Here I am, writing about beavers again. That’s what happens when some of your best tours explore trails used by practioners of the North American fur trade and the impact it had on American history.
I have a tour director who has been crazed to buy her own pelt for show and tell (both on tour and for her volunteer teaching assignments in Navajoland) and I steered her to my own source for native furs. The Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska, is not only a marvelous resource for information on the fur trade, but has a large selection of furs and hand-made Native American goods for sale.
One of the things we address on our tours is the impact that westward expansion had on the people and wildlife who lived here first. Not only were the people severely impacted, but the beaver very nearly became extinct. They were rescued in the end by the same fickle fashion fad which had started the slaughter in the first place: tall beaver felt hats – mostly in Great Britain. As quickly as they had become popular, they were suddenly replaced by high silk hats. Whew!
[Sidebar: There were other factors too: by 1835 the American beaver had not only been tapped out but the un-heard-of profits had tempted dealers to over-saturate the market. In Europe (the final market for most of the beaver pelts) the end was sealed with a ruinous British blockade on the French and Spanish transport ships.]
The buffalo too were very nearly wiped out, but that’s another story.
Before all this fashion madness began, in fact before the arrival of Europeans on this continent, there were an estimated 40- to – 600 million beaver in North America. At 25-70 pounds it remains this continent’s largest rodent.
With their ability to stay underwater up to fifteen minutes they can create their own habitat by building dams across streams thus fashioning cozy dens surrounded by the safety of ponds. Known for their industriousness, they have also been labeled nature’s greatest engineers.
We don’t have very many of them in my neck of the woods because we’re pretty short on water here. In fact, the Black Hills have no natural lakes at all, but I have seen beaver dams here on rare occasions. Most of them – historically as well as today – are located further to the west, and the best furs of course, come from the higher, colder altitudes.
Besides their fur, they were prized by the men of the Lewis & Clark expedition for their food: especially the tails, which were high in fat content. Because of their low-fat diet and rigorous activities, the men craved fat, and beaver tails went a long way toward replenishing the thousands of calories the men were burning each day (more than an Olympic athlete consumes today!)
The Captains had been instructed to record evidence of fur-bearing animals – which were a form of wealth in the early 19th century – and they found beaver habitat in abundance. But they did little trapping themselves. Save that for the next wave of travelers – the storied Mountain Men of the great American West.
Their mission was specific: find the Northwest Passage and record the wealth contained along its corridor. Nobody doubted the existence of either.
What a downer when Lewis was forced to report back to President Jefferson that only half of that assumption was true. There was no Northwest Passage. I’m afraid Lewis took very little solace in the fact that he was the person, along with his partner, William Clark, to put the rumor of well over 200 years to rest.
But he did find the cutest rodent on the continent.