The Beaver Rage

Fashions change, thanks goodness. In 18th century London, no self-respecting gentleman would have been without his beaver hat, a much admired fur that also went into various articles of clothing and blankets. Given the profits involved, many adventurous Englishmen headed for the American West in search of this valuable prey, at the same time contributing to and sometimes leading the continental expansion.

 1700s trapboat

Trapping a productive little beaver, to be sure, was not an act comparable to hunting bear or buffalo or fighting native Americans resentful of intruders. But locating the beavers was dangerous enough what with extremes of cold, hunger and the persistent threat of warrior attack. Many trappers hardly outlived their prey. Go West, young beaver hunter, at your peril.

In his vast panoramic history of the French and English in early America, Francis Parkman has a keen eye for detail such as an intrepid trapper Alexander Henry, who demonstrates all the hazards of his trade. In 1761, he headed for an isolated fort at the northern tip of Lake Michigan, where he was coolly received by the local Indians, then allied with the French as the English were taking over Canada. One white imperial rule was enough. Fortunately for him and his trapping ambition, he won the friendship of an Indian chief, Wawawtam. Conquerors they were, but the English depended on cooperative Indians to settle America.

There followed, according to Henry’s own account, a harrowing experience. While a small group of English troops were complacently watching an Indian ball game just outside the fort, they were startled by a sudden war whoop, and a massacre began. Inside writing letters, Henry was momentarily spared. He climbed a fence to a neighbor’s house, but the French owner was indifferent to his plight – nothing I can do. An Indian slave woman came to his rescue, hiding him in a garret where he witnessed the bloody melee. Some Indians, boasting of the scalps they had taken, came looking for him, but he eluded them until his French hosts, fearing for their own safety, decided to give him up. “I now resigned myself to the fate with which I was menaced. I rose from the bed and presented myself in full view to the Indians.” One held him and drew a knife, then hesitated. He had lost a brother and Henry could replace him.

The respite was brief. Amid celebrations, another Indian led Henry out with the aim of killing him. Henry parried the knife blow and fled back to the fort. Once again he was seized and taken on a canoe in a cold mist to a distant island. But the trip was interrupted by other tribesmen who were angry that they had not shared the spoils from the attack. In the middle of this controversy who should appear but faithful Wawatam, who persuaded the captors to free Henry. “I adopted him as my brother,” he pleaded. “From that moment he became one of my family so that no change of circumstances could break the cord
which fastened us together.” Henry spent a peaceful night in a cave, though on waking he discovered he had been lying on human bones, the residue of a charnel house.

He lived with Wawatam and his family for close to a year, following their seasonal moves for hunting and fishing that he describes in his book Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories, 1760-1776.  What if he, like some other settlers, had decided to stay with the Indians? Writes Parkman: “To him who has once tasted the reckless independence, the haughty self-reliance, the sense of irresponsible freedom, which the forest life engenders, civilization thenceforth seems flat and stale. His path was choked with difficulties, but these were the very spice of his life, gladdening his heart with exulting self-confidence, and sending the blood through his veins with a livelier current. The wilderness, rough, harsh and inexorable, has charms more potent than all the lures of luxury.”

Travels and Adventures - book cover

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