the beavers of canada – 10/6/21

Today's selection -- from Merchant Kings by Stephen R. Bown. The Hudson’s Bay Company was chartered in 1670 to exploit the commercial possibilities of beaver pelts:

"Beavers were available in great abundance [in Canada]. Their lustrous pelts were of supe­rior quality, and beaver fur was in particular demand throughout Europe. Numerous seventeenth-and eighteenth-century engrav­ings depict fanciful scenes in which these curious and myopic rodents display their prominent and enormous orange teeth. Sometimes they are shown regal and sphinx-like, posed with their mouths open and their great flat tails splayed out behind, or even walking erect, carrying logs over their shoulders in mighty communal building efforts, like furry anthropomorphized ants going cheerfully about their labours. In these engravings, men with guns line the banks of ponds shooting at the beavers that are gnawing at trees to bring them down and build their dams and houses. These dwellings occasionally appear as multi-sto­rey, apartment-style mounds housing dozens in the centre of a pond. Written accounts of the time had beavers dwelling in giant communal house-villages, speaking to each other and working together to hunt and build. The fur trader and explorer Sam­uel Hearne, who was very familiar with the more prosaic lives of these furry, flat-tailed rodents, expressed amusement at this attribution of noble traits. In his classic A Journey to the Northern Ocean, he wrote: 'I cannot refrain from smiling when I read the accounts of different authors who have written on the econ­omy of those animals ... Little remains to be added beside a vocabulary of their language, a code of their laws, and a sketch of their religion.' That such gentle and innocuous creatures should inspire such praise seems unusual. But they were given all the attention not because of their sophisticated and urbane culture, but because of their value: their pelts were then worth, if not their weight in gold, certainly a great deal of money.

[Beaver with baby beaver] Charles Livingston Bull

"Furs have always had value for their warmth, but it was their use in the manufacture of felt that drove the demand in Europe. Felt was primarily used to make hats, an ever-changing fash­ion accoutrement that was indispensable to gentlemen as well as ladies. Each profession or calling boasted its own hat style, from the distinctive cocked hat of the navy to the tall, imperi­ous Regent or top hat, to the faintly ridiculous-looking 'Paris Beau.' People wore hats to mark their social position, and the hats carried price tags to reflect that. Some gentlemen's hats were so valuable that even well-off people protected them and dutifully handed them down as inheritances, assuming the fashion had not changed. Although the beaver was virtually extinct in commercial quantities throughout most of Europe, in the seventeenth century the region covered by the Hudson's Bay Company's charter was home to at least ten million beavers. That region, amazingly, contained nearly half the world's supply of fresh water. It was swampy, featuring innumerable lakes and ponds, and was covered with aspen and birch forests, providing prime beaver food. It was one of the greatest beaver habitats in the world."



Stephen R. Bown


Merchant Kings


Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2009, Stephen R. Bown


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