Can Hunters Do What Beavers Do?

Previous posts explained the primary role played by hunters in exploring, opening and ultimately settling the Western wilderness, an experience motivated by financial rewards from the trade in furs. But it would be a mistake to assume that this took place only as we pushed West.  In fact, from the moment that white Europeans first set foot on the East Coast, moving inland was as much a taming of the wilderness as would later happen when we began moving across the territory that we owned by dint of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

According to the biologist and agriculturalist Toby Hemenway, within a decade after the first landing by the Mayflower in 1620, at least 100,000 beaver pelts were shipped back to Europe, and by 1640 as many as 800,000 beavers had been slaughtered over the previous ten years.   The demand for animal fur, largely beaver but also including bear and wolf, continued to grow over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to the point that more ships crossed the Atlantic carrying furs than were used to catch and carry fish.

Trappers and hunters who extended the fur trade beyond the Missouri after 1810 found that Europe’s demand for furs was now subordinate, in many cases, to home-grown demand from within the United States. Cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston now had large populations whose tastes in clothing meant that furs were treated and re-sold within the domestic market rather than being sent overseas.  When fashion began changing in the 1840s and fur garments gave way to leather goods, the Western hunters shifted away from slaughtering beavers and quickly made the buffalo almost extinct as well.

While hunters and trappers were still exploring and opening the Western wilderness, in the East the process of moving from farming to industry had begun. Factories began springing up all over New England by the 1840’s, with textile, firearms and clothing manufacturing combining natural resources like furs and hides from the West with abundant energy from the fast-moving streams in the East.  The growth of a huge internal market based on cheap resources from the frontier combined with cheap energy from what had previously been the frontier launched a half-century of economic expansion that no other country has experienced before or since.

Beavers at work: stream, marsh and woods.

Beavers at work: stream, marsh and woods.

What lay behind this enormous economic growth was the handiwork of hunters whose ability to kill off beavers brought about a crucial change in the ecosystem that allowed all those New England factories to create the goods and satisfy both domestic and foreign demand.  The deep gullies and fast-moving streams that created energy for factories was not a natural feature of the New England landscape; it was what happened to slow-moving and gentle ponds when, as Toby Hemenway says, they were fed by “beaverless watersheds.” Beavers create environments that hold maximum amounts of water and soil on the land.  Remove the beavers and the water turns into a cascade.

Beaver activity creates a natural cycle of environmental replenishment. Ponds become marsh, then meadow then woodland, and then the beavers build another dam, and the cycle repeats again.  We’ve tried to do the same thing in many places where the hunters killed off the beavers, because this let us us build factories. Except the factories then collapsed.  A paper factory in Monroe, Massachusetts first gained a workforce when it opened in 1866 because farmers in the surrounding Monroe Plateau were happy to trade their plows for a steady wage.  The town lived off the mill for more than one hundred years, but when it was shuttered in 1985, the town basically shut down as well.

Monroe, Massachusetts

Monroe, Massachusetts

Nobody has come up with a plan for these towns; fancy catchwords like rural reindustrialization can’t  do for this environment what the beaver could do for its environment with a flat tail and some sharp teeth. I can tell you, however, that most of the remaining residents in Monroe and other small, country towns love to hunt.  Who knows?  Previous generations of hunters sparked an economic miracle, maybe it could happen again.

Based on my book, Hunters in the Wilderness.  Volume II in the series, Guns in America, to be published in December.

Advertisements

How Savage Were Those Savages? Part 1 of 2.

Hunkpapa Sioux Chief Sitting Bull in 1885

Hunkpapa Sioux Chief Sitting Bull in 1885 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It took the United States only a quarter-century to populate and settle the vast wilderness that we acquired with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.  Over the period from the opening of the Oregon Trail in 1840 until the joining of the intercontinental railroad in 1869, more than 500,000 people who had previously lived east of the Missouri River either settled between the Missouri and the Rockies or journeyed on to the West Coast. Twenty years after the railroad stretches from coast to coast, the US Census in 1890 declared that the frontier was “closed.”

One of the basic themes of this westward migration and settlement was the idea that as white Americans moved west, they turned the wilderness into civilization and, in the process, civilized all those ‘savages’ who otherwise would have continued living in an uncivilized state.  Much of the notion that we were civilized, they were not, grew out of the fact that the Indians weren’t Christians and hence, by definition, couldn’t be considered as equals to whites in any respect.  But the notion of Indians as savages wasn’t so much an extension of the racism that colored (pardon the pun) the white view of all non-white folks.  Rather, it reflected an absence among Indians of the basic societal relations on which our civilization, both then and now still rests.

What I am referring to is the whole notion of property.  It’s not clear exactly when Western civilization “invented” private property.  We see bits and pieces of private ownership in the earliest Western law codes, but when the Romans marched through Gaul, for example, they encountered many indigenous populations for whom all land was held in common and the notions of private ownership didn’t yet exist.  And even when early monarchs began giving out land grants to reward vassals for fighting on their behalf, the ownership of these properties were tied more to family lineage and occupancy than to any modern notion that allowed the land to be bought and sold.

It was only after the Norman conquest of England that a legal system began to emerge which, at its core, was based on defining and protecting property as something whose value was determined when it was bought and sold.  And it was this legal system, known as the common law, that was brought to the New World and established here by the colonists at Plymouth Bay.  And it was this same legal system that underlay the political system adopted first by the colonies, then by the states, and then by the territories that were formed as we moved west.

There was only one problem.  The Indians had no system of private property.  And because they didn’t have private property, they couldn’t develop a political system that in any way, shape or form, was similar to what existed in what was then called the united States.  In 1868 more than 30 Sioux chiefs, including Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, signed a treaty at Fort Laramie which gave the Indians control in perpetuity for an immense territory which today would have covered most of the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming and a piece of Nebraska.  But what we didn’t understand was that the 30-odd chiefs who put their marks on the document were signing only for themselves.  There wasn’t a single brave in the camps of any of those chiefs who were bound to follow what the treaty said.  And many wouldn’t follow it.  And the treaty was a dead letter within 6 months.

We fought and won the Plains Indian Wars after 1868 because we believed the Indians were ‘savages’ and needed to be taught the white man’s ways.  What else could we do when faced with a population that wasn’t ready to behave?

Based on my book, Hunters in the Wilderness.  Volume II in the series, Guns in America, to be published in December.