Captain - Staff Writer


Smoke Signals

Mar/Apr 2011


By: Many Trades

When asked, most people will answer that the American fur trade era began in 1820 or at least no earlier than Ashley's ad for 100 young men. The truth is that to say when the trade began, it has to be looked at from a different perspective. Let's take, for example, the origins of the beaver. Fossils have been found that show the earliest beaver lived about 10,000 years ago. He had front teeth that measured eleven and a half inches, weighed maybe four to five hundred pounds and was more than seven feet long. Other than being larger, he looked pretty much like today's smaller edition. And, even though he is the second largest of his kind in the world, the beaver is still a rodent.
Being a vegetarian, Mr. Castoridae eats grass, roots, water plants, and, of course, the bark of trees. He cuts down trees in order to get at the tender bark of the limbs and to obtain logs for building his dams. He eats the bark off the limbs much as you or I eat corn on the cob. He's very clever with those front feet.
The young beaver stay with their parents for about two years. Alas! There comes a spring day when they are then driven out to make room for new babies. If he lives that long a young beaver matures at three years of age and goes hunting for a mate. Finding one seems not all that difficult. When ready, the twosome go in search of a place to build a home. Their prime real estate may be a stream large or small (small being preferred). The spot can be somewhere in reach of their parents or it can be miles away. In any event, they are on their own and will stay mates throughout their lives-usually about sixteen years.
Once a spot is selected, the pair go about construction of a dam and house. If the stream they chose has a fast current, the dam will be made to curve upstream-much like the man-made dams on major rivers.. If it is a gentle flow, they will build it straight across.

Building and living underwater would be a tough chore for most any other creature, including humans. But the beaver is uniquely prepared. In both nostrils and ears there are valves that close to keep out all water. They have transparent membranes to cover their eyes yet still let them see. By closing a pair of skins behind the teeth they can eat underwater. Their webbed back feet make for great swimming while the front feet are nimble and about as capable as human ones. They keep themselves well groomed by use of the split nail on the second toe of the hind feet. Then there's that tail. It serves as a steering devices, (a rudder), and as a prop to hold it up and for balance when sitting. And not least, by whacking it against the water it gives warning of danger to others. That whack doesn't sound like a "crack!" It sounds more as if someone had dropped a large flat stone from high up; a sort of dull thumping sound, or as if someone had performed a perfect cannon ball into a pool.
Mr. Beaver had, for many years, a grand life. His only enemies were creatures of the wild. Although many of the native Indians relished beaver meat and had it as a regular part of their diet, they yet venerated the beaver and made it an important part of their religion. Too, their methods of catching the beaver was with arrows, pits or deadfalls., methods not conducive large-scale killing. The Indians also had a practice of not taking too many beaver from a colony. Until the advent of iron traps their impact on the beaver population was minimal.
Work on the dam begins with moderately sized tree limbs. Smaller ones get added as needed. Base logs are set in so that they point upstream. The big ends get anchored to the bottom by piling on large rocks. With their phlegmatic attitude toward work, beavers will build a dam to whatever length is required to back up the waters of the stream they have chosen. The longest recorded reached more than two thousand (yes, two thousand!) feet across.
The young couple, without previous experience, perhaps by instinct, know how to build a house. As the dam is completed, the water backs up to form a pond or, depending on its size, a lake. The pair work like beavers, usually at night, and it doesn't take them all that long to get the job done. Their dwelling is a remarkable thing, The door is under water where to enter, one must swim beneath the surface. The entrance leads through a tunnel up to the living quarters which are nicely above the water level of the pond. Usually there is another tunnel that leads from the living quarters to a spot somewhere on dry land. The interior of the beaver house will have a floor covered with grass and wood chips. The roof will be strong, but thin enough to allow for ventilation. Lodges are often plastered with rocks and mud.
With cold weather the animals are usually at home. The house has frozen so hard that even a bear can't dig through. Even though the pond may freeze, the dam is high enough to assure the water is of a depth that it will still have unfrozen water beneath the ice adequate to the beaver's needs.
Although there may be no holes in the ice that the beaver may use to come up for air. the animal will make do. A beaver can stay underwater without additional air for about 6 minutes. Should he need more time, he will suddenly blow out all the stale air in his lungs and follow the resulting bubble up to the under-surface of the ice. The air hits the ice and is at once purified. The beaver then sticks its nose into the bubble and breathes the purified air in again. He can do this over and over.

The beaver plans well for a winter of isolation. They store bark-covered limbs in the bottom of their pond to last through even an extended winter. They can dive down for a snack whenever they please.
So there they stay all winter, snug in their self-built home, safe from harm from predators. Even a bear cannot tear the frozen house apart. The spring can be a different story. Babies, born in litters of three to as many as eight, are not yet prepared for flight. There are many dangers inherent at this time. For one, otters can and will find them. Vicious little thrill killers, the otters will invade the beaver house and slay every creature there-not necessarily for food, but just for the pure thrill of killing. But despite all the dangers; otters, bears, coyotes, mountain lions and more, the beaver survived. They even survived, but barely, when faced by the most dangerous foe of all-the trappers.
Unfortunately for the beaver, their fur is uniquely fashioned for the making of the finest felt. Beaver hair consists of an outer guard hair and a much fine, thick under fur. The under fur is tipped with a tiny barb. Felt is made by wetting it and smashing it together to make a solid body which is then shaped into whatever form is desired. The barbed tips of the beaver fur bind the felt in such a way as to make it superior to any other. Alas for the beaver, felt from his fur was the very best for making hats, and hats of his fur were in style during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
Beginning as early as the mid to late 1500s, beaver became an important item of trade between the Americas and Europe. There was, once, a large population of European beaver, a creature somewhat related to the American beaver. By the 1400s it had become a rarity and the species now is practically extinct. The American beaver was discovered to range from Alaska as far south as the deep southwest. To give but one example of the devastation wrought by trappers, in just one year prior to 1627, twenty two thousand beaver pelts were shipped to Europe by the French in Canada.
With such riches to be made on the hides of beaver, it wasn't long before the leaders of every town were holding trading fairs. Whiskey quickly became the first order of business. After a few belts of the raw alcohol, the Indians would likely throw their catches on a counter and take whatever the trader wanted to give in return. These trading fests quickly turned into bacchanals replete with violence, prostitution, and thievery. Seeing the fortunes being made and having a sense of wanderlust, young settlers soon took to the wilderness to acquire pelts and the resultant riches. Called coureurs de bois, they ranged far into the interior, joined with the various tribes, and became more Indian than the Indians. If he didn't drink away his profits a coureur could make a profit of seven hundred percent.

During the next hundred years the beaver were persecuted and knowledge of the interior by French and English grew. Companies had been, and continued to be, formed-including the Hudson's Bay Company and later the Northwest Fur Company. Cities had been named after royalty, religious figures, and explorers as Europeans pressed ever westward. Fortunes were made and beaver colonies were devastated.. As if this were not enough, there was a rebellion in the eastern English colonies and the United States were born. Soon, with the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark made their journey of discovery, and let John Colter stay in the wilderness. His resultant return to civilization with tales of an abundance of beaver, combined with Lewis and Clark's reports of the same, led to the era of the mountain man and the near extinction of the large rodent.
The number of beaver at the advent of the fur trade by Europeans has been estimated at fro 20 to 60 million. The vagueness is because no one really knows and even though records were kept of catches by the larger fur companies, the independents did not. It is known, however, that by the early 1900s, the beaver were nearly extinct. States began a program of live trapping some of the few left and relocating them to favorable locations. They also imposed a no kill status on them. The program was so successful that 1915 the plantings had resulted in a population of 15000 animals. A few years later the beaver were in full swing, eating up valuable timber. A short trapping season was allowed. From 1933 to 1940, in the state of New York 22000 pelts were taken and sold for $374,000.00. From there the beaver have been "managed" and have proven very valuable. They are used not only for their fur, but for their dam building qualities. They are released by request to provide catch basins for later irrigation. The ponds help new growth forests and provide flood control. Beneficial insects use the ponds as breeding grounds. Dead watersheds come to life.
For the beaver, life is good again.



Page 3



This website may not be reproduced in part or in whole without the written permission of the North American Frontiersmen. All Rights Reserved, Copyrighted 2005-2011.

This website may not be reproduced in part or in whole without the written permission of the North American Frontiersmen.

All Rights Reserved, Copyrighted 2005-2010.