At first glance, this may seem like an unusual page to find on a site dedicated to Pocahontas, but in the past year or so, I've been intrigued by aspects of the Pocahontas story that are connected to Castor canadensis, the North American beaver, The obvious connection is the beaver hat that Pocahontas is shown to be wearing in the Van de Passe engraving, the only image made from life of Pocahontas. We don't know what Pocahontas thought of that hat, or even if she realized it had been manufactured from the fur of beaver, but no one in Europe at the time could have known the coming effect of the beaver trade on Indian life in North America. Trappers and traders spread out across all parts of North America in search of furs, bringing weapons, tools, new ways of life, new alliances, and tragically, fatal diseases to the indigenous people. Furthermore, the extermination of beaver led to massive changes in the environment and animal diversity, which in turn made the landscape unsuited for traditional Indian life in many places. When people speak of how Indians were driven from their lands, we may imagine that this was always at the point of a gun. However, we should also understand, that when a people's life is upended by significant changes in the environment, people are forced to adapt or vanish. The Indians in North America did some of both.
On this page, I will attempt to introduce some information related to how the disappearance of beaver impacted North America. The majority of my information comes from the book Eager: Beavers Matter, by Ben Goldfarb (2018). Not everything on this page is directly related to the east coast Indians, but I believe many of the circumstances from other locations have relevance to the east coast as well, though I'm unclear on how to quantify the degree of similarity.
Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter - Ben Goldfarb (2018) ISBN-9781603589086
Some quotes from Eager:Beavers Matter, by Ben Goldfarb (2018), with foreword by Dan Flores.
Re. the significant difference between pre- and post- beaver trade habitat: "Ignore for a moment the selfish-gene cause, the exploitation of a wild animal for mere fashion. These acts of beaver removal ... abruptly terminated centuries stretching deeply into the past when beavers and their works fashioned the continent's watercourses into ribbons of inundation and trickling water storage. With beavers gone, that wet world -- the kind of wetness many places will long for in the coming climate -- has yielded to flashier runoffs that have cut gullies and arroyos and helped produce a drier North America." p. X (Flores)
" .... beavers create a continent quite different from the one we might hold in our romantic imaginations about 'virgin' (or Indian) America. Beaver America was -- is -- a swampier, boggier, muddier landscape than we might think. The sparkling, free-running mountain streams of modern fly-fisher or river-runner fantasies, much like the predator-free paradise of twentieth-century sport hunting, necessarily give way to a very different world when beavers and wolves are back." p. XI (Flores)
Re. Rocky Mountain beaver exploitation: "In the autumn of 1807, John Colter, a former member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, followed the Bighorn River into the Rocky Mountains to trade with the Crow Indians. Colter wandered Wyoming for months in the snow and dead of winter, toting little more than a rifle and a pack. Although no one's quite certain where his route took him, he's considered the first white man to enter the hole, a word trappers used to describe broad, game-filled valleys. He also found lots of beavers." p. 3 (Goldfarb)
"In the decades that followed, a parade of fortune-seekers followed Colter's footsteps into the Northern Rockies, a region that, blared one newspaper, 'posses[ed] a wealth of furs not surpassed by the mines of Peru.' (1) These travelers were the famed mountain men, rapacious beaver trappers who, between the early 1820s and the late 1840s, systematically ransacked just about every pond and stream between Colorado and California. Most of those pelts flowed to the Missouri River and thence to St. Louis, to be shipped off to the East Coast or Europe for conversion into fashionable hats. With breathtaking speed, the mountain men demolished their resource, virtually wiping out beavers throughout the American West. 'The trappers often remarked to each other as they rode over these lonely plains that it was time for the white man to leave the mountains,' Osborne Russell, a beaver hunter who frequented Wyoming and Utah, wrote in 1841, 'as beaver and game had nearly disappeared.' " (2) p. 3,4 (Goldfarb)
Re. how trumpeter swans relied on beaver habitat: "Although the reign of the mountain men was brief, they left an enduring ecological legacy. If you know nothing else about beavers, you're probably aware that they build dams: walls of wood, mud, and rock that hold back water and form ponds and wetlands. The rodents also construct lodges, towering houses that often rise from open water like volcanic islands. These structures don't just house beavers themselves. Trumpeter swans squat rent-free atop beaver lodges, commandeering them as nesting platforms upon which their chicks shelter from land-bound predators like foxes. The majestic white birds also crave the elodea, sago pondweed, and other aquatic plants that grow in shallow beaver ponds." p. 4 (Goldfarb)
"By trapping out the Northern Rockies' beavers, the mountain men unwittingly destroyed countless acres of prime swan habitat. A few decades later farmers and ranchers finished the job by draining wetlands to make way for cattle and alfalfa. Today only ninety or so resident trumpeter swans linger in the region, and chicks seldom survive. 'Beaver ponds would've been strung out like necklaces down these drainages, and this landscape would have been a giant sponge,' a swan biologist named Ruth Shea told me. ' That's why there were swans nesting everywhere. Swans are the poster child for the importance of beaver.' " p. 4 (Goldfarb)
My comment: After some checking, it appears unlikely that trumpeter swans relied on Virginia beaver habitat for breeding as described in the above, which specifically refers to swans in the Northern Rockies. Swans may have wintered in Virginia, but there may not have been swan nests on beaver lodges there. However, other birds and animals would certainly have benefited from beaver habitat, as will be shown further down. See Swan Controversy.
Re. the pre-colonial environment/ecosystem: "Instead of envisioning a present-day stream, I want you to reach into the past -- before the mountain men, before the Pilgrims, before Hudson and Champlain and the other horsemen of the furpocalypse, all the way back to the 1500s. I want you to examine the streams that existed before global capitalism purged a continent of its dam-building, water-storing, wetland-creating engineers. I want you to imagine a landscape with its full complement of beavers.
"What do you see this time? No longer is our stream a pellucid, narrow, racing trickle. Instead it's a sluggish, murky swamp, backed up several acres by a messy concatenation of woody dams. Gnawed stumps ring the marsh like punji sticks; dead and dying trees stand aslant in the chest-deep pond. When you step into the water, you feel not rocks underneath but sludge. The musty stink of decomposition wafts into your nostrils. ..." p. 6 (Goldfarb)
Re. biodiversity: "In the intermountain West, wetlands, though they make up just 2 percent of total land area, support 80 percent of biodiversity; you may not hear the tinkle of running water in our swamp, but listen closely to the songs of warblers and flycatchers perched in creekside willows. Frogs croak along the pond's marshy aprons; otters chase trout through the submerged branches of downed trees, a forest inverted. The deep water and the close vegetation make the fishing tough, sure, but abundant trout shelter in the meandering side channels and cold depths. In A River Runs Through It, Norman MacLean captured the trials and ecstasies of angling in beaver country when he wrote of one character, 'So off he went happily to wade in ooze and to get throttled by brush and to fall through loose piles of sticks called beaver dams and to end up with a wreath of seaweed round his neck and a basket full of fish.' (3) " p. 6, 7 (Goldfarb)
Re. water retention: "And it's not just fishermen and wildlife who benefit. The weight of the pond presses water deep into the ground, recharging aquifers for use by downstream farms and ranches. Sediment and pollutants filter out in the slackwaters, cleansing flows. Floods dissipate in the ponds; wildfires hiss out in wet meadows. Wetlands capture and store spring rain and snowmelt, releasing water in delayed pulses that sustain crops through the dry summer. A report by a consulting firm in 2011 estimated that restoring beavers to a single river basin, Utah's Escalante, would provide tens of millions of dollars in benefits each year. (4)" p. 7 (Goldfarb)