kettle
1MB = 2 pounds of sugar
1MB = 1 gallon of brandy
1MB = 2 yards of flannel
1MB = 12 dozen buttons 1MB = 1 pair of breeches
1MB = 1 pair of shoes 1MB = 20 flints
1MB = 8 knives 1MB = 2 pair looking glasses
1MB = 2 hatchets 1MB = 20 fish hooks
1MB = 1 blanket 4 MB = 1 pistol
1MB = 2 shirts 11 MB = 1 musket
But how much did this really represent in terms of trade and money—of that day and translated into our day? There is much information on the particulars of the trade, but it is hard to come up with information on just how big it all was in that 200-year period. I found in one place that the “demand” in England alone was for 5 million felted hats each year. And this rough equation from a modern-day interpreter at Fort Vancouver: “Long story short, the $2 value of a beaver pelt of 1837 would be something like $48 today. And the $7.50 that HBC might have received in London works out to about $176 in today’s money.”
So $176 times some percentage of 5 million in England alone! Enough to make John Astor the richest man in America, enough for him to outfit two excursions to find the mouth of the River of the West, one by sea and one by land.
What we do know is that the fur trade created the European path west, brought guns, germs–disease, and steel to the tribes, and made Jeffersonian settler colonization possible. We know that without a European fashion change—beaver to silk—the American beaver might well have been completely extirpated. And we know that beaver was just the first of many natural resources in the Americas to be run through as if the supply was unlimited—or a new technology, e.g. silk, would come to save its fur.
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