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How European hat fashions of the past nearly wiped out dozens of animal species

The February edition of BBC History Magazine had an interesting piece on how the use of feathers and bird skins and body parts in women’s hat fashions during the late 1800s and early 1900s drove some bird species to the brink of extinction—and sometimes over it.

Fashionable women’s headgear of the era was often custom manufactured by local milliners in small towns and big cities alike. When the big catalog companies and their accompanying department stores were developed, women in even the smallest hamlets or in isolated farms and ranches could buy the most fashionable and elaborate befeathered hats.

Elaborate women’s hats of the Victorian era were decorated with feathers and other parts of bird bodies, from wings to whole skins.

But while women’s hat fashions were indeed responsible for depredations on the world’s bird species, we shouldn’t forget that men’s hat fashions also drove some animal species—this time fur-bearing animals— to near or total extinction hundreds of years earlier.

Using wool to manufacture felt was common from Roman times on, but it wasn’t until the 13th Century or so that it was found that superior felt could be made from the fur of beavers. Each individual beaver fur hair, it turns out, has microscopic barbs on it that allow it to tightly cling to its fellows.

The Russians were the first to really capitalize on beaver fur for felting, fortuitously just at the time that elaborate men’s felt hats were becoming all the rage in Europe. It didn’t take long for the idea of using beaver fur felt to manufacture the finest hats to spread all over the continent. And that spelled doom for the beaver populations in Europe as well as in western Russia.

It was just at this hat mania was accelerating that it was found that beavers were plentiful in the North American colonial possessions of France, England, and the Netherlands—not to mention all sorts of other furbearing animals as well as deer and other ruminants whose skins were valuable for manufacturing everything from riding britches to wealthy people’s gloves.

The broad-brimmed floppy hats worn by Swedish soldiers during the destructive Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) set the fashion for the next century and a half. And all those hats required a lot of beaver skins to manufacture the felt to satisfy the need.

Beginning in the 1600s, the competition for control of the fur trade led to conflict among the European colonial powers in their North American possessions, as well as with and between the continent’s Native People.

From 1652 to 1674, the British and Dutch fought a series of maritime conflicts that resulted in the loss of New Netherlands to the British, and its renaming as New York. The British and Spanish, too, fought with each other over their North American colonies, the two major ones being the War of Jenkins’ Ear, 1739 to 1748, was largely inconclusive although it led to a Spanish invasion of Georgia that was repulsed.

The unique qualities of beaver fur made it ideal to manufacture felt for 18th and early 19th Century men’s hats. The wild popularity of beaver felt hats and the resulting trade in beaver furs prompted everything from international wars to the destruction of Native American cultures.

However, the major wars over North American colonial possessions—and control of the fur trade—were fought between the French and the British as sidelights to larger European (and even worldwide) wars. King William’s War (1688–1697), Queen Anne’s War (1702–1713), King George’s War (1744–1748), and the final conflict in the series, the French and Indian War (1754-1763) eventually resulted in the expulsion of France from most of its former North American possessions.

During all of these conflicts, North America’s Native People were involved in a series of changing alliances between tribes as well as with the colonial powers. Due to a major error on the part of French explorer, governor and military leader Samuel de Champlain, the powerful Iroquois Confederacy, which controlled the area lying between the Atlantic Coast and the rich fur-producing areas of the Great Lakes generally allied itself with British interests, while the Algonquian-speaking people of the Great Lakes area generally allied with the British and Dutch.

Furs, particularly those of the beaver, were so eagerly sought early in the colonial era that beavers were soon driven to near extinction in Atlantic coastal areas, requiring traders to range farther and farther inland.

The Iroquois Confederacy was an unusual (and innovative) political alliance of five tribes based in what is now upper New York State that all spoke related Iroquoian languages, the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca. By 1600, the original five-member confederacy had been formed, committing all members to an organized system of choosing leaders and defending the confederacy against other tribes, particularly neighboring Alqonquian-speaking people. In 1722, the Tuscaroras joined the confederacy, which then became known as “The Six Nations.”

The Iroquois quickly grasped the importance of their location to control of the fur trade, and they determined to control access to the western Great Lakes where the richest supplies of fur-bearing animals was to be found. In order to cement their control, the Iroquois apparently independently developed the concept of total war to either subjugate or totally destroy other tribes. Historians call the succession of conflicts waged over fur trade control the Beaver Wars. At least one large tribe, known as the Neutrals, was completely eradicated while the powerful Hurons were forced ever farther west. The conflicts even struck here in Illinois as a series of Iroquois military strikes from the 1650s to the 1680s temporarily drove the populous Illinois Confederacy west of the Mississippi River and ended up forcing the Illinois to rely on French protection for survival.

The Iroquois closed the western Great Lakes to French trade for many years, but by the 1680s, the French were building settlements all over the region including here in Illinois, first at Fort St. Louis atop Starved Rock and then at Peoria and along the Mississippi River at Cahokia, Kaskaskia, and the imposing Fort de Chartres. Throughout the late 17th Century and through the mid-18th Century, the French extracted millions of furs and hides from everything from beavers, martens, and mink to deer and buffalo for shipment either north and east to Montreal on the Great Lakes’ “Voyageurs’ Highway,” or down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

By the early 1800s, both the American and British the fur trade in the lower Great Lakes relied in Mackinac boats rather than birch bark freight canoes.

With the French defeated in the last of the great North American fur trade wars in 1763, the British occupied the interior of the continent and their traders enjoyed a monopoly in the trade in furs. But not for long. The British North American colonies revolted in 1776, throwing the interior back into almost constant warfare with tribes of Native People mostly supporting the British. American military forays into what was by then known as The Illinois Country, as well as the western Great Lakes secured the area to the south of the lakes’ shores for the new United States.

John Jacob Astor established the American Fur Company to take over the former British fur trade infrastructure—a plan that was set back by the War of 1812 as the British and their Native American allies who pushed Americans out of the richest areas before the Treaty of Ghent formalized the border between the U.S. and Canada.

Fort Mackinac at the strait between lakes Huron and Michigan was the western hub of the fur trade where brigades of birch bark canoes and Mackinac boats were sent to the interior each spring to collect furs trapped during the previous winter.

Native People traded furs and hides—the thick prime winter beaver pelt was the standard by which the trades were made—that had driven beavers extinct in the East soon did the same in the Western Great Lakes, and the trade gradually moved on to the Great West and the Rocky Mountains, conducted by the famed Mountain Men.

In recent decades, furbearing animals driven to near-extinction by the fur trade have made a dramatic comeback in the lower Great Lakes.

Astor sold the American Fur Company operations in 1834. By that time, furbearers had largely disappeared from northern Illinois and in any case, the U.S. Government was ready to forcibly remove the region’s Native People west of the Mississippi. While the fur trade continued for several more years in Canada and the Rocky Mountain west, it was only a shadow of it’s former extent.

When the first American settlers began arriving here in northern Illinois in the late 1820s, the area had been largely stripped of animals whose furs and hides could be sold. It wasn’t until the passage of environmental laws in the 1970s that the region’s furbearers and other animals valued for their hides such as white-tailed deer began showing up in larger numbers.

The same sensitivity to the environment has also led to the recovery of many of the bird species that were so hard-hit during the Victorian women’s mania for befeathered hats.

Looking back at those bits of history, it is interesting, not to mention appalling, to contemplate that entire species of birds and mammals were nearly driven to extinction by human fashions in, of all things, hats as we celebrate another Earth Day.


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