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Mad Hatters and Beaver Tales

American Indians called the beaver the "sacred center" of the land because this animal creates rich habitats for other mammals, fish, turtles, frogs, birds and ducks. Images of beaver have been found in the artwork of Hopewell platform pipes. November's full moon is called the beaver moon because it signals the time to set traps for beaver before swamps freeze. A relative of today’s beaver, the Giant Beaver, roamed this land during the Ice Age. Reaching lengths up to seven and a half feet, they have been found mostly in the Till Plains of Ohio, which stretch from the state's western boundary eastward to Columbus. They became extinct about 10,000 years ago.

Natives used the beaver pelts for water repellant items and the meat in the large, flat tails as food, but around 1600 began to trade pelts to Europeans who prized them for the making of beaver hats. The strong musk glands produced castoreum which was used in making perfumes. Castoreum comes from two glands at the base of the beaver’s tail. Trappers mixed this with cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, alcohol or other “special ingredients”. Each trapper guarded his recipe and guaranteed it to be the best. Castoreum was useful in medicines for a variety of illnesses as it contained acetylsalicylic acid, aspirin. A small bottle sold for ten to twelve dollars in St. Louis in the 1800’s. By 1822, the St. Louis based fur companies employed Americans, French-Canadians, and Indians, especially Delaware and Iroquois to do the trapping.

Each trapper guarded his recipe and guaranteed it to be the best. Castoreum was useful in medicines for a variety of illnesses as it contained acetylsalicylic acid, aspirin and it was also used for trapping purposes with the heaviest trapping done in Ohio between 1750 and 1800. A small bottle sold for ten to twelve dollars in St. Louis in the 1800’s. The trapper sharpened the big end of a thick willow before cutting the stick into two lengths. An iron trap was set out from the bank in ten inches of water and mud stirred around the trap to cover the iron jaws. Further out in deeper water, the willow stake was driven through the three-foot chain ring. The chain was made tight and anchored firmly.

Once the trap was set, the leafy end of the willow was scraped off and the tip dipped into a container of castoreum. The thick end was forced into the bank with the scented end hanging above the trap. As soon as the beaver smelled the castor, it went to investigate. Standing on its hind feet to sniff the scent sprung the trap. The tight chain prevented the beaver from reaching the bank, or its house, and it drowned in the deep water. Today this is illegal. By 1822, the St. Louis based fur companies employed Americans, French-Canadians, and Indians, especially Delaware and Iroquois to do the trapping.

Beaver population drastically fell by the end of the 19th century and was almost extinct in North America due to trapping and draining of lands for agriculture use. Between 1853 and 1877, the Hudson's Bay Company, alone, shipped 3 million pelts to Europe. Canada's Hudson Bay Company and towns like Chicago were formed because of the fur trade industry. The cost of a rifle was a pile of beaver skins the same height as the gun. In 1670, Hudson Bay Company records stated that a beaver pelt would buy a pound of tobacco, a one-pound kettle, four pounds of shot, or two hatchets. The passing of the beaver represents a change in the Ohio landscape, where land was reclaimed for agriculture and the swampy areas drained causing loss of the wildlife and plants thriving there.

The Iroquois in New York led the fur trade and fought other tribes for prime beaver territory. When the beaver population declined in the area by the middle of the 17th century, the Iroquois moved west into the Ohio country. The competition for control of the fur trade between tribes and the French and English was a major cause of the Beaver Wars. Coat collars and cuffs were trimmed with beaver fur and were very fashionable.

Beaver top hats were part of a well-dressed man's wardrobe and served as a status symbol of position and wealth. Beaver pelts were so valuable during the 1800's that surplus pelts were burned to keep the price from falling. From the mid 1600s through the 1800s beaver trapping brought European exploration to North America. Beaver pelts became a prized commodity and were traded as currency in many parts of the frontier. Traders also traded for beaver robes that had been worn for eighteen months or so, which were thought to make the best quality hats and bring the best prices.

Beaver hats were not made from the thick outer fur of the beaver pelt, but from the barbed, fibrous under-fur. This fur is water repellent and was chemically treated, mashed, pounded, rolled, to be turned into felt. Mercury was used in this process, and breathing the toxic mercury fumes led to the expression "Mad as a Hatter."

Before Europeans arrived in North America, there were an estimated 400 million beaver, but by 1890, there were only small groups in Ohio. In 2007, the beaver population in Ohio has replenished and was estimated at 27,204. I have personally seen beaver sign at Hueston Woods, on Aukerman Creek in Preble County and at local gravel pits.

Beaver Hats
A variety of hats made from the beaver pelt.

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