A Furry Interlude
by Michael Begun
Ironically, Hudson's failure to find a Northwest Passage led to a decline of interest in trade with China among the Dutch. This was partially due to the fact that the land accidentally discovered by Hudson was rich in a valuable resource of its own: furs. Prior to the establishment of New Amsterdam in 1624, the Dutch had attempted to join the profitable French fur trade with Native Americans in Canada to very little success.i When reports came back describing the land around the Hudson Strait as full of "many skins and peltries, martins, foxes, and many other commodities" the Dutch became ecstatic that they now had a furry foothold of their own.ii By 1625, the Dutch colonists had established a system for trade with the local Native Americans, purchasing 5,295 beaver pelts and 463 otter skins for shipment back to Amsterdam.iii At these early stages of the Dutch colony, beaver pelts were its raison d'tre; as Shorto writes "for the decades to come, debts on Manhattan would be paid in the interchangeable currencies of beaver belts, Dutch guilders and Indian wampum." iv
In fact, the New York City seal bares a testament to this relationship, depicting two beavers on a shield flanked by a man in Dutch garb and a Native American.
Of all the furry woodland creatures in the region, beavers were most prized at this time not only for their fur but also for the layer of pelt beneath this fur which could be made into felt.v These felts were able to sell for such high prices due to a new demand for hats made at least predominantly out of beaver felt.vi Rembrandt's famous painting, The Night Watch, depicts figures wearing Dutch hats made from beaver felts in various styles, including the "dashing chapeaux".
But beaver hats were not only trendy in Holland; the craze spread madly throughout Europe. In England, for example, the demand for beaver hats by 1700 was an astounding 5 million per year (more than one hat per capita!).vii These hats were expensive, selling for as high as five shillings (approx. 3 months earnings for an average laborer) in 1641.viii
Out of the local Native American groups involved in the fur trade, the Dutch typically had the strongest trade relationship with Mohawk Indians. This affinity would last until the end of the Dutch settlement, providing financial security for the colony. Native Americans typically desired more practical items from the Dutch and other Europeans such as knives, iron based goods and consumables.ix This table displays a rough outline of a typical Native American "shopping list" complete with prices in beaver skins devised by Andrew Graham:
Thus, the much less exotic beaver pelts quickly replaced Oriental goods as the ideal commodity among Dutch merchants, as they were much more profitably in demand and significantly easier to acquire.
i. Shorto, R. The Island at the Center of the World. First Vintage Books Edition, April 2005.
ii. Ibid. p. 34
iii. Ibid. p. 45
iv. Ibid. p. 76
v. Ibid. p. 76
vi. Carlos, A. The Economic History of the Fur Trade: 1670 to 1870. "The Demand for Beaver Hats"
viii. Shorto, R. The Island at the Center of the World. First Vintage Books Edition, April 2005.
ix. Ray, A. "History and Archaeology of the Northern Fur Trade" p. 30
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