Beaver

Furs at HBC replica fort at Fort Langley, B. C.

This selections of furs is displayed at Fort Langley, but the same furs — beaver or other creature — would be found at any HBC fort in the territory.

So today I am going to write about the Beaver. Why? Because I now have two fur traders who are describing this animal to their London readers. Future London readers, of course, as neither of these manuscripts were ever published. And I also need a rest, with a nice easy post to write. I am on holiday — just for a week. So let’s not work too hard when we are holidaying!

The first description comes from my great-grandfather’s lost manuscript — lost, except that he quoted this particular passage in his later writing. I find it very amusing, but of course I would.

And now for the Beaver. In attempting to describe some of the habits of this animal, I cannot do better than have recourse once more to notes, penned when I was very young, and now referred to useful [sic] at a maturer age. The partial extracts that I may give must be supposed as being addressed familiarly to an inquisitive friend.

“By the bye: what be your notion of a Beaver-lodge? The question seems so simple that one feels almost disposed to apologize while putting it. Judging, however, from my own misconceptions of some years back, and again from the marvellous accounts one sees constantly blazoned to the World in print, it may not be amiss to dwell awhile on the subject. For instance, I very recently saw in a work, professedly for the instruction of youth, a plate, supposed to represent a group of Beaver-lodges. Nice little mud cottages with nearly [neatly?] rounded roofs, and accurately vaulted doors, seated on a pretty eminence and shared by palms and other trees of tropical vegetation. The following astounding revelation accompanies the print. “This vignette represents the Beaver, with several huts of three stories high, built on the edge of a clear stream, supported and shaded (!) by tall trees and brambles. The huts have usually two doors, one to the water, and one to the land.” And to complete the picture a veritable beaver, perhaps intended to represent the “oldest inhabitant,” is gravely promenading in the foreground! What can our old and esteemed friend, the worthy Mr. Wombwell, say after this? — His vocation’s gone, Hal, depend on’t; the philosophers have usurped it.

“Seriously, however; the Beaver is a semi-amphibious animals: it requires a dry station for its resting place while securing frequent access to the pool which it instinctively creates by damming, and at the bottom of which its winter-store of provisions is deposited. The lodge itself is merely a large collection of poles and sticks disposed like a hollow cone, with earth and mud outside in which bushes and weeds speedily take root and flourish. 

“The entrance is from beneath the water, which covers the lower part of the lodge, while the upper and habitable stages are dry. Here amid soft hay and other bedding the inmates warmly nestle; taking only an occasional plunge to visit their magazines of poplar and other succulent woods, therefrom to abstract a portion for breakfast or for dinner. If alarmed in the lodge, they at once forsake it; escaping through the holes at the bottom, and swimming beneath the surface to their ouaches [sic. What might the proper word be?] — ie. to covered ways excavated in the banks of the Beaver-tarn, accessible from beneath the surface, while having a small orifice from inland to admit air for respiration. In the main lodge, air for the same end is admitted through imperceptible apertures in the summit of the Cone. 

“The object of the dam is simply to securing during the period of hibernation, a uniform and sufficient depth of water, so that even in the severest frost they can have unimpeded access, as well to their stores of provisions as to the places of occasional retreat to which I have alluded. In some cases, a great length of dam is required to confine the water. Pools of several acres in extent are thus frequently formed. The solidity and compactness of these dams has been well described: yet, however firmly constructed at first, nature aids in consolidating them. Willows and tenacious weeds speedily take root there; and their interlacing roots soon bind the whole fabric together. When accidentally or purposely broken, the breach is repaired with remarkable solidity and dispatch, if the inmates are not further molested. [Alexander Caulfield Anderson, “British Columbia,” Draft Unpublished Mss, BCA]

The drawing that Anderson saw was in a book called Guy’s Pocket Cycloepedia, published in London in 1832. Anderson said that it was “A useful little work in its way, but a sad guide for the beaver trapper.” Sometimes it is hard to tell whether Anderson had a sense of humour, but this shows that he did. The mention of Mr. Wombwell, above, referenced the gentleman of that name who owned a travelling menagerie that visited London. Menageries were, at that time, not so much circuses but collections of animals, and Wombwell’s was the most well-known menagerie of the time.  

The second description of a beaver, or at least a beaver hunt, comes from a young fur trader named Augustus Richard Peers, who just happens to be Henry Newham Peers’s older brother. Henry Newsham Peers worked under Donald Manson and Alexander Anderson in the 1848 incoming brigade, and Augustus Peers worked for Alexander Anderson’s older brother, James Anderson (A), at Forts Norman and Good Hope in the Northwest Territories, and later at Peel’s River [Fort McPherson]. He was at Fort Norman when he encountered this particular beaver.

The beaver is a very sagacious animal and displays great art in constructing its stronghold, which is so firmly built with mud and sticks that it costs an Indian a hard toil to break through it, and if they construct their habitation on the margin of a stream they are sagacious enough to cut all their timber above the site of their dam and they therefore find no difficulty in guiding the tree down current. Poplar is the only wood used by the beaver and it is astounding what large trees they will cut down. Nature has, however, provided them with an excellent set of “axes” for this important duty. In felling a tree the beaver works steadily at the trunk which he walks round and round cutting the wood as he goes till at length nothing remains but the heart of the tree, which the superincumbent weight breaks and the tree falls with a crash. I have seen the stumps of trees cut measuring from two to ten inches in diameter. 

Many of my readers may not have eaten the flesh of beaver. In the spring just after winter feeding, they are fat and in good order, but as the summer passes they lose their fat and become strong in taste. When roasted the flesh much resembles pork in taste and richness; but the tail, which in a full grown animal measures about ten inches long by five bread, and one inch thick at the root, is the most dainty morsel about the beaver; and when boiled and eaten with cold meat is a dish worthy of an alderman. Beaver tail, buffalo boss, moose-deer nose, and rein-deer tongues are the delicacies of this country; but really, reader, I beg you to pardon! I fear I have unwittingly caused a secretion from your sublingual gland!

Buffalo boss is almost certainly the hump of the bison; and the bison that lives up here is the Wood Buffalo or Wood Bison, the largest of the two North American Bisons. 

So scarce are the beaver become along the McKenzie that all the time I was at Fort Norman, but one was seen swimming down the river. The Indians who saw it gave the alarm and all the savages present made a rush to their canoes and immediately gave chase. I had no canoe, but as I wished to witness the sport I threw my gun into the hollow of my arm and walked down along shore. The beaver is capable of remaining a great length of time under water, and when he again appears after a dive he is far below the spot. The one we were after avoided the vigilance of his pursuers some time, but at length, after a good deal of paddling and a few random shots, the Indians succeeded in turning him against the current, discharging a ball or arrow at him whenever he showed his nose as he rose to blow. I could not see the beaver from where I stood, but as the Indians were gradually nearing my side of the river I began to have hopes of a shot, even though the odds were against me. Still, they came nearer and presently were within twenty yards of the shore in a circle, every eye straining to get a glimpse of the prize. Presently the water was slightly agitated at the very spot I happened to be looking on, and the next moment Mr. Beaver put up his nose. I fired, and a few convulsive kicks told me I was the owner of the prize. The Indians were rather chagrined to find they had lost the game, and as I bore the body home in triumph they made loud appeals, one wanted the skin and another the meat. I however resolved to keep the carcass, presenting the skin to the senior of the party, well knowing that if it were dressed and dried it would find its way to my store, whereas had I parted with the body I should have lost a most excellent bonne bouche.

The First Nations people that Augustus Peers dealt with at Fort Norman were the Dogribs [Tlicho], and the Mountain Indians “who inhabited the more mountainous regions of the west.” That would be the Backbone Mountains, I presume. I don’t know which Nation lived west of Fort Norman, but Peers did mention the Slaveys, who like the Dogribs are Dene, or “the People.” It helps to know where Fort Norman was at the time, of course, as it had two locations. Peers arrived at Fort Norman June 1844, and in 1847 was transferred northward to the charge of the Peel’s River Post. The post was built in 1810 near the mouth of the Great Bear River, moved south in 1844 to Old Fort Point, and relocated back to the original location in 1851. Therefore, when Augustus Peers was at Fort Norman it was located at Old Fort Point, south of the mouth of the Great Bear River. Interestingly, James Bastedo, author of Northwest Territories, says that Old Fort Island [not Point] is at the distinct narrowing in the Mackenzie River, and is “created by an unusual limestone outcrop. The island is named for the first of several sites of Fort Wrigley [not Fort Norman], originally called Little Rapids Post by the Hudson’s Bay Company. As you approach, you may hear the thunder of not-so-little rapids rushing past the island or, if the water is high enough, slicing right through it.” So putting the two bits of information together, I am not sure they agree. Is Old Fort Point the same place as Old Fort Island? Peers’s journal doesn’t help atall, as the pages that record his arrival at Fort Norman were unreadable. 

So this is a question to be solved in the future sometime, as it will probably be part of some future writing project. If any of you can solve it for me, I would love to hear from you. But I might find out before you do. I told you I was on holiday. My holidays generally consist of spending days in the archives, copying out or photographing records. And that is pretty much what I am planning to do with this holiday.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2018. All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “Beaver

  1. Tom Holloway

    A little Googling yields this definition of “ouache”: “A word borrowed from the Algonquin language designating the cache of certain wild animals (beavers, bears, moose, etc.).” If “cache” is understood as “hiding place,” then A.C.’s description after i.e., seems apt—hiding places carved into the banks of the pond.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      You see how useful asking a question is: I never thought of cache, and yet….it could be. This is a transcription and the original is not in the BCA as far as I know. But I also know that people who are unfamiliar with fur trade words or names might not transcribe the manuscripts correctly. I found that in Thomas Lowe’s journal the transcriber said that some words meant “Sargeant John,” but when I read them I immediately saw that Lowe referred to “Serpent Jaune,” Yellow Serpent, which is what the HBC men called Peo-peo-mox-mox.
      I will have to think about this when I am not sipping wine and relaxing.
      The Algonquins weren’t here, and I don’t think Peers worked with them in his earlier career.
      Thanks, Tom. As always, your information is invaluable.

  2. Tom Holloway

    Even with no Algonquins present, many Native language terms found their way into the jargon of the fur trade, far from their point, or time, of origin. That seems likely in this case.