North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World

In the Forest: Animals and Humans

Beaver
beaver hat Few wild animals influenced world exploration, history, and economics as much as the North American beaver (Castor canadensis). The European demand for fur—primarily beaver hats—fueled most New World exploration, and the fur trade dominated Iroquois affairs throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

The beaver's torpedo-shaped body and large webbed hind feet are adapted for a semiaquatic life. Their flattened scaly tails provide steering and power, and a means of communication. They slap their tails against the water when they detect something unusual.

Found across most of the continent, the beaver is the lumberjack of the rodent world. Armed with an incredible set of teeth, the beaver can topple trees for both food and building supply. Its large, chisel-like teeth grow as fast as they are worn down.

Beavers construct their conical lodges across streams using mud, stones, sticks, and branches. They continue adding mud and sticks to make the dam higher and longer; some reach over 330 feet long and ten feet high. All family members, except newborn kits, help build and maintain the lodges.

As a result of the demand for fur, the beaver nearly met extinction in the late nineteenth century. However, populations were reestablished by state and federal wildlife agencies and the beaver made a comeback.


Image: Beaver Top Hat
Smedley Brothers, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1820-1839
In 1624, during the very first season of settlement in New York, the Dutch shipped 1,500 beaver and 500 otter skins to Europe. They were joining the fur trade that had begun one hundred years earlier to satisfy fashion-conscious Europeans. This high demand for furs was fast leading to the depletion of these animals.

Beaver felt hats were the rage in Europe and America for two centuries. The top hat was introduced in the 1780s and ultimately became part of the daily attire for men on both sides of the Atlantic.

Beaver (Castor canadensis) fur felt, commercial leather, paper, commercial silk, ink; L 37.5 x W 34.0 x H 17.5); 7677, gift of Sam Hugh Brockmier

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