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Banner: Pathfinders and Passageways: The Exploration of Canada About This Site
The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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Furs of Gold

The driving force behind the expansion of European exploration into the interior of North America was a furry brown rodent, weighing up to about 30 kilograms, with razor-sharp front teeth and an insatiable need to gnaw on wood. The beaver (Castor canadensis) had more influence over the history of Canada than any other animal before or since; hence it has been accepted as our national emblem.

Native people hunted the beaver long before the arrival of the fur traders. They roasted the meat for food and used the pelts for clothing. But it was changing fashions in headwear that made the animal so valuable to Europeans. Toward the end of the 16th century, a rage for the broad-brimmed beaver hat swept the salons of Europe. The beaver hat was not a fur hat in the same sense as the coonskin cap of the American frontier or the famous busby worn by guards at Buckingham Palace. It was actually a felt hat, manufactured by removing the fur from its skin and mashing it together with adhesives and stiffeners. (One of these additives was mercury, the fumes from which affected the brains of hat-makers, giving rise to the expression "mad as a hatter".)

A beaver pelt consists of two layers, an outer layer of coarse guard hair and an undercoat of soft, velvety fur called the duvet. When the guard hairs were removed, the woolly underfur, known as castor gras, was perfect for making felt hats. Beaver was also a source of so-called "fancy furs" used as trim on garments and to make coats and outerwear. But it was the demand for hats that supported the Canadian fur trade from its beginnings until the 1830s, when silk replaced beaver felt as the most popular fabric for high quality hats.

Traders collected a variety of other furs, including fox, mink, otter, marten, and bear, but because it was in greatest demand the beaver was the standard by which all the others were judged. The fur trade had no use for money. It was a barter trade -- goods were exchanged for goods. Still, a recognized standard of value had to be established for business to be done so the beaver pelt became the accepted unit of currency. A single prime pelt was called a Made-Beaver and all other items were measured against it. For example, a gun might be worth fourteen Made-Beavers, a blanket seven Made-Beavers, and so on. All other types of pelts were given an equivalent value in beaver skins: a marten equalled half a beaver, for example, while an otter equalled one beaver. The result was that the total value of a quantity of furs could be given a Made Beaver value and then could be exchanged for an equivalent value of trade goods.

Before the arrival of Europeans in Canada, an estimated ten million beaver inhabited the forested areas south of the tree line. During the fur trade era, this vast number was so depleted that the animal almost became extinct. However, with the decline of the trade, the beaver rallied and there are now healthy populations across the country.

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