North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World
In the Forest: Animals and Humans
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
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