By Dorthea Calverley
It is difficult [now] to understand why the fur trade was so important in the 1670’s when the Gentleman Adventurers Trading into Hudson’s Bay got a charter with the slogan “Pro Pelle Cutem” – “to take skins”. Some irreverent wag said later that it meant “to skin-em” and applied equally to the Indians and the furred folk. At the time it was serious business involving some of the royalty and aristocracy of Britain and a couple of “gentlemen”, one of whom happened to be a goldsmith – with money, of course.
For centuries the “stately homes of Britain” and of all other Northern European countries had been built of stone. Insulation was unknown, unless you happened to have huge tapestries or drapes to line the walls. In the cold, damp climate, moisture condensed on the inside – or even frost – and created a dank, chill atmosphere. Fireplace heating gave a small oasis of warmth in which you roasted on one side while freezing on the other, unless you turned yourself constantly like a chicken on a rotisserie.
Those who have watched the series Elizabeth Rex on TV will have seen how people solved the problem. Men and women, indoors as well as outdoors, wore cloaks lined, trimmed, and collared with luxurious furs.
For centuries Russia and the northern countries where Norway, Sweden, Finland and Estonia now are, had supplied the market places of Europe with furs. All kinds of furs and robes, from the precious and regal ermine to the shaggy bears for Guardsmen’s hats in imperial armies, flowed into England. Belgium and Holland were the fur trade centres but often these countries were controlled by French or Spanish kings. The English aristocracy must have had a harder and harder time to keep from getting chilly – not to speak of shabby.
Then a new fashion broke upon the world. King Charles II began to wear huge felt hats with a surface of beaver fur. Everybody who was anybody, and everybody who wanted to be thought to be somebody had to have a beaver hat. Why beaver? Because the under fur, or wool, or duvet of the beaver has tiny barbs on it which helps an animal that lives in cold water to trap a layer of insulating air against its body. This wool was chopped up and mixed with cat or rabbit fur because it held these slicker hairs together when pressed into the best quality felt ever made. Beaver hats would last to be handed down from father to son. Perhaps they might be considered a good investment at £4 (about equivalent to $20) when the most successful architect of the time, Sir Christopher Wren, made no more than £200 a year!
Stiffened with shellac and often surfaced with a clinging layer of beaver, the shapeless “hoods” of earlier days could be formed into any number of styles. These ranged from the clergyman’s which looked like a sugar scoop, to the elegant “top hat”, the modish lady’s bonnet, or the weird officer’s hat, still worn by the Governor General or Lieutenant Governor while in full dress military uniform for opening parliament or receiving the Queen.
Whatever the style, the originally floppy brims were turned up out of the way, a style in men’s hats that persists to the present day. The cowboy’s Stetson can trace it origin back to the “beaver”.
The “beaver” rated as highly as a status symbol as a new imported sports car does today. Thus men’s vanity sustained the economy for two and a half centuries from about 1600 to the mid 1800’s. Compared to that, the seventy-five year reign of the modern motor car is only a brief interlude. Big business in those days was spelled BEAVER!
The beaver pelt as bought from the Indian had been stretched flat and dried, unless it was in the form of the more valuable castor gras. This was a blanket or cloak that had been worn by the Indian until all the long, coarse and glossy guard hair had fallen off. The Indians must have thought the white man insane to give a higher price for an old cloak. He could not know that the white man was saved a long, costly hand process of getting rid of the guard hair. This was often done by thinning the skin from the back until the roots of the deep-seated guard hairs were exposed. Then, the coarse hair could be combed away before scraping off the wool. One wonders what use, if any was made of the skin itself. Was it made into leather? Apparently not.
For shipment all skins had to be packed into a compact bale, called a “piece”. The standard weight was ninety pounds, later reduced to eighty. This was the first form of “containerized shipment”. Two beaver skins were used for covers. Into a “piece” might go 50 fox skins, 60 lynx, 600 spring muskrats, 8 large and 4 small bear skins, 40 large and 20 small beavers or 10 buffalo robes.
The pelts would be stacked in a frame of appropriate size and shape, under a fur press. Thongs of rawhide were laid on the bottom of the press, then a cover pelt, then the proper weight of furs, then another pelt, and more thongs. Then by means of a wedge, a lever or a large wooden screw, several men would bring a slab of wood down, down, down, until the package was small, flat, and compact as possible. Roped, tied, and marked with pack number, name of company, “outfit”, (or year), district and post number, and weight it would be stored in a warehouse until the spring brigade started for the Hudson’s Bay or Grand Portage or Fort William. All packs made in 1971 would have the “outfit number” 300, denoting the completion of 300 years of trade. It is recorded that a good eighty sound pack was about 24 x 17 x 10 inches. Each pack had to be accounted for on company books, and later invoiced at time of shipping.
The beaver skins or its equivalent became the money of the time. Each year the Hudson’s Bay employees received a “tariff” or pricing schedule from London. The Northwesters were much more easy-going as to orders and more freedom was given to the trade in bartering. However 1 moose might equal 2 beavers, 3 marten skins equal 1 beaver, etc.
One chart listed “10 pounds of feathers . . . 1 beaver”. For feather beds no doubt, the forerunner of mattresses.
For a long time an Indian received a tally-stick with as many notches cut in it as his catch was worth in beavers. One imagines that such a simple device was easily counterfeited. In any case, the Bay eventually cast coins equal to one beaver in value or fractions thereof. The Northwest Company also cast some brass coinage.
With tally-stick in hand, an Indian could choose trade goods to the value of his catch. The value was set by the home office in London for the Bay factors’ guidance. A blanket of a certain size and weight could be had for 6 beavers – a handkerchief for 1-1/2. This exchange rate seems rather out of line, since 4 handkerchiefs would hardly do the work of a blanket. Perhaps a handkerchief was a status symbol. A gun was worth 10 to 12 beaver. The myth about a gun costing a pile of beavers equal in height to the gun’s length never applied in the Canadian West, unless a very dishonest trader might have been dealing with a naive Indian. Brandy was 1 gallon for 4 beavers, but the amount of water added to the spirits was as much as the trader could get away with. Watering the brandy or rum was not a crime that the Honorable Company frowned upon; the more water the better. Perhaps in the long run the women got better value at 12 needles for one beaver than the men did out of one pound of tobacco.
Those who are interested in Women’s Lib might find something to say about the position of women in the fur trade. At this point we are not referring to the Indian women’s contribution as a burden bearer or maker or mender of clothing, of cooking or preserver of foods. The Indian woman was an important customer of the trader. Without her prodding, it is doubtful that the Indian man would have exerted himself to become a trapper.
It was contrary to an Indian’s idea of tribal life for one to acquire or hoard wealth. A man’s bow and arrows, pipe, knife or ax were his own. His wife was expected to provide him with clothing, prepared food, and shelter. A trader could convince a man that he needed a gun, powder and shot. He would like a metal hatchet, of course, and as much of the white man’s liquor as he could drink on the spot, and some tobacco to mix with his native kinnikinick. For the time being, he was happy – so why kill the animals, his friends? His wife had other ideas.
Food was traditionally cooked in birch bark baskets, or in pits lined with fresh skins, flesh side in, the heat being supplied by dropping stones into water. The trader had a beautiful iron pot, which could hang over the open fire and cut cooking time down to a short chore. The trader had beautiful red wool blankets for bedding and winter robes. She was used to working for weeks tanning robes of moose or buffalo. It might take months — even years- -to catch enough lynx and weave a robe of the rolled fur. The trader had yards and yards of dyed woolen cloth, and even whole suits of second hand clothing to replace in a few minutes what would require weeks of work tanning and sewing into garments. Indians especially appreciated the woolen blankets. While fur and leather are the warmest garments ever devised for cold weather nothing was more uncomfortable in wet mild weather, when Indians on the move could never get their clothes quite dry. On the other hand, wool was warm even when wet; as anyone knows who has worn an old fashioned wool bathing suit. The frequent Chinooks or warm spells in Peace River winters made wool blankets and clothing a coveted trade-article for the Indian woman. Thread, too, was prized instead of sinews of animals separated with great pain.
And beads! Beads so much more bright and beautiful than the porcupine quills she dyed painstakingly with roots, berries or leaves. And trinkets and ornaments beloved of feminine hearts the world over. In their own tents the Indian wife could nag like any white wife for convenience and luxuries, and the Indian wife more than any other could make life miserable for her male by pointing out that if he wanted a warm shirt there was a way to get it himself. Besides, she wanted her share of the rum and tobacco and other goodies. So the lordly male who had formerly hunted only food, sometimes got the lash of women’s tongues in the teepees – the earliest form of Women’s Liberation from drudgery in the West.