When I think of animals that have had an impact on American history, the horse, the dog or even the bison come to mind. But when you actually study the early history of our country, there’s no question which is most important: the beaver.
America’s first multi-millionaire built his fortune on beaver. John Jacob Astor came to America in the late 1700s and established himself as the most successful businessman the new country had seen. He founded the American Fur Company and came to dominate the fur trade. When he died in 1848, he was worth an estimated twenty million dollars, the equivalent of $110 billion in today’s dollars, making him the fourth richest American ever.
The fur trade drove the early settlement of North America like nothing else. In the 16th and 17th centuries, European culture craved beaver fur. Every fashionable European man had a beaver hat (often called simply his “beaver” in the parlance of the day). The fur was so highly prized that Siberian sources of fur were beginning to run dry at about the same time that discoverers were finding the rivers and streams of North America teeming with beaver.
The French, the English and the Dutch all raced to lay claim to pieces of the new land and then fought to hold them, in many cases primarily to secure profits through trade. One of the most desirable, marketable and profitable trade items from the very beginning was beaver fur.
Early traders worked with the native people to trap beaver and turn their valuable pelts into real profit. The drive for economic profit from the beaver trade touched early adventurers and settlers in countless ways. I’ve discovered three individuals in my own family tree that characterize the impact of the beaver on early Americans.
Paulus Vanderbeek, my 10th-great grandfather, came to New Amsterdam around 1643. The Dutch Republic in the New World had begun with Henry Hudson’s journey up what would become the Hudson River in 1609. Although Hudson was English, he was sailing for the Dutch East India Company.
The Dutch East India Company was looking for profits for its shareholders, and Hudson brought back reports of plentiful beaver pelts for the taking. The Dutch sent more and more ships to the New World, ultimately establishing New Amsterdam (which would eventually be called New York) as a colonial outpost for those who facilitated the fur trade.
Paulus came to New Amsterdam as a surgeon with the Dutch West India Company, which had been established to focus on trade in North America. Paulus became the first physician in the settlement of Gowanus, now known as Brooklyn.
Samuel Cole, my 8th-great grandfather, came to the Jersey shore around 1682. He was a haberdasher and a hatter from Hertfordshire in England. He had become one of the proprietors of West Jersey by purchasing part of a share from Edward Byllynge in 1677. When he arrived in Jersey, he probably continued making hats from beaver pelts. He may have even crossed the ocean to be closer to the source of the pelts or to find a new market for his goods.
Samuel served in the Territorial Legislature of West Jersey from 1683 to 1685, helping to make some important decisions in the early development of New Jersey. In 1692, Samuel was returning from a business trip to England when he became sick and ultimately died on the island of Barbados. He left behind a substantial estate, built at least partially with profits from beavers.
Robert Hill, my 4th-great grandfather, was a pioneer. As the West opened up in what would become Indiana and Ohio, Robert brought his family from North Carolina to this new frontier. After settling in Richmond, Indiana around 1806, Robert served several terms in the Indiana General Assembly as he helped settle and establish American civilization in the western wilderness.
Robert’s land was located on a major trail that would eventually become the National Road. He maintained an inn in his home and welcomed weary travelers. He also operated a variety of businesses, including a trade business with another Quaker who had settled in Richmond named Robert Morrisson.
In 1817, Morrisson and Hill received a license from Indiana governor Jonathan Jennings to trade with the Delaware, Kickapoo, Shawanee and Potowatomi Indians, according to the laws enacted “by the General Government or the state Government of Indiana.” Although it’s nowhere stated, there is little doubt that one of the items they would be trading was beaver pelt.
The Decline of the Beaver
By the 1840s, the fur trade was in decline. John Jacob Astor had since moved on to flipping real estate in the rising city of New York. European fashion had, after several hundred years, moved past the beaver.
None of my relatives became fabulously wealthy buying and selling beaver fur or turning it into hats, but there’s no question the humble beaver had a huge impact on my family and on the development of America into the country it is today.
— — —
Two excellent books have been published recently about the impact of the beaver on early America: Fur, Fortune and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America by Eric Dolin (2011) and A Savage Empire: Trappers, Traders, Tribes and the Wars that Made America by Alan Axelrod (2011).