Oh, alright. the title of this post is a little misleading. But, as may be becoming apparent, I can’t resist ridiculous animal history, and it turns out the humble beaver really did play a crucial role in the early chapters of the American story.
Here’s the tale, quoted from Raymond Seitz’s review of Nick Bunker’s (by all accounts excellent) Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and their World in April’s Literary Review.
If proof were needed of their godly mission, it came in the providential form of the castor canadensis, the North American beaver. For five hard years, the Pilgrim colony at New Plymouth had clung by calloused fingertips to the edge of the New England coast with little prospect of posterity, or even survival, and with scant support from its financial backers in London. The settlers grew enough corn and salted enough fish to get by, but their reserves were meagre and they had few goods to trade with the natives. In fact, relations with the Indians in the narrow hinterland around Cape Cod were circumspect and often uneasy, especially after the indigenous population was repeatedly decimated by epidemics.
The beaver saved the colony (if not the Indians). Demand in Europe for beaver pelts was soaring at the very moment in 1625 when Edward Wilson, one of the original Mayflower Pilgrims, led a small expedition up the Kennebec River in Maine to the elevated swamplands where the beaver thrived. By the end of 1628, at least three thousand skins had been shipped across the Atlantic to the ports of Barnstaple, Bristol and Plymouth. From the soft felt made of the beaver’s downy underfur, London’s haberdashers fashioned warm, rain-resistant hats, and in one of those inexplicable Spasms of sartorial fashion, the beaver hat became a symbol of rank, wealth and status in English society. So a beguiling irony of the period is that the strictly modest Calvinist Puritans of New England were rescued by the foppish vanity of old England’s upper classes. Two years later, with economic security now assured, John Winthrop established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in present-day Boston, and the Great Migration from England was launched.
It got me wondering – can any of Culture&Stuff’s readers think of other examples of animals changing the course of human history? Get commenting, people.