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traders and trappers of beaver pelts
by
o. ned eddins

mountains of stone and the winds of change are now available as kindle e-books on amazon.  the kindle edition of the winds of change is not footnoted and does not contain the western trivia chapter. the picture cd is not available with the amazon books.

 website index

related website articles:

fur traders         fur trappers        fur trade facts-trivia     rendezvous sites        fort bonneville      mountain men
 

 

trapper cabins    beaver traps    trapper knives     trade goods    beaver hats    national elk refuge     reader responses

native american indians were the major source of beaver pelts and buffalo hides, for the canadian, great lakes, and upper missouri river fur trade. until the early 19th century, native americans used nets, snares, deadfalls, clubs, etc. to obtain beaver pelts.

by the late seventeen hundreds, the plains indians were exchanging beaver pelts and horses to the hudson�s bay and north west fur traders for european goods on the kootenae plains and at the missouri river trade fairs. the missouri river trade fairs were held at the villages of the mandan, hidatsa, and arikara indians. exchanged at the trade fairs were garden products (beans, squash, corn, etc.) raised at the missouri river villages, horses, furs, and hides from the plains indians, and whiskey, guns, iron goods, trade beads, and a few beaver traps from the north west traders. the north west trader fran�ois-antoine larocque took beaver traps to the crow in 1805.

in the mountain man and native american fur trade articles, the plains indians and indians of the rocky mountain area are grouped together as plains indians. ethnologists considered the nomadic tribes as the plains indians--not the semi-sedentary tribes like the mandan, arikara and hidatsa.


                                          major plains tribes of the fur trade

 building of a fur trading post at the junction of the bighorn and yellowstone rivers changed the economic dynamics of the plains indian fur trade. fort raymond (fort ramon, fort lisa) was built by manuel lisa  in 1807. named after lisa's son, fort raymond was the first american fur trading post in the rocky mountains--david thompson had built kootenae house a few months earlier in british columbia. from this post, lisa sent john colter, george drouillard, and edward rose to crow indian villages to inform them of a the trading post.

the lisa, menard, and morrison fur company employed trappers to trap and trade with individual tribes. this curtailed a "fur trade fair" system in existence for decades. it can be argued americans trading directly with native american indian tribes was a major factor in the hostility of the blackfeet, arikara, and sioux toward the mountain men. the blackfoot and the sioux did not want the americans trading with their enemies, or in the case of the blackfeet trapping their territory. the blackfeet traded for guns with the north west company in canada, as did the sioux with north west traders on the james river. the blackfeet and sioux did not want americans trading guns to the other indian tribes along the missouri river. the arikara opposed the white man because they did not want to lose their role as middle men in the plains indian trade fair system.

the lisa, menard, and morrison fur company is also credited with building a trading post at the three forks in montana, but this is questionable--to the mountain man a fort was usually a log barricade. the fur trappers arrived at the three forks on april 3, 1810, and a trapping party was attacked on april 12th. five trappers were killed. the rest of the party forted up behind a log barricade. tired of staying behind the barricade, george drouillard and two delaware indians went up the gallatin river to trap where they were killed by the blackfeet.

after the loss of eight men, their guns, traps, and seven horses, pierre menard took part of the trappers back to fort raymond. andrew henry stayed at the three forks with sixty men, but by fall, he and his men had abandoned the area. if henry and his men were continuously harassed by the blackfeet, when did they have time to cut and haul logs to build a fort? if a fort was built, why abandon it before the start of the fall trapping season when the pressure from the blackfeet may lessen. by in large, indians did not send out large war parties in the winter time. in september, henry's men crossed the continental divide, and spent the winter on henry's fork of the snake river.

the arikara battle in 1823 forced the ashley-henry fur company to abandon the missouri river. in 1825, ashley took at pack train overland to the first mountain man rendezvous. the rendezvous system lasted from 1825 to 1840. six of the rendezvous were held on horse creek in the green river valley of wyoming. 


                                                  beaver-castor canadensis

this old beaver house and dam is not far from where mill creek empties into the north fork of horse creek. the beaver dam pictures on the mountain man-indian fur trade site are about twenty-five miles west of the mountain man horse creek rendezvous sites of 1833, 1835, 1836, 1837, 1839, and the last one in 1840.


                            beaver dam on mill creek - sublette county wyoming

the picture below shows a rock-based dam being built across the north fork of horse creek. in a rock-covered streambed, beaver anchor willow branches between rocks until they get the willows interwoven and mudded. in the early spring, beaver have been observed rolling rocks across the snow. contrast these beaver dam picture with the mill creek beaver dam which was built on a mud-bottomed stream. 


                                  rock beaver dam across north horse creek

at this point, north horse creek is fifty- to seventy-feet wide.


                                                      below beaver dam

this view shows a collection of willows below the rocks. many of the branches are discarded as the beavers start to interlace them between the rocks. the rock beaver dam in the above two pictures was washed out this spring (2003).

a forest fire occurred in this area of north horse creek in 2002. the mule forest fire of 2002 did not burn near the old mill creek beaver dam, or where the north horse creek beaver dam had been started. the devastation caused by forest fires is a topic of great importance to all of us who do not want our national forests destroyed by forest fires.

prime beaver pelts were taken in the fall and early spring. in addition to beaver pelts, traders traded for indian beaver robes that had been worn for eighteen months or so...used beaver robes made the best quality hats and brought a premium. the value of beaver pelts was based on made beaver.


                                                  made beaver pelt - google images

there were many individual variations to the typical beaver trap set. in general, the trapper sharpened the big end of a thick willow before cutting the stick into two lengths. the iron trap was set out from the bank in ten inches of water and mud stirred around the trap to cover the iron jaws. further out in deeper water, the willow stake was driven through the three-foot chain ring. the chain was tight and well anchored.

once the trap was set, the leafy end of the willow was dipped into a container of castoreum. the thick end was forced into the bank with the smelly end hanging above the trap. when the beaver smelled the castor, it went to investigate. standing on its hind feet to sniff the scented end sprung the trap. the tight chain prevented the beaver from reaching the bank, or its house. the beaver drowned in the deep water. 

castor, or castoreum, comes from two glands at the base of the beaver�s tail. trappers mixed castor with cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, alcohol, and anything else that came to mind. each trapper guarded his recipe and swore it was the best. castoreum was also used in perfumes and in medicines for a variety of illnesses; it contained acetylsalicylic acid�the main component of aspirin. a small bottle of castor sold for ten- to twelve-dollars in st. louis. david thompson claimed northeast indians were the first to use castoreum.  

beaver traps:

please note: there have been several emails against the trapping of fur bearing animals. if the people that sent those emails had read the articles, they would know this site is not about  trapping. the mountain man indian fur trade site is concerned with the history of the fur trade. still, it should be noted the trapping of fur bearing animals was key to the mountain man and played a significant role in america's western expansion.

the use of iron traps did not become wide spread until the early 1800s. beaver traps created the mountain man and eventually the rocky mountain fur trade. the sole purpose of the american and the canadian fur trade brigades between 1807 and 1840  was to locate and trap beaver. trapping of beaver by the mountain men in united states territories was illegal, but the laws were difficult to in force.

lewis and clark did not have beaver traps listed among their indian trade goods, but several of the expedition members carried traps for their personal use. before the lewis and clark expedition reached the pacific, a north west company fur trader, fran�ois antoine larocque, had taken beaver traps to the crow indians along the bighorn and yellowstone rivers. lisa, menard, and morrison (1807), the missouri fur company (1812), the astorians (1811) carried beaver traps. from 1818 to 1821, the north west company's sent three fur trapping brigades to the upper snake river country under donald mackenzie, a former astorian. the snake river brigades outfitted each trapper with six beaver traps. i do not have a reference to david thompson carrying beaver traps. however, david thompson mentioned fur trappers in the lower red river of the north started using castoreum and beaver traps in 1797.

by 1822, the st. louis based fur companies employed americans, french-canadians, and indians, especially delaware and iroquois to do the trapping. the american companies no longer relied on the various indian tribes for beaver pelts, and thus was born the mountain man.


                                                    early newhouse trap

this type is one of the earliest traps used in the fur trade. it is very similar to the hudson's bay traps made at fort vancouver. on one of the springs, it is stamped newhouse community. i have not heard of any samuel newhouse traps stamped this way. if anyone has any information on this stamp, i would appreciate it.

the favored trap of the mountain man was the #4 newhouse beaver trap. sewel newhouse started making the #4 beaver trap in oneida co., new york in 1823. newhouse joined forces with the oneida trap company in 1848. beaver traps produced by the new company were stamped newhouse oneida community on the pan of the trap. after 1886, the company stamped the name victor on the pan. since the original newhouse beaver traps, there has been little change in design except to become lighter. on average, the weight of the beaver trap has gone from five pounds to two and a half pounds. a trapper with a camp tender usually carried six traps, so weight was an important factor.


                                                 early newhouse #4 beaver trap

the newhouse beaver trap pictured above is through the courtesy of diana and tim waycott, trapper inn, jackson, wyoming. there is an excellent collection of early traps in the lobby of the trapper inn on north cache street in jackson.

other  traps:

the lane pole trap was used to catch large birds and tree dwelling fur animals, such as, martin.


                                                            lane pole trap

this newhouse #14 trap is marked on the pan s. newhouse oneida community lititz. a trap this size was primarily used for wolves and mountain lions. the overall length of the trap is nineteen inches.


                                                   newhouse #14 wolf trap

 the newhouse oneida community made traps in three places outside of oneida, sherrill, new york, niagara falls, canada, and lititz, pennsylvania.

 
                                                     newhouse #15 bear trap

dennis jones of jackson, wyoming found this #15 newhouse bear trap while hunting on west mountain outside of cascade, idaho in 1984. the bear trap was completely buried except for the pointed tip. i have blown up the pan to show the newhouse oneida stamp and the arm with the clamp on it. dennis owns and operates online electronics & computers in jackson, wyoming.

trapper knives:


                                                       green river knife
                    stamped - j russell & co.    green river works

j. russell started a factory in greenfield, massachusetts to produce chisels and axes in 1832. by september of 1834, russell begin to produce knives. using only the finest english steels available, his products quickly earned a local reputation for quality. called j. russell & co., his first knives were simple butcher and carving knives. the early knives were stamped "j. russell & co american cutlery." as knife demand grew, russell gradually phased out chisels and axes.

seeking a cheaper power source, russell purchased a site with buildings and a dam to provide water power in the green river valley of massachusetts. in february 1836, russell moved his factory to a location on the green river, but on march 15, 1836, a fire burned out the forging shop. the factory was rebuilt and named the "green river works." the knives were stamped "j. russell & co. green river works."

during the early 1840's, the green river knife became a favorite of emigrants, buffalo hunters, indians, miners, and settlers. between 1840 and 1860, it is estimated seven hundred and twenty thousand green river knives were shipped west.


                          stamped - thomas wilson shear steel sheffield, england

this thomas wilson knife from sheffield, england came from the sioux reservation in south dakota.

beaver felt hats:

the first use of  felt material is buried deep in world history. the early nomadic tribes of central asia wet the wool of sheep then rolled and beat it with sticks. after the flattened wool dried, it was used as a water-resistant cloth for tents and wagon covers. crusaders brought the process back to western europe. in france, the french huguenots were the most skilled felt makers. being french protestants, the huguenots fled primarily to england  from the french catholic reign during the 16th and 17th centuries.

driven out by the french, the huguenots carried with them the process developed for turning beaver plews into the felt used for beaver hats. beaver hats were made from the barbed-fibrous under fur of the beaver pelt. this fur was chemically treated, mashed, pounded, rolled, and turned into felt. mercury was used in this process. breathing mercury fumes led to the expression "mad as a hatter". by the late 1600's, the french were importing felt beaver hats from england.


                                               beaver hats - google images

beaver hats served as a status symbol for position and wealth from the 1600s to the mid-1800s. it is impossible to estimate the number of beaver plews auctioned off in england during the fur trade era. it is generally thought by 1840 the beaver era was over, but hudson�s bay company records show three million beaver pelts were sold in london between 1853 and 1873. despite the french and french-canadian's early domination of the fur trade, the majority of beaver hats were made in england

trapper cabins:

fur trappers used many types of shelter from a simple lean-to, to stacked poles covered with brush. a war lodge similar to the one below was also used by indians when they were scouting an enemy camp to steal horses.


                                                                        pole lodge


                                        indian war - hunting lodge - bob miller

this sheepeater lodge was found by bob miller near the head of the gros ventre canyon. not far away was a cliff the sheepeater indians drove mountain sheep off. for the most part, the leaning poles weathered until the bark and soft wood was gone; what remains of the poles is covered with a hard pitch.

a trap line "cabin" could be as simple as a four foot high flat roof on top of a four by four log wall.


                                                          trapper line cabin

albert miller of bondurant, wyoming used a trap line cabin in the early 1900s to trap martin. bob mcneel showed me three of albert's trap line cabins; one on kilgore creek, one on bondurant creek, and one on cliff creek. these three creeks drain into the hoback river. bob told me albert snowshoed in and dug out the snow blocking the cabin entrance. inside was a pile of wood, tea, jerky, and a blanket. once albert crawled through the wind-protected entrance, he built a fire outside the door, boiled his tea, and spent a "relatively" dry warn night.

if the trapper or trappers planned to be in an area for sometime, or wanted a storage place, they might build a dugout, or a log cabin.


                                                         trapper or settler dugout


                                                                     plains soddy

an old "trapper cabin" is occasionally found off the trail in heavy timber. these remote, well- hidden cabins are referred to as trapper cabins, but i believe most of them were "tusker cabins" used for the illegal killing of elk.

 
                                              tusker cabin - circa early 1900s

an estimate in 1906 placed the number of elk killed for the two ivory canine teeth to  the equivalent of ten years of normal hunting...back east, a pair of bull elk teeth were worth from twenty-five to one hundred dollars. "tuskers" depleted the elk herds around jackson hole, wyoming to the point local residents formed a vigilante committee. hanging the "tuskers" was voted down, but an order to get out of the valley within forty-eight hours, or be shot, was issued (along the ramparts of the tetons, by robert b. betts).


                                           bull elk - grand teton national park

national elk refuge:

to protect and feed the elk during the winter months, local residents of jackson hole established an elk refuge in 1912. elk migrated into jackson hole from areas as far north as yellowstone national park. the national elk refuge has been expanded to approximately twenty-five thousand acres of land and feeds around seventy-five hundred elk each winter.  conservationists, dude ranchers, and yes, even the environmental-maligned plain old ranchers viewed these herds as a national treasure. the national elk refuge was established when the sierra club, or the term environmentalist, wasn't know to most people. spin garbage from radical environmentalist groups would make you think nothing of value happened in the west until they arrived to protect us from the "rape and pillage" of the land. 


                                                                national elk refuge

the fur trapper article was written by o. ned eddins of afton, wyoming. permission is given for material from this site to be used for school research papers.

citation: eddins, ned. (article name) thefurtrapper.com. afton, wyoming. 2002.

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reader response:    

no name

this is the wikipedia entry for sierra club:
"it was founded on may 28, 1892, in san francisco, california, by the conservationist and preservationist john muir, who became its first president."
that's 20 years before the elk refuge. your hostility to environmentalists is laughable. 

reply

you are absolutely right. it would be laughable if it wasn't so sad. how do you explain john muir's legacy of preservation and the sierra club's let burn policy? no wonder california has all the forest fires. here is another view on the sierra club.

 george,  

i just wanted to point out that the j. russell co. was in greenfield, mass. on the green river. i lived in greenfield for several years. the factory is still standing as of this date, but it is in such sad shape they are going to start demolition this summer.     

russell lived in deerfield, but as you pointed out the factory was in greenfield. thanks for the correction and the information on the demolition of the factory. it is sad when something that played such a significant role in settling the west has to be destroyed.

update from george:

the green river works buildings have been demolished, but to give credit to the town, they did try every way possible to save the buildings...there was so much pollution in and around the grounds of the buildings that the cost of clean-up would have been prohibitive.

phil vonwalter, black diamond, washington

really appreciate your great website!!
i'm not sure if this is a little off your usual subject matter, but i've been curious for some time (due to the sometimes unspecific nature of history text) about the nature of the beaver hats so popular in the east and in europe during this period.
some people seem to indicate that the hot headgear item around the early 1800s was the [quote] "fur cap". i suspect that this is a misnomer; that it is more accurately a reference to what the trappers, themselves, were wearing and making deep in the interior -- easily sewn or laced pieces of hide forming a hood or a cap with or without a leather brim (often in the front only) and infinitely more practical for wearing in the brush and woods along beaver streams.
however, i suspect that the hot selling headwear in the civilized east was not a cap per se, but actually a "full-blown" hat produced by professional hatters ... who could barely keep up with all their orders. i assume from illustrations from that period that all (or nearly all) these hats included a 360-degree brim and were quite often of the "top-hat" or even "stove-pipe"(?) style. i have seen such hats at rendezvous re-enactments. i'm not really familiar with the process of pressing cut fur (beaver or otherwise) into felt, but some of these hats have a very smooth appearance while others have a decidedly furry or semi-shaggy appearance. i'm curious as to whether the latter type are usually coarser or less-refined felting jobs -- or perhaps actually very well-tailored hide hats with the fur still on the beaver skin.
any light you might be able to shed would be very much appreciated! my genuine thanks!!

reply: phil brings up a point that is often overlooked. we know that beaver plews were used for beaver hats, but the history of felt and the use of beaver plews to produce the beaver felt hats are seldom explained. for an explanation, click on beaver hats.

contributions:
mark peterson of jackson hole, wyoming took the above beaver picture.

bibliography

firearms, traps, & tools of the mountain men, carl p. russell.

the fur trade of the american west 1807-1840, wishart, david j.