The North American fur trade was a vastly powerful engine that drove
European immigration, economic growth and the geographical expansion of
white presence and control for more than two hundred years. From its
beginnings on the Atlantic coast, the trade spread north and west,
stretching eventually to the Pacific and the fringes of the Arctic. Many
animals were trapped for their fur, for a variety of uses, but it was
the demand for beaver fur for making hats which proved the most enduring
and lucrative aspect of the enterprise.
In the early modern period, the fur of the European beaver (castor fiber) was the main raw material of the hatting industry. Beaver fur is ideally suited to making hats: it is strong, resistant to tearing and unravelling, unlike woven material; durable, holding its shape well; and naturally water resistant. Beavers were hunted throughout northern Europe and eastern Siberia, with felting – the conversion of raw pelts into material suitable for hatting – concentrated in Russia. But by the seventeenth century the beaver population was in rapid decline, depleted by hundreds of years of unsustainable exploitation. The price of fur hats escalated in tandem with the increased scarcity of felt to make them.
Fortunately for hat-makers and hat-wearers, this decline
coincided with a rapidly increasing European presence in North America,
home of a very similar species of beaver, castor canadensis.
The possibilities for reversing the shortage of beaver fur, and by so
doing making money, were seized upon from the beginning of settlement.
Following their arrival in 1620, the religious separatists who founded
the New England colonies paid off the debts incurred by their passage
mainly by exporting beaver pelts. These pelts were acquired from
American Indians, who were often as eager as the English to participate
in the trade. In 1639 Roger Ludlow wrote from Connecticut to the Massachusetts magistrate William Pynchon
on behalf of a group of Indians upriver who wanted him to relax the
restrictions placed on the fur trade, in which Pynchon himself also
This information is a part of the online exhibition “American Indian Histories and Cultures,” a collaborative collection by Adam Matthew and the Newberry. The exhibit can be viewed at: http://www.aihc.amdigital.co.uk/Home/index
Eric Jay Dolin, Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The epic history of the fur trade in America (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2010