By Cookie Davis
The fishermen and explorers used the pelts to help them stay warm on the trip home across the Atlantic and then sold them to clothing makers in Europe. The pelts were often used to make the collars of jackets. At the beginning of the 1600s, however, beaver hats became very popular. Hats were big business in those days. Although it seems strange today, for centuries almost all men and women in Europe wore hats, so when beaver hats became popular, millions were sold. Beaver hats kept fashionable ladies and gentlemen dry and warm in the rainy weather of London, Paris and other European cities.
Fashion fuels finance
Most beaver pelts for these trendy hats came from Russia, but by the late 1600s, beavers were almost extinct in Russia and Europe due to over-trapping to supply enough beaver pelts for all those hats. No other fur looked as good or withstood the weather as well as beaver, so the abundance of beavers in North America became a valuable resource. That's why by 1670 the French, Dutch and English had each established companies in far-off North America to take advantage of the furs available there. In fact, much of the development of the United States and Canada is thanks to the beaver hat fashion trend. Beaver pelts became big business.
When fur trappers began, many furs were of value, but once the beaver hat craze took hold, beaver pelts became the main trade item. Beaver fur is particularly well suited for making hats and depending on the size and quality of the pelts (and the size and quality of the hat) it would take between one and five pelts to make a hat. Though no data exists that tells us exactly how many beaver hats were made, we do know that 500,000 hats were exported from England to Europe in 1760 and that doesn't take into account how many beaver hats stayed in England (Net, 2009). Since the popularity of beaver hats lasted for more than 100 years, it's safe to assume tens of millions of beavers were killed.
"Beaver has so depreciated [declined] in value within the last few years [the 1840s], that trapping has been almost abandoned; the price paid for the skin of this valuable animal having fallen from six and eight dollars per pound to one dollar. Which hardly pays the expenses of traps, animals, and equipment for the hunt. . . . The cause of the great decrease in value of beaver-fur is the substitute which has been found for it in the skins of the fur-seal and nutria—the improved preparation of other skins of little value, such as the hare and rabbit—and, more than all, in the use of silk in the manufacture of hats, which has in a great measure superceded [sic] that of beaver. The curse of the trapper is leveled against all the new-fashioned materials of Paris hats" (Ruxton, 1924, p.146).
Effects on Native People
The demand for furs meant an invasion of people—people to trap the animals and skin them, people to trade those furs with, people to supply the things trappers and traders needed like clothing, traps and food. To supply this, forts were established along the major North American rivers which meant Europeans began living there permanently. With the establishment of Jamestown in 1607, Québec in Canada in 1608 and Plymouth in 1620 and forts popping up in the interior of the country to supply the trappers and traders, more and more people were coming to North America to stay. This meant the Native People's way of life was forced to change.
The decline in beaver hat popularity didn't mean Europeans would leave North America or that things would go back to "normal" for the Native Americans. Their way of life and the environment they lived in had been permanently changed. Though they thrived for thousands of years in North America, for several generations Native People had given up hunting for their own food and clothing in order to trap beavers. They therefore depended on the forts and trading posts for much of their food and clothing just as the Europeans did. Old ways of living that had been handed down for centuries frequently became lost and often didn't matter anyway since their land was now occupied by settlers and often times the animals they relied upon were driven away or over-hunted.
At first the French trappers needed the Native People's expertise. They knew the land, where to find beavers, how to trap them and how to survive during the cold winters when trapping was at its most profitable (beaver fur grows thicker in the winter making it worth more money). But as the years went by and the value of beaver pelts increased, all this trapping and exploring pushed the Native People off their land and out of their traditional hunting grounds, forcing them to either move or develop other means of feeding themselves. Additionally, Native People understood the value of furs and continued to trade themselves. They would sometimes fight with other Native American groups for access to beaver-rich areas and some gave up their traditional ways of living and spent their time hunting beaver instead.
Louis and Clark explored the Northwest Territory in 1805-1806 and this opened up the western part of the continent to even more trapping and expansion. "Mountain men" such as Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, and Jedidiah Smith traveled throughout the west and trapped in the Rocky Mountains in the early part of the 1800s.
Early explorers thought they would find gold and silver on the eastern coast of what is now the United States, much like the conquistadors had in Mexico and South America. Instead, the treasure they found was a furry rodent that led to the establishment of forts and the creation of very successful companies that drove the economy and contributed to the expansion of settlements farther into the North American continent. Native people were often killed, especially if they tried to fight for their lands. As much as 90% of the Native American population was killed by disease or war. The structure and lifestyle of the Native People who had lived in North America for thousands of years would never be the same.
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I often struggle to find websites with thorough explanations in simple language to help kids understand historical events or scientific concepts, so I decided to create some of my own!