The World Hunt: An Environmental History of the Commodification of Animals

The World Hunt: An Environmental History of the Commodification of Animals

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Presented here is the final and most coherent section of a sweeping classic work in environmental history, The Unending Frontier. The World Hunt focuses on the commercial hunting of wildlife and its profound global impact on the environment and the early modern world economy. Tracing the massive expansion of the European quest for animal products, The World Hunt explores the fur trade in North America and Russia, cod fishing in the North Atlantic, and whaling and sealing on the world’s oceans and coastlands.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520282537
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/23/2014
Series: California World History Library Series
Edition description: First Edition, Abridged
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

John Richards was Professor of History at Duke University and editor of Land, Property and the Environment (2001). He was also coeditor of World Deforestation in the Twentieth Century (1988) and Global Deforestation and the Nineteenth-Century World Economy (1983). He died in 2007.

John McNeill is professor of history at Georgetown University and author of several books on world and environmental history, most recently Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1640-1914 (2010).

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The World Hunt

An Environmental History of the Commodification of Animals

By John F. Richards


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95847-0


Furs and Deerskins in Eastern North America

European maritime contact with the New World thrust commercialized human predation across the North Atlantic Ocean. Commercial hunting proved to be the most lucrative way to exploit the northernmost regions of the Americas. Much of the early impetus for maritime travel to North America came from the profits to be made from hunting, killing, processing, and shipping animal skins back to Europe. Europeans found several prey species—beavers, foxes, marten, and other furbearers, and deer—that yielded high-value commodities for the home market with its pent-up demand for fur. Windfall exploitation of abundant New World fur-bearing animals raised the European standard of living.

By the early sixteenth century, supplies of furs were dwindling across Europe and prices had risen sharply. The European beaver, for example, was nearly extinct in southern Europe and fast disappearing elsewhere. Even rabbit skins were hard to get and were expensive. Sable and marten, the costliest furs, were prohibitive in price for all save the very few. In England, fashionable taste was shifting away from fur-lined gowns toward "fabrics of an almost unbelievable richness." Nevertheless, cloth did not provide the warmth of fur in the increasingly cold winters. In 1604, a Venetian living in London commented, "The weather is bitterly cold and everyone is in furs although we are almost in July."

Unlike sugar and tobacco, producing furs required no heavy investment in land conversion and cultivation. Peltries demanded only a modest investment in relation to their potential return. The indigenous peoples of North America supplied the human energy and skill needed for the hunt and its aftermath. Successive Indian groups were a cheap, readily available labor force that engaged in ever more arduous labor in return for inexpensive trade goods. If necessary, Indian groups bartered for beaver and other furs from more remote Indians with access to better hunting grounds. European colonists, even fur traders, did very little actual hunting and trapping themselves. Traders, farmers, and artisans saw little appeal in the rigors of the hunt. Somewhat later, by the late seventeenth century and through the eighteenth century, the warmer southern region of North America developed a new export product. Overshadowed by the far better known trade in beaver, fox, and other furs, deerskins became a staple product of the American Southeast. Market demand by the early modern European leather industry soared as domestic supplies of deerskin dwindled. European traders turned to North America, where the most plentiful deer by that time were those in the southern colonies. The indigenous peoples in the American Southeast responded to new market stimuli and became primary producers of semi-processed deer hides in ever increasing numbers.

The territorial reach of the fur trade far exceeded the extent of European settlement and direct contact. Long before any direct trade with Europeans occurred, Indian groups in the interior traded furs for goods brought by Indian middlemen. Some Indian groups became middlemen who acquired fur for trade goods from interior Indian hunters and exchanged them for more trade goods, especially European weaponry, with Europeans. Conflicts over middleman status could and did lead to war and the expulsion of the losers from their territories. In this "protohistoric era" of indirect trade, Indians moved perceptibly toward commercial hunting. Archaeological data confirm that even the Indians of the Canadian subarctic were acquiring and using European trade goods by the end of the seventeenth century. During the "historic era," that followed, European fur traders traveled to Indian settlements and began direct trading relations. As contact intensified, the arrival of other, competing European fur traders generated new pressures to kill and overkill more animals.


Early-sixteenth-century voyages to engage in North Atlantic cod fishing and whaling put European seamen in frequent contact with Indians along the northern coastline of North America. French, Basque, and Portuguese sailors exchanged gifts with the Micmacs of the Maritime Provinces and the Montagnais groups of southern Labrador. Gift exchanges soon evolved into a trading pattern. The Indians wore and used furs and pelts that had substantial value in European eyes. Beaver, bear, lynx, fox, otter, marten, badger, muskrat, and mink pelts could be conditioned then cut and pieced together to make warm and decorative fur garments. The skins of shorthaired seals, moose, elks, and deer, if properly treated, made exceptionally strong and supple leather garments. The coastal Indians were willing to exchange furs for European manufactured goods.

In these early encounters, the most desirable objects offered to the Indians were iron knives, hatchets, and kettles; wool blankets and other European textiles; and glass beads for decoration. Marten skins, rare and expensive in Europe, were plentiful in New England and could be obtained very cheaply in exchange for axes, knives, and other trade goods.

In the latter part of the century, profits from the casual trade encouraged merchant-adventurers to invest in fur trading rather than fishing or voyages to the New World. In 1583, French merchants in La Rochelle, Saint Malo, and Rouen financed five fur-trading voyages to North America. Two years later, ten ships made the crossing. One Stephen Bellinger, a trader from Rouen, "brought home ... divers beastes skynnes as beavers, otters, martense, lucernes, seals, buff, dere, skynnes. All drest and paynted on the innter side with divers excellent colors."

The eastern Algonkian Indians—Micmacs and Montagnais among others—living along the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and in Nova Scotia were involved in low-intensity fur trading throughout most of the sixteenth century. These Algonkian-speaking hunters had recently driven the horticultural Iroquois out of the Saint Lawrence River valley in a conflict over control of the growing fur trade. The Montagnais became the dominant middlemen, or trading specialists, who extracted furs from hunters in the interior in the Saguenay River drainage system in exchange for trade goods. The Montagnais in turn supplied those Spanish, Basque, Dutch, and French trading vessels that sailed up the Gulf of Saint Lawrence as far as Tadoussac, an Indian trading center located where the Saguenay River enters the Saint Lawrence.

In the last half of the sixteenth century, a new, intense European demand for beaver pelts stimulated fur trading in the New World. Molded and shaped hats made of felt from the inner fur of the beaver became popular for higher-status men in the late 1500s in western Europe and remained in fashion throughout the early modern period. The North American beaver became the most valuable furbearer of the New World and prey to one of the longest sustained hunts for a single species in world history. Demand for beaver hats continued undiminished for three hundred years, until manufacturers perfected the cheaper and glossier silk hat in the 1840s. Thereafter, prices for high-quality beaver pelts declined steadily in the face of technological innovation in hat making.

Beaver pelts consist of coarse, two-inch-long outer, or guard, hairs that cover the inner, extremely fine down of the coat. The one-inch-long inner-hairs have microscopic hooks at the ends that are ideal for the felting process. Skilled master hatters bought cleaned and graded beaver wool sheared from the skin. Journeymen boiled lesser quality wool with water and urine to enhance its felting qualities; the best quality needed no preparation. Next, the workers passed a large taut bow, similar to a violin bow, over the pile of wool. When vibrated, the bow's magnetic force aligned the hairs all in the same direction. Using heat and pressure, the hatter shaped the wool into batts of felt. Two large and two joining batts were pressed together to form a hat. After shaping or blocking, the hat underwent a finishing process that involved dyeing, stiffening, waterproofing, reblocking, ironing, trimming, and final shaping. The result was a durable, waterproof, warm hat with no discernible seams and a smooth nap that could be shaped and reshaped according to fashion, a hat that could be worn for years on end.

Prices and profits on beaver pelts rose together. Most sought-after were beaver robes consisting of five to as many as eight pelts sewn together and worn for some time by their Indian owners. These "coat," or castor gras, beaver robes lost their guard hairs through friction and left the inner beaver wool pliant and workable as a result of its wearer's sweat and oils. Less valuable was the stiff "parchment," or castor sec, scraped skin that carried both guard hairs and inner wool. The latter required careful combing and separation from the skin before it could be used in felting.

During the sixteenth century, Dutch traders shipped the best-quality parchment skins via fifteen- to twenty-vessel fleets that left Amsterdam in the spring each year for the Russian port of Archangel on the White Sea; from there the skins traveled to Moscow. Furriers in Moscow held a trade secret. They combed out the inner wool from beaver skins while leaving the long guard hairs on the skin. Beaver pelts combed in this way fetched a higher price for use in trimming garments or even for wearing as a "natural" fur than uncombed beaver skins from North America. After the furs had been processed, the Dutch traders shipped two profitable goods with the return voyage each year. Both combed beaver pelts and separated, high-quality beaver wool returned a profit despite the costs of shipping to Archangel and back. Paris, with its high concentration of skilled hatters, remained the primary market for processed beaver fur—at least until the flight of the Huguenots to London in 1685.


The beaver is one of those wild animals whose singular appearance and work habits have become firmly engrained in United States and Canadian popular culture (and indeed, world culture)—so much so that historians of the fur trade rarely think it necessary to describe its physical characteristics, life cycle, habitat, or industrious work ethic. This omission tends to minimize the extraordinary importance of the beaver in the shaping of the North American landscape and to elide the ecological significance of its market-driven near-extinction.

The densely furred, reddish brown to black North American beaver (Castor canadensis) is one of the largest rodents in the world. Adult beavers of both sexes are about the same size: from 600 to 800 millimeters in body length and twelve to twenty-five kilograms in weight. They have broad, flat, naked tails (100–130 millimeters wide) that add another 250–400 millimeters in length. They have unwebbed front feet with strong digging claws and webbed hind feet for swimming. Their strongly developed front teeth never stop growing but are worn down by incessant chewing and gnawing. Beavers are herbivores that feed on the cambium, bark, leaves, twigs, and roots of deciduous softwood trees—willow, aspen, poplar, birch, and alder—as well as on roots of aquatic plants such as water lilies. They are semiaquatic animals who prefer to live in burrows or lodges beside or in streams and small lakes near an abundant growth of their favored tree species. Strong swimmers, they reach a speed of six to seven kilometers per hour and routinely remain underwater for five minutes or more.

Beavers are social animals that live in family groups of four to as many as eight animals. Each group centers on a monogamous, mated breeding pair of adults who take care of young that are less than two years of age. Mating takes place once a year, about January or February, followed by a gestation period of 100 to 110 days. The litters, born April to June, usually number two to four kits that nurse for three months. Kits live with their parents until they reach sexual maturity, at which time their parents expel them from the colony to establish their own households nearby. Beavers in captivity can survive from thirty-five to fifty years, but the life span in the wild is probably shorter. In short, beavers are both prolific and long-lived and have few dangerous predators.

These animals are energetic hydrologic engineers who work continuously to shape their home environment. Ponds afford them security and food storage for winter. They cut trees and bushes by gnawing and drag or float logs and poles for use in construction. Using earth, mud, stones, brush, and poles, beavers build dams to create or augment ponds and lakes, build submerged lodges on islands in the ponds or on the banks of rivers, and even dig waterways (beaver canals) that permit them to float logs readily from a distant source. Over years and decades, undisturbed beaver colonies continually augment and extend these works to an impressive scale.

In favorable habitats like northern hardwood forests, beavers can reach prodigious numbers. Reasonably credible estimates suggest that Castor canadensis numbered between 60 to 100 million animals before European settlement in North America. Some inkling of the cumulative impact of dense beaver populations on the North American landscape can be inferred from a mid-nineteenth-century study of an area where beavers were under minimal pressure from trappers.

Lewis Morgan, later to become prominent as an early ethnologist and anthropologist, began studying beavers in the mid-1850s. Morgan was involved in the construction of a railroad built to reach iron deposits in an uninhabited area in northern Michigan on the south shore of Lake Superior. The railroad cut through a "beaver district"; as a result of the railroad "opening this wilderness in advance of all settlement, the beavers were surprised, so to speak, in the midst of their works, which, at the same time, were rendered accessible for minute and deliberate investigation." Morgan chose as his study area a mixed deciduous and coniferous rectangular tract measuring 9.6 by 12.9 kilometers. Within this 124-square-kilometer region traversed by two small rivers, the Carp and the Ely, Morgan found "sixty-three beaver dams, without reckoning the smallest, from those which are fifty feet [15 meters] in length, and forming ponds covering a quarter of an acre of land, to those which are three hundred and five hundred feet [91 to 150 meters] in length, with ponds covering from twenty to sixty acres [8.1 to 24.3 hectares] of land." In this small region, beavers also built lodges on the banks of natural ponds and lakes. They constructed dozens of canals that enabled them to move timber and brush readily by water to their lodges. One of the longest canals, 153 meters in length, was designed to supply beaver burrows along its route and a lodge at the entrance to a natural pond.

Morgan also commented on the ubiquitous "beaver meadows" shown on the map of the study tract. These were low-lying areas adjacent to beaver ponds, where, in the wet seasons, standing water had killed off the tree growth and permitted a "rank, luxuriant grass" to flourish. The beaver meadows were "a series of hummocks formed of earth and a mass of coarse roots of grass rising about a foot high, while around each of them is a narrow strip of bare and sunken ground." However, as Morgan was careful to emphasize, all these works required constant maintenance and repair by the attentive beaver colonies that benefited from them. When hunting killed off beaver colonies in a region, the dams and canals deteriorated and rapidly altered those ecosystems associated with the beaver.

In addition to beaver pelts, European merchants encouraged Indian hunters to supply them with pelts from other furbearers. All were carnivores with smaller populations than those of the beaver and were more difficult to hunt. Their furs were not used for making hats but for garments or linings that offered warmth, comfort, and display in the traditional fashion. Second only to the beaver in annual numbers harvested was the raccoon (Procyon lotor), whose fur was warm but considered less fashionable and valuable. Also targeted were highly valued pelts from the marten (Martes americana) and the fisher (Martes pennanti), both close relatives of the Siberian sable. Along stream and riverbanks were found the mink (Mustela vison), the river otter (Lutra canadensis), and the less valuable muskrat (Ondata zibethicus).

Furs from several species of fox found a market: red fox (Vulpes vulpes), kit fox (Vulpes macrotis), swift fox (Vulpes velox), gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), and in the far north, arctic fox (Alopex lagopus). Pelts from two large cats, the lynx (Felis lynx) and the smaller and ubiquitous bobcat (Felis rufus), sold readily in Europe. Killing the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and especially the rare wolverine (Gulo gulo) required both skill and perseverance on the part of the hunter. Long before contact with Europeans, Indian hunters pursued the black bear (Ursus americanus), the largest, most dangerous, and most respected of their prey animals. Every year, several thousand black bear furs, along with those of a few brown bears (Ursus arctos) and even polar bears (Ursus maritimus), reached Europe.


Excerpted from The World Hunt by John F. Richards. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Maps and Tables
Foreword by Edmund Burke

Introduction by J. R. McNeill

1. Furs and Deerskins in Eastern North America
2. The Hunt for Furs in Siberia
3. Cod and the New World Fisheries
4. Whales and Walruses in the Northern Oceans


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