beaver trapping -- 12/23/19

Today's selection -- from Dreams of El Dorado by H.W. Brands. Beaver trapping was one of the primary occupations of early Americans in the Western part of the country, brought about by British and European demand for beaver fur:

"[Mountain man Joe Meek learned] the art of the beaver trapper [in the late 1820s], which required learning something about the beaver, the unlikely object of the commercial lust of the small armies of trappers and traders who chased the critter across the wilds of North America. Castor canadensis is a large rodent with protruding orange teeth, beady eyes, coarse fur, a flat, scaly tail, and an odor that only other beavers can love. Its saving grace, for humans, is a soft underfur that can be tailored into warm coats and stoles, or, for the fashionable gents of Europe and the East­ern states in the nineteenth century, pounded into felt for styl­ish top hats. As the species name suggests, the North American beaver was first noticed, by whites, in Canada -- hence the head start gained by the Hudson's Bay and North West companies in the beaver business. But the animal's range extended deep into the American West, wherever trees grew beside rivers and creeks. The green tissue of the trees provided food to the beaver; the woody branches and trunks were used to dam the streams and build lodges in the ponds behind the dams. Beavers are nocturnal, with weak eyesight but acute senses of smell and hearing. They are champion swimmers and can remain submerged for a quarter of an hour at a time. Growing to more than fifty pounds, they can live past twenty years of age.

Beaver Trap c. 1810

"Unless they encounter the like of Joe Meek and his traps. The standard trap in Meek's day was a steel device weighing some five pounds and consisting of a pair of spring-loaded jaws, a flat plate that acted as a tripping device, and a steel chain. The trap was placed in a stream where beavers had been at work building their dams and lodges. The jaws and the plate were submerged several inches below the surface of the water and covered with leaves or other debris for concealment. The chain, perhaps five feet long, was stretched out into the water, with its end secured by a stake driven into the bottom of the stream. The trap was baited with beaver scent, taken from the glands of a previously killed animal. Beavers are aggressively territorial, and the scent drew other bea­vers to confront the presumed intruder. When all went as planned, an unlucky beaver's foot hit the plate and sprang the jaws, which clamped on the beaver's leg. The secured chain prevented the ani­mal from swimming away with the trap; heavily encumbered, the beaver became exhausted and drowned. The trapper, returning af­ter a day or two, retrieved his prize and the trap.

"Under the best of circumstances the work of the trapper was ar­duous. The weight of the traps wore on the muscles, and the clam­bering in and out of cold streams chilled the trapper to the bone. If the trap was not secured adequately, the trapper might have to take a swim to retrieve it and the beaver. In areas not previously trapped, the beavers didn't know to avoid the traps and trappers, but with experience the animals became warier. The trapper had to hide his tracks and mask his own scent, and even then his traps might remain empty. It was no wonder ... fur-company partners had to travel to St. Louis each year to recruit newcomers like Joe Meek, the attrition from drowning, death by pneumonia and other ailments, and simple exhaustion depleted the ranks."



H.W. Brands


Dreams of El Dorado


Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC


Copyright 2019 by H.W. Brands


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