The Wild Side: Fur trading built young nation
My wife suggested I write about fur trapping for my final installment on wildlife in a young nation. She grew up in the area along the Mississippi River valley, where cities like Prairie du Chein, La Crosse, La Crescent and Trempealeau have their roots in French exploration and fur trade. Any area that had navigable water routes to the Great Lakes or the East Coast was prized territory.
The New World offered a seemingly endless abundance of furs. Animal skins were being harvested in North America and shipped overseas for a couple hundred years before the Revolution. Animal furs were used as currency by early settlers and pilgrims paying their way over here. In fact, until settlers and colonists were able to clear farmland, establish livestock and bring over tradesmen and shopkeepers, sending furs overseas paid for necessities like tools, firearms and other manufactured goods.
While skins of moose, muskrat, wolf and others were included, the most prized pelt from the mid-1500s into the mid-1800s was probably that of the beaver. Beaver was in short supply in Europe by the time explorers and trappers came here. When beavers were discovered here, their skins were gathered and shipped back overseas by the boatload as an excellent material for hat making. That’s right, what helped pay the pilgrim’s way, and funded early colonists, was headwear fashion.
As a kid growing up in Wisconsin, I had heard about fur trappers and explorers seeking the Indian tribes who would trade them animal skins for items like knives and guns. I knew that hats were made from beaver skins, but I didn’t really understand how. To understand the hat, you need to understand the fur. Furbearers have follicles on their skin that are able to grow multiple hairs. They have a dense layer of shorter, fluffier hairs called underfur, and longer, coarser hairs called guard hairs. The guard hairs help keep rain and snow away from the skin, and the underfur provides warmth. This is why animal furs are so prized for coats and hats-they are a 100 percent natural source of warmth and protection from the elements.
Hats aren’t made from the entire beaver pelt, though. The underfur is removed from the skin and made into felt. The felt is lightweight and waterproof, and can be made into a multitude of shapes. That is why beaver were a huge commodity for three hundred years in early America. Odds are, if you were wearing a quality hat, it was made of beaver felt. When you see pictures of Ben Franklin flying his kite in the rain-that was probably a beaver felt hat he wore. Paul Revere making his famous ride, George Washington crossing the Delaware in the bow of a boat-those were probably all beaver felt hats. Men like those were statesmen, early Loyalists, and businessmen, the men of stature that would be wearing beaver felt hats. Colonists didn’t corner the market on felt hats, though. Beaver felt hats were also common for commissioned officers of the British army and navy.
While hat fashions have changed, beaver still remain a valuable species for trappers. Over 2,400 people trapped for beaver in Wisconsin last winter, and they harvested more than 25,000 animals. The last population estimate, from 2008, put the statewide population at about 67,000 animals. This is the lowest the population has been since surveys began. In the north, the population has decreased by 50 percent since the mid-1990s. Is it trapping and removal from trout streams that are making them disappear? Is it the change in streamside forest management? Could it be wolves, who prize beaver as an important winter and spring food source?
The DNR has formed a task force to examine these issues and more, as well as updating and re-writing the beaver management plan. If you want to see survey results, webinars and other materials, visit the task force website at fyi.uwex.edu/beaver/.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR in Rhinelander, and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.