"The Indians say that it is the animal most liked by the French, the English and the Basques, in sum, by all Europeans. One day, I heard an Indian say that beaver makes allthings perfectly well, that it makes kettles, axes, swords, knives, bread, in brief, everything. He mocks Europeans who are passioned for the skin of this animal. My Indian host told me one day, showing me a very handy knife: the English do not think right; they give us 20 knives like this one for one beaver skin."(Jesuit Paul Le Jeune, in Jesuit Relations, vol 6: 296-98)
"Les Sauvages disent que c'est l'animal bien-aimé des François, des Anglois, et des Basques, en un mot des Europeans. J'entendois un jour [un Amérindien] qui disoit: [...] le castor fait toutes choses parfaitement bien: il nous fait des chaudières, des haches, des espées, des couteaux, du pain, bref il fait tout. Il se moqua de nos Européens qui se passionnent de la peau de cet animal [...]; mon hôte me dit un jour, me montrant un fort beau couteau, les Anglois n'ont point d'esprit: ils nous donnent 20 couteaux comme celui-là pour une peau de castor." (Jesuit Paul Le Jeune, in Jesuit Relations, vol 6: 296-98)
The Beaver in the fur trade
Until the 1650s, the fur trade in Canada remained a subsidiary activity, carried on by fisherman, whalers and explorers. But, at the end of sixteenth century, a change in European fashion created a rage for the broad-brimmed beaver hat. The fashion for felt hats came to be inspired by the hats worn by the Swedish soldiers during the Thirty Years' War (1618-48). As fashion changed and the Russian and Baltic beaver became extinct, people turned toward North America. The hat makers of Europe soon learned that the North American beaver under-fur could form good felt. Marten, fox, otter and mink were also bartered but beaver became the main staple of the fur trade.
Beavers were hunted in a special way. Here is a description provided by NWC partner Alexander Henry in his 1809 journal:
"To kill beaver, we used to go several miles up the rivers, before the approach of night, and after the dusk came on, suffer the canoe to drift gently down the current, without noise. The beaver, in this part of the evening, come abroad to procure food, or materials for repairing their habitations; and as they are not alarmed by the canoe, they often pass it within gun-shot. [...] The most common way of taking the beaver is that of breaking up its house, which is done with trenching-tools, during the winter, when the ice is strong enough to allow of approaching them; and when, also, the fur is in its most valuable state. Breaking up the house, however, is only a preparatory step. During the operation, the family make their escape to one or more of their washes. These are to be discovered, by striking the ice along the bank, and where the holes are, a hollow sound is returned. [...] I was taught occasionally to distinguish a full wash from an empty one, by the motion of the water above its entrance, occasioned by the breathing of the animals concealed in it. From the washes, they must be taken out with the hands; and in doing this, the hunter sometimes receives severe wounds from their teeth".
Beavers were sometimes caught with the help of bait called Castoreum. This is a liquid which was secreted in the sex gland of the beaver, and placed on traps by hunters to attract male beavers. Castoreum also became a valuable European ingredient for making perfume.
There were two types of beaver pelts: castor gras and castor sec. The term "castor gras" designates pelts taken by the Indians when prime, trimmed into rectangular shape, 5 to 8 of them sewn together and worn with the fur next to the body for 12 to 18 months. Constant friction of the fur reversed against the skin gradually loosened the outer guard hairs and sweat added a glossy sheen. As such, the skin became well greased, pliable and yellow in colour. Castor gras was seen as the most valuable because the long hair had already fallen and the felt had been enriched and thickened through contact with human skin. Another name for it was "coat beaver", an indication of how it acquired its value. "Castor sec", on the other hand, designated the beaver pelt that has been stretched flat, dried, and brought over immediately by the Indians. Castor sec, or parchment beaver, still had the guard hair and lacked the thickness and quality of "castor gras".
Here are the values of many of the NWC trade goods in Made Beaver: 1MB = 3/4 pounds of coloured beads 1MB = 1 1/2 pounds of gun-powder
1MB = 1 brass kettle 1MB = 2 pounds of sugar
1MB = 1 gallon of brandy
1MB = 2 yards of flannel
1MB = 12 dozen buttons 1MB = 1 pair of breeches
1MB = 1 pair of shoes 1MB = 20 flints
1MB = 8 knives 1MB = 2 pair looking glasses
1MB = 2 hatchets 1MB = 20 fish hooks
1MB = 1 blanket 4 MB = 1 pistol
1MB = 2 shirts 11 MB = 1 musket
However, as with the Buck, the realm of the Made Beaver remained narrow and flexible. Sometimes, 2 small beaver skins would equal 1 Made Beaver. Also, 1 Made Beaver could be equated with 1 or 2 lynx pelts, 1 to 7 martens, or 9 to 14 muskrats. Further the values of goods in Made Beaver varied depending on the season, the location of the post, the extent of competition, and the natural supply of beaver. The myth about a gun costing a pile of beavers equal in height to the gun itself never applied in the case of the NWC. In fact, Indians controlled trade routes and were indispensable as trappers and food suppliers. As such, it is difficult to imagine a NWC trader fooling an Indian by trading longer firearms for more beavers.
For shipment, all skins were packed into a compact bale, called "pièce". The standard weight was 90 pounds or 40 kilos. In 1800, a fur pack could contain 44 beaver skins, 12 otters, 5 bears, 6 fishers. The number of beaver skins in a pack depended on the season in which the animals were trapped. Fall beaver skins were lighter than those trapped in the spring, as spring beavers still had the heavy winter coat. Within a "pièce", the skins were placed pelt to pelt, hide to hide, in order to prevent damage to the hair. The less valuable skins such as moose and summer beaver covered the outside of the pack. To make each pack, the furs were placed in a press and weight was applied on a long pole to give it a compact shape. Ropes running from the bottom of the press were used to secure each "pièce". A standard pack was worth from £30 to £50, depending on the region and the level of competition.
Although beaver was quite coveted by traders, Europe also had a market for lynx and marten furs as well as feathers of Canadian ducks, geese, and swans. Buffalo skins were also exported, although they were quite impervious to bleaching and drying. Other animals whose pelts were traded are the following: bears, otters, fishers, wolves, wolverines, minks, foxes, seals, squirrels, raccoons, elks, musquash, and deer. In some years, beaver pelts came in second or third behind raccoon or deerskins. In 1787, 139,509 beaver skins were exported from Canada as compared to 68,142 martens, 26,330 otters, 16,951 minks, 8913 foxes, 17,109 bears, 102,656 deer, 140,346 raccoons, 9816 elks, 9687 wolves and 125 seals. Asides from England, the countries to which these furs were exported from Canada include Russia, Prussia, Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, Italy, Turkey, China, and the United States. The pelts were often accompanied by other exports such as wheat, flour, peas, oak timber, codfish, salmon, oil and pearl ash. The wheat were shipped to Spain and Portugal, flour and bread to Newfoundland and the West Indies, while timber, oil, and fish were sent to England.
Making the beaver hat
The North American beaver is the continent largest rodent. Its amphibious body is covered with a soft felt-like under fur that is 1 inch thick. This under layer of barbed hairs is called fur-wool and it is covered by a protective over layer of coarse guard hairs measuring about 2 inches in length. The farther north the beaver lives, the thicker the fur coat is.
Fur can be exploited to produce fancy fur or staple fur. Fancy fur is the fur of the furrier, who makes coats well known for their luster and warmth. Staple fur is the under layer of fur-wool which has been removed from the pelt and separated from its protective guard hairs. This is the fur of the felt maker and the hatter. While most furs can be used as fancy, only a limited number of animals skins have the special quality needed for the making of hats.
Beaver is most perfectly made for felting purposes because of the barbed or spiccated nature of its under-fur. Examined through a microscope, it can be seen that over the entire surface of beaver under-fur lies a series of scales that appear to overlap each other. The edges of these lie all one way and thus give the fibre the impulse to travel in the opposite direction for these "staples" or "edges" catch when pressed against each other. As a result, beaver felt keeps it's shape under rough handling and successive wettings, and it does so better that any felt made from wool or other pelts.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the process for making a beaver hat was lengthy (7 hours) and required over 30 procedures conducted by various specialists. Beaver skins were stripped of their outer guard-hair and turned into felt through a complex process of combing, beating and drying. Depending on the price and quality of the hat, the size of the beaver pelts, and the richness of the felt, a single hat needed between 1 to 5 full-grown male pelts for its production. Cheaper hats, such as those worn by soldiers, combined beaver, horse, and rabbit fur in order to make them less expensive to manufacture.
The pelt just arrived in the hatter's workshop was rough, greasy and covered with coarse hair, under which was the fine felt. The guard-hairs were first removed with a knife or tweezers. The pelt was then spread with a chemical solution of nitrate of mercury, which caused small scales to raise on each felt fiber. This increased the felt's matting capacity and gave it a reddish color. However, constant exposure to mercury fumes attacked the nervous system of hatters, thus causing muscle twitching as well as difficulties in speech and thought, which is how the expression "mad as a hatter" appeared.
In turn, the pelt was dried and the under-fur was shaved off. To separate the remaining guard hairs from the under-fur, hatters used a tool similar to a bow. The mix of felt and hair was vibrated and the long coarse hairs gradually fell into traps on the hatter's table. Once the felt was separated from the skin, it was manipulated to form 3 or 4 flat and triangular pieces called "capades", each looking like a piece of pie. Each capade was wrapped in a leather skin and placed on a wooden bench with a heated iron plate placed in the center. This strengthened and condensed the capades and allowed the hatter to bring them together to form a single cone-shaped piece of felt.
Because the hat body was still very large at this point, it required further shrinkage and toughening. It was thus placed in a large kettle filled with a hot mix of water, sulfuric acid, beer-grounds and wine lees. After the hat body was immersed in this solution over and over again, it was worked by hand or with a rolling pin. This combined use of pressure, heat and moisture helped reduce the felt to about half its original size. This was done until the texture became firm and was ready to draw over a wooden mould, on which the material was worked to give it a desired shape and style.
The shrunken hat body was stripped of its cone-shaped top and placed in a copper container filled with a dye. The hat was kept in this boiling mixture for about 45 minutes before being removed to cool. This was done several times until the hat obtained the desired color. The hat was dried and applied with a mix of tree gum and glue, in order to make it waterproof and quite stiff. For a few finishing touches, steam was applied to proceed with minor corrections or changes. Finally, the hat was applied with ribbons, cockades, buttons or other decorative elements.
Beaver fur was also used to produce collars, cuffs, muffs and gauntlets. For all these purposes, the leather was dressed or tanned, a process, which extracted the long coarse hairs, reduced the weight of the skin, and eliminated the fat. In a similar way, the excellent leather of moose, elk, caribou and deer was used to manufacture gloves, vests, and breaches used for horseback riding. Some furs, such as those of minks, foxes, and lynx were worked to produce small accessories such as hoods and mittens. As for buffalo robes, they were sent to Montreal to become covers and blankets for carioles. Coats made entirely of fur were not yet in style at the time of the NWC.
The symbol of the Beaver
Beaver went almost extinct in some areas due to over-trapping, forest fires and epidemics of distemper. As fashion changed in the 1820s, silk hats had a very negative impact on the beaver trade, but a positive one on beaver populations. As a result of its cheapness, silk was ubiquitous by the 1840s. Thus after a long reign, beaver felt was forced to abdicate by the dictates of changing fashion, the same ones which propelled it in the 1620s.
Because of its importance in the founding of the first colonies in Canada and in the expansion of the country through the fur trade, the rodent (Castor Canadensis) early became a favoured local and national symbol. In 1621, Sir William Alexander, who was granted title to Nova Scotia, was the first to include the beaver in a coat of arms. The Hudson's Bay Company honoured the animal by putting it on the shield of its coat of arms in 1678. Also in 1678, Louis de Buade de Frontenac, Governor of New France, suggested the beaver as a suitable emblem for the colony. In 1690, in honor of France's defense of Québec against a British invasion, a medal was struck showing a seated woman, representing France, with a beaver at her feet, representing Canada. In later times, the beaver was enshrined in the crest of the NWC and on the personal arms of many Nor'Westers. It was also the favorite animal for medallions and brooches traded to Indians. Members of the exclusive Beaver Club of Montreal had it engraved on their gold medals. Also, the governor lived in Montreal's Beaver Hall and the NWC issued Beaver coinage. In 1833, the beaver was included in the armorial bearings of the City of Montreal. Since 1867, the beaver has appeared on the official coat of arms of the Canadian Government. In 1937, Canada introduced new coinage designs. To this day the reverse of the 5-cent piece bears a beaver on a rock-studded mound of earth rising out of the water. The beaver acquired official status as an emblem of Canada in March 1974 when an act to provide for its recognition as a symbol of the country's sovereignty received royal approval.