Saturday, January 12, 2008

Relics of the Fur Trade #3

Chester Huff is still digging pits in Kenora, or rather somewhere outside the town on the north shore of Lake of the Woods, Ontario. Friends tell me that he’s dragged an ice fishing hut over the excavation (for warmth) and he found a rust covered iron beaver trap six feet down. According to a very reliable source, he sold the item online for 120 bucks!

If Dumpdiggers unearthed a forgotten fur trading post from the mid 1700's, what kind of relics could they expect to find?

Early HBC beaver traps? I’m skeptical. Aboriginal people didn’t use iron traps, and Chester’s fur trading post site (near the original Rat Portage, which is actually located near the town of Keewatin) is supposed to be the exchange point between three Indian nations, and the Europeans (specifically the British in the HBC).

I’m told the Indian fur trappers had developed excellent all-natural methods of hunting beavers without using guns or iron traps. They used snares which would trap the animal in a wire noose, and baited traps, which would attract the animal with food or another substance. The 'deadfall trap', which dropped a heavy weight onto the animal to kill it, was also used. In addition to these ingenuities, the First Nation's people had perfected a method of trapping the beaver inside his own wooden lodge. They somehow blocked the submerged entrance of the beaver den, and then broke into the side of the hut to take the whole family at once!

Iron leg traps (which were cruel and inhumane) came about much later in the history of the fur trade. The first mention of iron leg trap is from David Thompson, the foremost cartographer of North America notes that (white) fur trappers in the lower Red River started using castoreum and beaver traps in 1797. After relocating to Fort Vancouver in 1818, the Hudson's Bay Company’s pacific division sent out brigades of trappers that included from 50 men (and sometimes women and children) with iron leg traps. By all accounts the trapping of beavers was an awful job and dangerous work, particularly because it had to be done in the winter when animal pelts are thickest.

Some of the very first iron traps were made in Fort Vancouver in 1818 and these were designed to catch the beaver by the leg in shallow water. It was attached by a chain to a sharpened stake that was planted in deeper water. The traps were baited with castoreum, a scent obtained from glands in the hind legs of the beaver. Now picture this for a moment, to plant the device the European trapper stood in ice cold water so that he would not leave his own scent on the shore. After the curious beaver, attracted by the castoreum, stepped into the trap the hunter had to be quick to retrieve the prize of the pelt would be destroyed by another animal feeding off the carcass. The trapper skinned his catch at the first opportunity. Back at camp, he would (or perhaps his Indian wife) had to scrape off all the flesh from the skin and the stretch it out to dry. After almost a year in the wilderness, the trapping brigades, with their furs in tow, returned to the trade posts.

Finding an early French Canadian iron beaver trap from the 1780’s and 1790s would be a spectacular relic! It would be extremely collectible and certainly worthy of a museum, (Chester!) and that’s because these items are very rare.

Indeed according to The Fur Trapper the use of iron traps did not become wide spread until the early 1800s. This web page reports that that the iron beaver traps created the Mountain Men, and eventually the Rocky Mountain fur trade. The sole purpose of the American and the Canadian fur trade brigades between 1807 and 1840 was to locate and trap beaver using such devices. During that time frame, it came to pass that trapping beaver by the white European mountain men (in United States territories) was illegal, but the laws were difficult to enforce in that area of the country.

According to the Fur Trapper website, Lewis and Clark did not have beaver traps listed among their Indian trade goods, but several of the expedition members carried iron beaver traps for their personal use. Before the Lewis and Clark Expedition reached the Pacific, a North West Company fur trader, Fran├žois Antoine Larocque, had taken beaver traps to the Crow Indians along the Bighorn and Yellowstone rivers. Lisa, Menard, and Morrison (1807), the Missouri Fur Company (1812), the Astorians (1811) carried beaver traps. From 1818 to 1821, the North West Company's sent three fur trapping brigades to the upper Snake River country under Donald Mackenzie, a former Astorian. The Snake River brigades outfitted each trapper with six beaver traps.

The Newhouse Community Trap is one of the earliest traps used in the fur trade. It is very similar to the Hudson's Bay traps.

Here's a suspicious consignment of historical milieu that has been dressed to sell as Fur Trade relics on eBay. The seller lists the items as ‘Assorted nails from trade posts or battows (boats), part of a fur trade trap, two folding knife blades, end of rifle or pistol barrel, French amber musket flint, five cast brass tacks, Woodland pottery chards, metal arrowhead, copper dangle cut out of a trade kettle, small fur trade ring broach, and what looks to be part of an ice chisel.’ This load of debris is congruous with Dumpdigging. Somebody somewhere at some time dug up an 1800’s fur trade post. But is this evidence of Chest Huff’s amateur archeology in Northern Ontario? Nope. The Seller is listed as American, and I doubt Chester would cross the border. This lot is currently listed for sale at $25.00, and there are still five days left in the auction. I seriously doubt these bits of iron will sell for such a high price (shipping will be expensive too no doubt), but I hope they do find a buyer as such a transaction would further evidence the ‘commodification of history’ in the age of high technology.


Bebe said...

Hi Rob,

Just popped by for a visit to tell you how much I enjoy your blog! I was wandering through the Blog Catalog last night (looking for treasure, of course) :) in the antiques section and came across your site.

It is a fascinating some of the things you have dug up ~ especially love some of those old bottles! I keep hoping I'll come across some pirate's gold in my garden, but have yet only found some bits of shell and tabby (despite years of digging!).

I've added you to my favorite sites and I'll stop back over from time to time to see what goodies you have brought forth on your adventures (plus, I love the history).

Smiles to you up in Canada,

Bebe :)

Robert Campbell said...

Thanks for the kind words. And thanks for adding me to your blog roll! I will add your page to my index. You have a good blog too - I esp like the color scheme, and all those pretty pictures.