by Ken Mitchell
A taciturn and sedentary animal of the woodlands, the beaver may have seemed an unlikely actor in the development of trade in the early modern world. But as Europeans ventured across the Atlantic to North America in increasing numbers, this industrious rodent became an integral part of Europe’s economic and geographic expansion into the northern reaches of the New World of the seventeenth century.
Two major products can be extracted from a beaver. The most obvious one, and the most profitable, is its fur, particularly the soft fur of its underbelly. Beaver underfur pelts contain densely matted strands that are particularly suitable for transforming into felt, and in much of seventeenth-century Europe wide-brimmed felt hats were in high demand. Its fur was also used to make another popular European fashion, winter coats. In addition, beavers produce a by-product, castoreum, which served several capacities. During spring time both male and female beavers secrete castoreum (a yellow, sticky and pungent substance) to attract other beavers, often depositing it in small “scent mounds” near the runways that lead into their lodges. Trappers used castoreum both to locate entrances to lodges and to scent their traps to catch the beaver. Castoreum also found its way into the European marketplace as an excellent musk base for flower-scented
Part of the beaver’s role in forming economic ties between North America and Europe arose out of the fact that both sides involved in the trade were already quite familiar with the beaver and its uses. Native American societies were well versed in trapping and skinning the animal and using most of its parts, although on a less commercial scale than the European beaver trade would create. In Europe, beavers had also been utilized for many centuries, primarily for its fur. However, by the seventeenth century the European beaver was becoming scarce, so the introduction of the American version to the furriers of Europe filled an economic void.
For much of the early modern period, France held the reins on the beaver trade, with England lagging far behind. Initially, French and English explorers in the sixteenth century, and their governmental counterparts, thought little of the common beaver skins exchanged by the natives they encountered on their voyages, intent instead on the promise of China and gold. But by the beginning of the seventeenth century, North Atlantic cod fishermen off the Newfoundland Banks had developed a regular and profitable side trade with eastern seaboard natives during their weeks-long fish-drying period. As word of this lucrative endeavor spread, French leaders and settlers moved in to lay claim to the stake, and quickly established a comprehensive network centered on the extensive St. Lawrence waterways. The fur trade, which centered on the beaver in the first few centuries, became the mechanism by which Europeans advanced into and settled northern parts of the continent.
Much like other cash products of the New World, the beaver fur trade brought many other actors onto the American stage. Missionaries arrived in force in the seventeenth century, as well as settlers, colonial officials and the military, all eager to mold the New World into a version of the Old. French colonial policy hinged around the beaver trade for many years, and only granted trade charters to those agents who would promise to bring settlers to New France and to explore and claim new territory. In return, the traders would acquire a royal monopoly over a particular area. As time progressed, the number of trading bodies grew and diversified, and a fierce competition developed between the French and English companies to lay claim to regions further and further westward.
Curiously, few overviews of the American fur trade discuss the role of the third player in the fur trade, that of the Native Americans. They were critical in the trade process, not only trapping the animal and preparing it, but also bringing the product to the Europeans for trade, and usually guiding traders in their unceasing quest for more pelts. The exchange of furs for goods was a familiar and well-established practice, and may have explained to Native Americans not only why Europeans had come to North America, but what they had hoped to gain from the voyage. That Native Americans willingly participated in the trade, and helped bring about a radical decrease in the beaver population and its ecology, attests to the lure and the legacy of the beaver trade as well. They, like the Europeans, bartered the beaver, and in so doing joined in developing a new economy that linked both sides of the Atlantic.
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