Tall beaver tales show a vital animal in Canada’s history was also misunderstood

In this excerpt from “The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire,” the author discusses what else but the beaver, so vital for the early founding of the Hudson’s Bay Co. It seems the rodent’s importance paled in comparison to its reputation.

Fur had always been the key economic driver behind French settlement in the St. Lawrence, just as it would be the driver of the Company’s monumental expansion.

The Jesuit priest Father Le Jeune wrote in 1634 that the Montagnais “say that (beaver) is the animal well-beloved by the French, English and Basques, in a word, by the Europeans.” When he was a guest travelling in their country, Le Jeune “heard my host say one day, jokingly, ‘The Beaver does everything perfectly well, it makes kettles, hatchets, swords, knives, bread; and, in short, it makes everything.’

He was making sport of us Europeans, who have such a fondness for the skin of this animal and who fight to see who will get it; they carry this to such an extent that my host said to me one day, showing me a very beautiful knife, ‘The English have no sense; they give us twenty knives like this for one Beaver skin.’”

Castor canadensis, the North American beaver, is the largest rodent in North America. Chubby, with dark brown fur, they weigh on average around 45 pounds, with a range of between 25 and 70 pounds, increasing in size along with the latitude.

In the Far North, old beavers have been recorded over 100 pounds in weight. They fell trees to construct dams to flood waterways into ponds or small lakes where they construct hummock-shaped lodges with twigs, stones and mud. A land dominated by millions of beavers, as much of North America was, takes on distinct characteristics. The numerous ponds and flooded areas increased biodiversity by providing habitat for fish and waterfowl, while the clearings in the forest supported large game and a host of other species. In addition, when stewed in a broth, beaver was an important food source.

Beavers had long been nearly extinct in Europe and their pelts had to be shipped from Siberia, processed by Russian craftsmen and sold into Europe at inflated prices by Russian merchants. The beaver from the Hudson River region and from the St. Lawrence was never the highest quality, and the animals had quickly become depleted so that most of the beaver being traded to the French was passing through multiple hands, ultimately coming from farther north and west.

But the region bounded by the Hudson’s Bay Company’s commercial charter contained between 10 and 20 million beavers, making their monopoly in theory extremely valuable …

Beavers were important animals in the cultural and spiritual traditions of many Indigenous peoples of North America, a source of metaphorical symbolism. In some mythologies they could represent perseverance or hard work and productivity, but also stubbornness. Beavers could be represented as the shapers of the world, a nod to their transformative landscape redesign. Conversely, they could be viewed as selfish for continuously building dams and flooding places without consulting other animals.

In the fur trade era, they came to represent wealth or male hunting prowess. To some Plains peoples, such as the Blackfoot-speaking Siksika, Kainai (Blood) and the Piegan, beavers represented wisdom. To other peoples, including the Huron-Wendat and the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee), they were an integral component of the order of clans within communities.

Beavers could occupy symbolic positions in the cosmology and were often used as allegory, the classic example being the Woman Who Married a Beaver, an Ojibwa (Anishinaabe) story in which a woman leaves her people and goes to dwell with her husband, a beaver, only returning to visit her human family periodically. They have children, and the husband and offspring, who also occasionally visit the human world, are killed by hunters but return alive to the beaver world each time with gifts of tobacco and needles and other trade goods.

Only upon the beaver-husband’s death in the beaver world do the woman and her children return to the human world, bringing with them an important message: always honour the beaver and never discredit or slander them on pain of bringing down a curse of poor fortune at hunting.

As part of the hunter’s code, beaver bones were often returned to the water in a small ceremony under the belief that animals are caught only when they willingly give themselves, and must be honoured with the proper rituals and thanks for their sacrifice.

Beavers became so valuable to both Europeans and Indigenous peoples in the 17th and 18th centuries that numerous engravings of their lives, and the methods of hunting them, could be found in European travel books and maps. The misinformation is amusingly inaccurate.

In the tradition of medieval bestiaries that include fanciful and imaginary creatures alongside semi-accurate depictions of actual animals, beavers are depicted with enormous bucked teeth and curiously intelligent and humanlike eyes. Oddly anthropomorphized, they stride erect, carrying log poles toward lodges that resemble communal multi-storey apartment buildings.

Sometimes, overactive imaginations showed half-naked men garbed in togas, the stylized depictions of the Indigenous hunters, forming ranks along the banks of ponds or rivers firing long, smoking rifles at humanesque beavers, while the gentle myopic beasts swim and chew at the trunks of large trees, apparently unaware of, or unconcerned with, the presence of the hunters.

Written accounts of beavers had them dwelling in sprawling communal house-villages, speaking to each other and working in organized groups to secure food and build their dome-like dwellings. Some writers claimed that they had social stratification, including the use of beaver- slaves to speed the construction. One early 18th-century observer, Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix, mused that “there are sometimes three or four hundred of them in one place, forming a town which might properly enough be called a little Venice.”

Other accounts had them living in nations and waging war against each other. The fur trader and traveller Samuel Hearne, a man well exposed to the more prosaic lives of the furry flat-tailed denizens of the lowlands, expressed amusement at this attribution of noble traits.

In his classic “Journey to the Northern Ocean” he wrote: “I cannot refrain from smiling when I read the accounts of different authors who have written on the economy of those animals, as there seems to be a contest between them, who shall most exceed in fiction … Little remains to be added beside a vocabulary of their language, a code of their laws, and a sketch of their religion.”

Hearne also addressed the claim that the beaver’s tail was actually a natural trowel used in the construction of their apartments or for plastering the inner walls. “It would be as impossible for a beaver to use its tail as a trowel,” he wrote, “ … as it would have been for Sir James Thornhill to have painted the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral without the assistance of scaffolding.”

Nevertheless, Hearne was fond of beavers, and when he was a senior officer at one of the Company’s forts in the 1780s, he kept beavers as pets and reported that “they were remarkably fond of rice and plum pudding.”

It wasn’t just the beaver’s pelt that was considered valuable. A seemingly miraculous substance known as castoreum, a yellowish exudate secreted by the teardrop-shaped castor glands, or “beaver stones,” located between the pelvis and tail of mature male and female beavers. It was used both as scent to mark territory and to keep their fur greasy and waterproof, and beavers were so attracted to the smell that it was often used as bait in traps.

Once removed from the beaver, the castoreum was preserved by smoking it over a fire. Today it is occasionally used in perfume or as an exotic and expensive form of artificial vanilla or strawberry flavouring. In more credulous eras it had other, reputedly beneficial properties.

Since ancient times in the Mediterranean, castoreum was variously deployed by physicians as a cure for epilepsy, to induce abortions and to assuage the ravages of tuberculosis. It also had other properties that were suitable to a difficult-to-obtain and expensive medicinal ingredient: it could cure dementia, toothaches and gout as well as relieve headaches and fevers. (Castoreum does contain salicylic acid, the main ingredient in Aspirin, so this last was probably an accurate claim.)

According to the writings of the 17th-century French physician Johannes Francus, castoreum was also beneficial for improving eyesight, getting rid of fleas, preventing hiccups, promoting sleep and preventing sleep, and of clearing the brain. He also reported that “in order to acquire a prodigious memory and never to forget what one had once read, it was only necessary to wear a hat of the beaver’s skin, to rub the head and spine every month with that animal’s oil, and to take twice a year the weight of a gold crown-piece of castoreum.”

Equally grounded in amusing ancient lore was the beaver’s apparent antics when hunted. According to a bestiary from the 12th century, “There is an animal called Castor the Beaver, none more gentle, and his testicles make a capital medicine. For this reason, so Physiologus says, when he (the beaver) notices that he is being pursued by the hunter, he removes his own testicles with a bite, and casts them before the sports-man, and thus escapes by flight.

“What is more, if he should again happen to be chased by a second hunter, he lifts himself up and shows his members to him. And the latter, when he perceives the testicles to be missing, leaves the beaver alone.” Hence the reason the beaver is called Castor — because it is castrated.

Of course, the beaver wasn’t castrated, even in this fanciful tale, since the castor glands are not testicles but scent glands. Nevertheless, many hundreds of thousands of glands were shipped to Europe by the Company along with the pelts.

That such a gentle and innocuous creature should inspire such artistic liberty seems unusual, but the money to be had from processing their pelts and castoreum was also unusual. Whether there was any empirical evidence justifying the value of castoreum is open to question. But when has fashion had anything to do with science or proof? Or even common sense? The hunt for beavers was beginning the economic transformation of a continent.

Excerpted from “The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Company” by Stephen R. Bown.. Copyright © 2020 by Stephen R. Bown.. Published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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