Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Beaver Wars Virtualized

It is difficult to believe from today’s perspective, but over-hunting beaver in the Hudson river valley, where the Iroquois were dominant, started a brutal 62-year war as the Iroquois pushed ever westward in attempts to control the trade in beaver pelts in great demand in Europe. To the one side was the Iroquois Confederation, backed by the British and the Dutch. To the other more than a dozen other Indian nations, largely of the Algonquin language group, backed by the French and inhabiting the Great Lakes region. The war began in 1640 and ended in 1701—when the Iroquois were more or less victorious and made a treaty with the English (Nanfan treaty) granting them rights to the Great Lakes region inhabited by their enemies. I show a map of the western Beaver Hunting Grounds, arising from that treaty. Sure enough, we now live right in the center of it—and at a spot most densely populated by the unfortunate beaver.

A quite excellent history of that period, illustrating how broad phrases like “beaver wars” are almost without meaning when the details are viewed, is Wilderness Empire (1969, Little Brown), by Alan W. Eckert. Before our history began, there was lots and lots of confusing pre-history, reading it instructive.

Why is the beaver—and the seventeenth century North American Wilderness—suddenly in my focus? There is an element of what the Germans call “gallows humor” behind it. I read a story in the New York Times this morning. The Federal Trade Commission reached an agreement with three retailers (Neiman Marcus, Dr., and Eminent) under which they will, in future, refrain from using real animal fur as portions of articles of clothing made of faux fur. As of now, when you buy genuine artificial fur, you can be sure that no animal has suffered in making the soft collar that gently brushes your neck.

Fake or faux fur was introduced in 1929. It wasn’t really fake, actually, but made of shorn alpaca hair—like wool is made from live sheep fur. Never mind. With polymers, later, the fake fake became real fake fur. Back in the 1930s, the idea was to find a lower-priced substitute for the real thing, what with wildlife disappearing all over the globe now. The Iroquois just needed to travel west. We must travel into the virtual dimensions of artificiality.

The consoling (?) thought comes. What comes around, goes around. There may yet be (give it 400 years or so) a revival of the beaver in North America. And in that future, new beaver wars. As that old curmudgeon, Darnay the Younger, once said: Excurrat olei mundi.


  1. By coincidence, as I was on my way to the pool, I listened to the radio and heard a spokesman for the MI Dept. of Natural Resources report that our work at rehabilitating species diversity here in MI is making outstanding progress. Beavers are returning as are River Sturgeons and other species. All because our clean water restoration has been so successful. The Detroit River, once the dirtiest in the nation, now runs clean and is host to returning species. Great good news for once.

  2. Very good news indeed. The Great Lakes region *is* doing lots of things right -- unheard, unheralded. And we're all beneficiaries...

  3. This is fascinating.
    And, of course, there was the experience of Peak Beaver as the wild beaver populations crashed.


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