Beaver and the Fur Trade in New Netherland

(excerpted from The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune and a Dynasty, by Jean Zimmerman, Harcourt)

From the first years of the colony, animal hides stocked merchants’ homebound ships. In addition to logs, the Arms of Amsterdam also carried 8,250 pelts on its 1626 voyage, representing about a year’ worth of wheeling and dealing between Dutch traders and Indian hunters. Imagine the mechanism that must have existed, so early on in the life of the colony, to convey that number of skins from seller to buyer, the speed with which it materialized, the passion that drove its operation There had to be a cadre of traders on overdrive moving up and down the banks of the Hudson River to negotiate deals with the native trappers, who for their part already had begun to sacrifice months away fro their communities to deliver the goods. And with time the machine of trade grew only more efficient. Scholars estimate that annual exports of hides from New Netherland more than doubled between 1624 and 1635, and peaked at eighty thousand each year in the 1650s.

Dozens of species of fur animal roamed New Netherland’s forests, and each type offered distinctive features that increased its market value. The white-tailed deer’s tough skin, for example, made durable everyday breeches and shoes. Mink could be stitched into sleek collars and cape linings. So could the small, short-haired bobcat that menaced settlers from the branches of trees. The shiny, pitch-dark coat of the black bear was “proper for muffs” and coveted by elegant dressers, according to Dutch observer Adriaen Van der Donck. Even fashionable men considered the muff a wardrobe staple equivalent to a twenty-first century pair of leather driving gloves.

But from early in the colony’s history, a single fur animal elicited the most intense European trade activity. This was a creature of such overarching importance to the Dutch that its pointy nose, mesomorphic silhouette, and frying-pan tail were faithful rendered in the design of both the official seal of New Amsterdam and the provincial seal of the colony of New Netherland.

It was only a rodent, but the beaver had something the world was clamoring for.

Early in the seventeenth century, the Dutch had developed an entirely new use for the fur of the beaver. By actually disassembling the pelt itself and rubbing together its barbed fibers with liquid and nitrate of mercury (the chemical that made the Mad Hatter mad) master craftsmen created the finest felt in the world. It was a product with only one purpose: the manufacture of hats.

By the mid-1600s beaver fur and high-quality hats were so inseparable that felt hats came to be known simply as beavers, as in, “Please, take off your beaver and sit down.” Hatters trying to economize might fold in other types of fur – rabbit was a popular addition – but none had the same flawless results. (The typical beaver’s wide brim and waterproof texture also offered practicality in a time before umbrellas.) England’s charismatic style-setter Charles II championed the fashion in tandem with an ultralong, black coiled periwig, making public appearances in a wide-brimmed felt chapeau, one side tacked up, finished with a snowy swooping ostrich plume. The beaver became as indispensable to the Restoration gentleman’s wardrobe as the bright red heels on his square-toed boots.

The fashion swept Europe, drifting down to the middle class, to anyone who could possibly afford to buy a beaver. Versions multiplied. Fops flaunted the cavalier mode, sometimes draping gilt braid around the crown to match the gaudy decorations on their cuffs and breeches. Puritans wore beavers too, but usually drew the line at feathers, preferring a plain style with a tall, stiff crown adorned  if at all by a simple silver buckle. Though most women of the era wore linen caps, fine ladies also topped their outfits with beavers, generally a bonnet with a soft, slouchy crown and a generous brim. The most fashion forward took the riskier move of modeling hats identical to those of men. (Gender-bending should not have shocked anyone, though, in a tie when men laced themselves into corsets just like women’s and padded their calves and buttocks to enhance their sex appeal.)

There was, thought some Dutch merchants, just one problem with the lucrative beaver business. They worried that the supply of pelts could not possibly meet the skyrocketing demand. The animal had already been trapped out in Europe and Russia. For fur traders, the American wilderness offered salvation.

The North American beaver, Castor Canadensis, had populated the vast stream-cut terrain since prehistory, with the species evolving over time to reduce its girth from roughly the size of a rodeo steer – reputedly able to face off against a saber-toothed cat – to its current dimensions, closer to a standard poodle, only pudgier and lower to the ground. The natives seemed to have no trouble catching beaver, especially in the groggy depths of winter when hunters could chop open the icy skin of a pond to pull whole families from their lair at once. Many colonists figured that all the hunting in the world would never make a dent in the animal’s population.

The Hollanders who settle New Netherland in the colony’s infancy saw that they could proper by satisfying the demand for pelts to make hats, a commodity they themselves coveted. Their passion became the moving force behind the settlement of the territory.