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Beavers, Beaver Hats, and Canada

The Beaver

Ever hear about the beaver hats that changed the way we looked at a landscape? Now, I do know that beaver hats did not walk and conquer the land but the story of the pursuit of these items is what I want to share with you.

So, let me introduce you to the beaver hat.

Yes, beaver hats. Let us begin with the basics. Beaver hats were made with beaver pelts that came from beavers who were trapped by fur traders. And throughout history, there were many fur traders and fur trading companies who made a living acquiring beaver pelts. To some, this profession may sound a bit extreme, but the reality is that these 70 pounds, nocturnal, flat-tailed rodents (the second largest in the world) played an important but unfortunate part in the creation of Canada. The Castor canadensis aka the North American Beaver is on Canada’s first official stamp and it is on the Canadian five cent coin. So how did this iconic creature end up defining the landscape of Canada that we recognize today?

For the sake of this blog post, I will give a summary of this history. For more details, I genuinely encourage you to do some more reading for the entire story. Also, anyone left out of this summary was not intentional as I wanted to examine how an object help changed the land.

Let us go back a few centuries to the country of France. Beaver hats were immensely popular and in high demand from people in Europe and France was the center of beaver hats production for all of Europe. In the late 1600s, this hat making industry went on strike and many of the workers left France and moved to England, thus making England the leading producer of beaver hats. This fashion trend lead to a near extinction of beavers in Europe.

However, about 15 years before the strike, explorers and brothers-in-laws Pierre-Esprit Radisson (1636-1710) and Médard Chouart Des Groseilliers (1618-1696) from New France had met a few labour disputes of their own. Around the 1650s, Radisson and Des Groseilliers had established a trading route with a few Indigenous groups in the northern area of North America. Radisson and Des Groseilliers were unable to get a trading licence from the Governor of New France but continued to trade with Indigenous peoples without one. Upon discovering that the brothers had traded without permission, most of their trade goods were confiscated by the Governor. This act resulted in Radisson and Des Groseilliers travelling to France to dispute these issues with no avail. Angry and revengeful, the explorers met with an Englishman who in brief, led them to meet with King Charles II of England who listened about a land with plenty of desirable furs.

In 1668 with the approval of King Charles II, Radisson and Des Groseilliers set off on a journey to the Hudson Bay for beaver pelts. This success of the voyage resulted in the creation of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who for over 350 years contributed to expansion of Canada through the fur trade.

Landscape history in Canada is quite complicated – as is the reality that the pursuit for a beaver hat helped shape the land.

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