BEAVER. Found throughout most of the United States and Canada, the beaver (Castor canadensis) is the largest rodent in North America. From thirty to forty inches long and weighing as much as sixty pounds, the beaver is unique among rodents in possessing webbed rear feet and a broad, flat tail. Historically, it was eaten as a delicacy by many Native American tribes, a custom adopted by colonial Americans and early frontier residents. Water and wood dependent, the beaver is herbaceous, preferring the bark of deciduous trees along with a variety of aquatic plants and grasses. Its propagation is guaranteed by pond-building activity associated with damming of streams in the process of creating lodges. Once described by naturalist Enos A. Mills as "the original conservationist," beaver-engineered dams and diversion ponds serve to prevent floods and loss of surface soils during spring thaws and summer rainstorms.
Since the sixteenth century, the beaver has been the target of Indians and European immigrants alike for its luxurious pelt. Also, its underwool—prized for its suppleness and water resistance—has been commercially valuable in the felting industry for the making of hats. (See Beaver Hats.) The earliest European efforts to settle colonies along the St. Lawrence River and in New England were funded by a beaver trade that soon spread into the interior of North America, generating intense intertribal and international rivalries among competing groups. French, English, Dutch, Swedish, Russian, and Spanish fur trading companies were organized to tap the wealth that beaver skins afforded on the European fur market based in London and Leipzig. Two types of pelts were sought. One was coat beaver, or castor gras—pelts that had been worn by Indians for at least one winter, so that the outer or "guard" hairs were loosened for easier processing by felters. The other was parchment beaver or castor sec—those pelts trapped, skinned, and flattened for easy storage and shipment in bales.
In 1638, King Charles II decreed that all fur hats manufactured in England be made of North American beaver, fueling a series of beaver wars between the Iroquois and their English allies and the French and their Indian allies. Many towns such as Albany (1624), Montreal (1642), Detroit (1701), New Orleans (1718), and St. Louis (1764) were established as fur trade entrepôts, servicing large hinterlands. The French dominated the fur trade until 1763, with beaver replacing cod as New France's primary staple export. After the fall of New France, the fur industry was dominated by the London-based Hudson's Bay Company, chartered in 1670 with the exclusive right to trade and trap the lands that drain into Hudson Bay. However, from its founding in 1779 to its merger in 1821 with the H.B.C., the Montreal-based North West Company outproduced the Bay Company, sending to market an annual average of 130,000 pelts, three times that of its archrival. After the merger in 1821 the numbers harvested continued to rise despite fluctuations in wholesale prices.
By 1900, beaver numbers had declined and the animal had almost been exterminated in many parts of North America as a result of overhunting by Indians and whites alike. American mountain men operating out of St. Louis and Santa Fe, as well as brigades of Canadian trappers, scoured the western streams, glutting the European market by the mid-1830s. Simultaneously, hatters substituted the South American nutria and silk for headgear. This allowed a restoration of beaver populations in once-decimated areas and an expansion of their numbers in areas where climax forests had been cleared, encouraging succession species to thrive, especially aspen, one of the beaver's favorite foods. Ironically, more beaver have been trapped annually since the 1950s than at any other time in North American history, with nearly 670,000 pelts recorded in 1980. Beaver trapping continues in the early twenty-first century in Canada's far north and is a highly regulated source of subsistence income in Alaska and parts of the lower forty-eight states.
Chittenden, Hiram Martin. The American Fur Trade of the Far West. 3 vols. New York: F. P. Harper, 1902.
Innis, Harold A. The Fur Trade in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1927.
Mills, Enos A. In Beaver World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913.
Novak, Milan, et al., eds. Wild Furbearer Management and Conservation in North America. Toronto: Ohio Ministry of Natural Resources, 1987.
ETHNONYMS: Tsattine, Castors
The Beaver are an American Indian group numbering about nine hundred located in northeast British Columbia and northwest Alberta in Canada. They are closely related to the Sekani, their neighbors to the west. Today, the Beaver reside in the same area, on or near the Prophet River, Beaton River, Doig River, Blueberry River, and West Moberly Lake reserves in British Columbia and the Child Lake, Boyer, Clear Hills, and Horse Lakes Reserves in Alberta. Beaver is an Athapaskan language.
The Beaver were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Beaver was the most important game, first as the basic food and later for both food and the fur trade. In accordance with the nomadic way of life, band composition was flexible, with the bilaterally extended family the basic social and economic unit. Early contacts with Whites included involvement in the fur trade and Roman Catholic missionaries, producing a syncretic Religion composed of Catholic and traditional beliefs and practices. Extensive contacts with Whites began in the twentieth century and have included the farming of traditional Beaver lands, compulsory education (which led to English replacing Beaver as the primary language), and the establishment of the reserves. Wage labor now competes with hunting and trapping as the major source of income.
Ridington, Robin (1968). "The Environmental Context of Beaver Indian Behavior." Ph.D. diss., Harvard University.
Ridington, Robin (1981). "Beaver." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 6, Subarctic, edited by June Helm, 350-360. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.
bea·ver1 / ˈbēvər/ • n. (pl. same or beavers ) a large semiaquatic broad-tailed rodent (genus Castor, family Castoridae), esp. C. canadensis of North America. It is noted for its habit of gnawing through tree trunks to fell the trees in order to make dams. ∎ the soft light brown fur of the beaver. ∎ fig. a very hardworking person.• v. [intr.] inf. work hard: Joe beavered away to keep things running.bea·ver2 • n. the lower part of the face guard of a helmet in a suit of armor. The term is also used to refer to the upper part or visor, or to a single movable guard.bea·ver2 • n. vulgar slang a woman's genitals or pubic area. ∎ offens. a woman.