MARKETS. MOHICANS AND BEAVERS — PART TWO
In September 1609, Henry Hudson, an English ship-captain sailing for the Dutch, brought the Half Moon up the Hudson River into Mohican territory. This moment, an historical pivot for Europe, and the Mohicans, and the beaver, was remembered in Mohican oral tradition for generations, and recorded by Hudson’s mate Robert Juet in his journal. To understand the fate of that South Taconics beaver pond, one detail from Juet’s journal is crucial:
September 19, 1609: “And many (Mohicans) brought us Beaver skins, and otter skins, which we bought for trifles.”
The Mohican-European trans-Atlantic fur trade began with first contact. It didn’t end until nearly every beaver in New York Sate had been exterminated.
Animal spirits die when they’re ignored. Hendrick Auapaumaut, writing of his ancestors, described how the need for stuff overwhelmed the old codes: “They seldom feel much want, and they were very well contented in their condition, having food and raiment was their only aim. They were not to kill more than was necessary, for there was none to barter with them that would have tempted them to waste their animals, as they did after the Chuh-ko-thuk came on the island, consequently game was never diminished.”
Without spiritual, traditional constraints, the Mohicans very quickly locked into a trade economy whose engines slowed only when profits weakened. A year after Hudson’s first contact, another Dutch ship came up the river with trade goods. In 1614 the New Netherland Company was created, with a mission to exploit the fur trade, but it was ineffective. In 1621 the Dutch West India Company took on the job and in 1624 set up a trading post, on Governor’s Island near present Albany.
That year, four hundred beaver skins were exported. In 1633, 8,000 pelts were shipped. In 1635, 14,891 beaver skins crossed the Atlantic. According to a letter from the Dutch West India Company, a total of 80,183 beaver skins crossed traders’ desks between 1624 and 1635. By the latter year – twenty-four years after Juet recorded that first swap of skins for “trifles” – the directors of the Dutch West India Company complained that beaver skins had become “exceedingly scarce.” They sold at the high price of seven guilders apiece.
One source claims that by 1640 – twenty-nine years after Hudson! – beavers had been exterminated in New York state outside the Adirondacks. Hard to imagine, but other facts bear this out. Land deeds demonstrate that by the 1670s, the Mohicans had so few furs to trade that they began more and more to sell off land rights in return for precious trade goods. In the 1680s some Mohicans joined with their old enemies, the Iroquois, attacking tribes in Maryland and Virginia to gain skins. They returned “with furs from as far away as Florida.” One group of Mohicans left their homeland in 1684 and lived in Ottawa territory, searching for furs that could pay off their debts to traders. They returned with what they needed in 1690. In 1689 110 Mohicans traveled to the area near Niagara Falls in search of furs. In 1708 members of a Mohican community at Schaghticoke moved to the Winooski River in northern Vermont, again hunting furs under pressure of debt. The Earl of Bellomont, a colonial governor, wrote in 1700 to the Board of Trade that “the only good beaver hunting lyes .. where the Dowanghakes and other nations live. Hither our Five Nations are forced to go.” The Iroquois, who ruled western New York, forced to travel for furs? Clear evidence that by 1700 every beaver dam in the state was vanished or rotting, every pond drained (outside the Adirondacks, at any rate.) But what loneliness could be keener than to be the last of something? In 1901, one beaver survived in all New York state, residing at Tupper Lake.
To offer a sense of the scope of this destruction, some estimates: a typical beaver population density is two per square mile, according to one naturalist who counted the population in James Bay, Canada. Ernest Thompson Seton stated that pre-contact America contained five to six per square mile, with a colony every two to three miles and six to nine beavers per colony. A more recent researcher pegs the American population, before the 1600s, at 60 to 400 million. They would have been found in nearly all aquatic habitats. In New York, nearly every body of water would have contained beaver, or else been modified and shaped by an earlier generation of the animals, awaiting the next. The exact numbers can be debated, but one thing is sure: the North American beaver population was massive, its impact vast, the echoes of its demise immense.
What drove the Mohicans and neighboring tribes to strip the woods of beavers and transform the region’s ecology? What did they want so badly?
I made a small journey, in the summer of 2015, to find some first-hand answers to that question.. The New York Historical Society, on Central Park West in Manhattan, welcomed my curiosity about the one Dutch account book that survives from beaver-trading days, and directed me to a Microfiche reproduction of Evert Wendell’s year by year record – marred by ink blotches and scratch-outs – of goods that crossed his desk from 1695 to 1721. I sat there scrolling, stymied by my inability to read 18th century Dutch, until I realized that (since the Mohicans couldn’t read or write Dutch either) Wendell had drawn small pictures of the skins they owed him after he fronted them goods. I counted 217 images of furs, usually with the word “Bever’ jotted alongside. A scholar had added an English translation of some of the text, but still I felt like I read through a haze of years.
Wendell is representative of a whole breed of Dutch traders – hustlers, we might call them today – who competed ferociously, gambled boldly, sometimes got rich, sometimes went broke. For many, trading was a steppingstone to positions of influence or more secure means of making a living. Some stuck with trading as a career; some even moved into Indian homelands and developed close ties with Mohicans or Iroquois. Wendell seems to have been a fair and cautious businessman who maintained a steady income. He handed goods over to Indians, carefully recorded the number of furs they owed, and bet they’d return from their hunts or dealings able to repay. As noted above, this process might take years.
What did the traders offer, based on the Wendell account book and reinforced by lists given in land deeds? First, woolen cloth of two kinds: duffels, named after a town near Antwerp, and strouds, from the English town of Stroud. Duffels were a coarse kind of cloth that Indians used mostly to make blankets. Strouds could be used for a greater variety of apparel, from blankets to women’s skirts. The next most crucial item? Booze. Land deeds cite: “One vat or keg of rum at five martens.” “One half vat of beer.” “Three barrels of cider.” (In the Wendell account book, I found: “One beaver for a vat (barrel) of rum.”) Third place: guns, and the lead, powder, and repairs needed to maintain them. Fourth place: wampum, the worked shells that functioned as a kind of Indian currency. After these most crucial items, a host of smaller needs: shirts, hatchets, metal projectile points, paint, mirrors, tobacco boxes, scissors. One item much in demand in the early years of the 17th century, that slowly faded from the records: metal pots.
So the story seems plain. The beavers, and the complex ecosystem their ponds maintained, were destroyed for clothing, drugs, guns, and cash.