The fur trade brought newcomers to the Canadian North-West in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The English and then the French were here to secure beaver skins for the European hat-making industry.
These weren’t fur hats with tie-up flaps to cover the ears. That’s not how the beaver pelts were used.
In the 16th century, the high-crowned and broad-brimmed felted beaver hat swept across Europe as the latest fad — much like fitted designer ball caps today.
Not to be left behind, England readily embraced the new style from the continent and by the 1600s, the beaver hat was considered “a social necessity.”
Beaver was perfectly suited for the felting process because the soft under-fur of the pelt — the beaver wool or duvet — was barbed and hence naturally cohesive. Beaver wool was removed from the pelt, processed into felt, and then moulded and shaped into a hat.
The finished product was not only waterproof but resilient. Felted beaver hats held their shape and colour longer than those made from any other fur or woven cloth product on the market.
For any fashion-conscious man or woman, there was no substitute.
European colonization of North America coincided with the growing European demand for beaver pelts to produce hat felt at a time when Baltic sources were being exhausted.
Here was a renewable natural product that was not only plentiful in the forested Canadian landscape, but the animals sported a denser, more luxurious coat because of the colder climate. And Indian traders were more than willing to exchange furs for European goods. Producing beaver felt, however, required an extra or secondary step in the processing of the pelts because the softer, shorter under-fur was overlain by longer, coarser guard hairs. Before shaving off the beaver wool, felters first had to remove the outer hairs.
This requirement resulted in the designation of two distinct kinds of beaver pelts in the trade. Castor sec or “parchment” beaver was a skin that had been dried and stretched with the guard hairs still intact. Castor gras d’hiver or “coat” beaver, on the other hand, was a skin that had been worn by the Indians during the winter so that the pelt was not only supple and greasy but the guard hairs had been rubbed off.
Coat beaver was preferred by hatmakers in Europe because it was immediately ready for the felting process. But parchment beaver also enjoyed a strong market because the Russians had perfected a process of combing the beaver wool from the skin for felting, while leaving behind the guard hairs for a fine fur pelt.
Hat styles would change over the decades, becoming smaller in size with upturned brims, but the best hats absolutely had to be made of beaver felt.
The beaver skin was consequently the mainstay of Hudson’s Bay Company operations for more than 150 years. At York Factory, for example, more than 43,000 beaver skins (parchment and coat) were shipped to the London market in 1727. That figure represented 94 per cent of the post returns that year.
The French also sought to take advantage of the lucrative beaver trade.
In the early 18th century, Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye established a chain of posts northwest from the Great Lakes, across present-day northwestern Ontario to the Manitoba interlake region.
These Postes du Nord, as they were known, effectively cut across the major canoe routes to HBC posts and saved Indians the necessity of making the long arduous trip to trade with the English at the bay.
The returns were phenomenal. In 1735 alone, nearly 100,000 beaver skins were shipped east to Montreal.
The competition for beaver furs eventually forced the HBC and its Montreal-based rival, the NorthWest Company, to move up the Saskatchewan River to the Rocky Mountains and northwest beyond the Churchill River to the Athabasca country by the end of the 18th century. In the bitter struggle to gain the upper hand in the trade, entire districts were stripped of fur-bearing animals.
By the 1820s, beaver numbers were so low that the HBC actually introduced some of the first conservation measures to help bring back the animal.
In the end, what ironically saved the beaver was another change in fashion — the introduction of the so-called silk topper at the end of the 1830s.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo:Beaver felt, renowned for its durability, was used in a variety of hat styles.
Photo:The Beaver, Spring 1958
Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers.