After I recently wrote a blog post about Fun Facts about Beavers, I got to wondering: 1. How many pelts did a single Native trapper bring in? 2. How many packs of pelts did the winterers at a fur post bring to the rendezvous? 3.What was the yearly take for the fur trade companies?
So I looked it up to see what had been written. Check out my sources at the end!
How many beavers could a single Native trapper trap, when those beavers could be trapped?
(Doesn’t have the same jingle-quality of the childhood tongue-twister, unfortunately.)
Prime pelts were best harvested in late winter, when the animal’s fur had had grown long. Beavers could reach 60 pounds. Imagine slogging through snow on an icy shore with your hatchet, chopping holes to reach a beaver. Imagine hauling a pair of 60-pounders home one evening for your spouse to skin, tan and make supper from. Imagine scraping with a stone knife to separate the pelt from the body, then placing the pelt on a hoop to stretch it. Imagine doing that 50 times a winter—if your family had taken that much credit earlier in the fall for trade goods you wanted.
From John Sayer’s Snake River Journal, 1804-05
John Sayer was a North West Company partner who wintered near Pine City, Minnesota. (His journal was once attributed to Thomas Connor.)
Saturday, April 20 “… Chiefs the little Horn and the Plat brought only 25 Beavers in Value which does not pay their debts.
Sunday, April 21: the Plat gave me 10 Beavers in payment…
Monday, April 22: the little Horn gave me the Meat of Deer… this Afternoon all the Beaver Hunters arrived. They made a pitifull Hunt. I gave a Silver Medal to Mr Marin. (Chief Monsomanain).
Wednesday, April 24: all the Chiefs && Youngsters made their Appearance & little Horn. I gave them 5 Kegs mixed rum, 3 Carrots Tobacco & 2 fathoms twist tobacco. required about 60 Skins in payment of their Debts.”
Total for 2+ hunters=35 skins + meat (They had taken credit for 60 skins.)
In Lake Superior to Rainy Lake, on September 29, 1817, Little Deer’s credit was “50 Made Beaver.” Roderick McKenzie, master of the HBC fort, recorded credits of Little Deer and others. As an award for such exceptional trapping and hunting, Little Deer had been promised ‘chief’s clothing’ by McKenzie’s predecessor.
Total for 1 man=50 Made Beaver
How many furs did a post press into packs to take to the rendezvous?
Native trappers brought their pelts to a post where they were sorted and cleaned. Those with crawly critters were salted, stacked and pressed with stones. When the post had 40+ beaver pelts, they compressed them using a fur press, wrapped them in canvas, sewed them and marked the packs of 85-90 pounds each. If the winterers couldn’t complete a full pack of a single fur, they’d make packs of miscellaneous pelts.
A History of the Ojibwe by William Warren
“In 1784, pioneer trader Michel Cadotte (whose father and older brother were traders) was the first white to winter among bands by the Chippewa River and Namakagan River, branches of the St. Croix River, near Lac Coutereille, Wisconsin. They collected 40 packs of pelts, estimated to weigh 85-90# and contain 50-75 beavers each.”
Total for 1 post=40 packs (Note that these packs contained not 40+ pelts but 50-75.)
A Wisconsin Fur Trader’s Journal, 1803-04, written by Michel Curot, chief trader at Folle Avoine, Riviere Jaune, for the XY Company. (near Danbury, Wisconsin.)
“Friday [May] 18. … I left immediately after they did, Savoyard and Connor in the big canoe with 7 packs, Boisvert and I in one of 3 brasses length with 3 packs and my personal baggage. We camped at St. Croix portage.
Total for 1 post (7+3)=10 packs
“Sunday [May] 20. Mr. Reaume came to camp near us, his men and mine made the roadway, cut some large and small poses for the canoes; he has 4 canoes, 8 men and 37 packs, of which 16 are beaver, 3 bear, the others deer skins and miscellaneous.”
Total for 1 post=37 packs
Other resources listed the number of packs:
McLeod in his first winter at Portage La Prairie: 36 assorted
Cameron: 77 beaver, 9 marten,15 mixed
Charles Chaboillez (Red River, MacDonald): 5 beaver, 4 bear, 120 mixed
What was the total take that fur companies shipped to Europe?
European merchandise for trade goods had been purchased (on credit) more than a year earlier. It had been offered (on credit) to Natives in the fall, and when the pelts came in to the rendezvous, companies could ship them back to Europe and finally pay off their debts. Which they did, raking in a handsome profit. These reports are sequential, from 1799 to 2001.
In The Conquest of the Great Northwest …, Agnes Laut notes Hudson’s Bay Company beaver receipts as reported in Samuel Hearne’s “Voyages” from 1799: (It’s not clear whether these are packs or individual pelts.)
- Albany Fort 21,245
- Moose River 8,860
- East Main 7,626
- York Factory and Severn Factory 37,861
- Churchill River 9,400
I company (HBC): 84,922 pelts
In Superior Rendezvous, Jean Morrison cites the harvest in 1806 in “North West Company Returns of Outfit of 1805, receipted at Kaministiquia.”
- Voyageurs brought in 2,332 packs (averaging 90 pounds), weighing 209,880 pounds.
- A total of 142,721 were beaver skins (weighing 162,182 pounds) which counted for ¾ of that return.
In Lake Superior to Rainy Lake, Jean Morrison includes two charts showing total returns. I’ve selected the beginning and ending years and one middle year. “Hudson’s Bay Company Fur Returns from Lake Superior District, 1825-63” (HBC and NWC had merged in 1821.)
- year Beaver Lynx Marten Mink Muskrat
- 1825 2,779 923 6,956 1,788 24,287 =36,733 pelts
- 1842 923 431 3,639 2,486 16,581 =24,060 pelts
- 1863 5,275 232 4,485 2,914 12,276 =25, 182 pelts
The fur trade after 1821 underwent great changes due to the North West Company merger with Hudson’s Bay Company, ending the intense rivalry for furs. Once a major location, Fort William (Kaministiquia) was reduced to a minor headquarters. However, it monitored the increasing number of American fur traders south of the border. You can see how the fur harvest varied widely from year to year, with the year 1863 showing the highest beaver harvest of all.
This chart below of the Northwest Ontario fur harvests from 1990-91 to 2000-01 extracts the beginning and ending years to offer a sense of current fur harvests. The chart notes that non-native compliance with reporting is nearly 100% but native compliance with reporting is much less; more furs were harvested than are listed. “Northwest Ontario Fur Harvests, 1990-91 to 2000-01”
- 1990-91 Marten Mink Beaver Otter Muskrat
- Native 22,130 1,860 5,709 763 573 =31,025 pelts +
- Non-native 19,762 2,416 14,498 794 941 =38,211 pelts, total 69,446
- 2001-01 Marten Mink Beaver Otter Muskrat
- Native 3,418 103 1,068 235 no listing =9,648 pelts
- Non-native 13,246 1,104 13,439 1,159 no listing =28,948 pelts, total 38,595
Fascinating. Voyageurs carried all those pelts on their backs. George Nelson, in his journal, mentioned that bison, bear and heavier pelts, as well as less valuable ones, would be shipped by schooner across the Great Lakes. But manual labor toted and paddled them to Fort William.
Whew! That’s a lot of pelts, and an incredible amount of labor. And now we know how many beaver pelts a trapper could trap, when a those beaver could be trapped, or a trading post could press packs or a fur company could sell furs. All for the production of stylish and durable beaver hats. It’s such fun researching “What Would Andre Be Doing?”.
- What am I going to do with this beaver info? Find out in Book 3. (Request to be on the waiting list).
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The Conquest of the Great Northwest: Being the Story of the Adventurers of England Known as the Hudson’s Bay Company, new Pages in the History of the Canadian Northwest and Western States vol. 1, Agnes C. Laut The Outing Publishing Company (New York, 1908) HardPress Publishing (Miami)
John Sayer’s Snake River Journal, 1804-05, edited by Douglas Birk (Institute for Minnesota Archaelogy (St. Paul, 1989)
Lake Superior to Rainy Lake: Three Centuries of Fur Trade History, a collection of writing edited by Jean Morrison Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society (Thunder Bay, Ontario, 2003)
Voices from our Past: Telling the Folle Avoine Story by Jacques Deseve Burnett County Historical Society (Danbury, Wisconsin, 2009)
A Wisconsin Fur Trader’s Journal, 1803-4 by Michel Curot. Richard Worthington (Fur Trade Reprints, volume II, 2010)