Voyageurs: Beaver Hats Are the iPhones of the 1800's

The real story about Voyageurs National Park is not the story of our visit. The real story about Voyageurs is about the history of shipping, transportation, economy, and fashion in the 1800's.

Rembrandt painted 'Syndics of the Drapers' Guild' in 1662. Beaver hats like these men were wearing started to become popular far before the 1800's. It wasn't until they killed nearly all of the Eurasian beaver, Castor fiber, that they needed to find a new resource to fill the void

Rembrandt painted 'Syndics of the Drapers' Guild' in 1662. Beaver hats like these men were wearing started to become popular far before the 1800's. It wasn't until they killed nearly all of the Eurasian beaver, Castor fiber, that they needed to find a new resource to fill the void

Beaver hats were the smart phones of the 1800s. Anyone who was anyone had a beaver hat. The problem, though, was that the Northwest Passage did not exist. Lewis and Clark set out in 1804 to find it and they failed. How, then, do you take the pelts trapped in current day Alaska, Canada and the northern United States and transport them to market in London? Walking would take years. Henry Ford was yet to be born, and the Wright Brothers were more like characters from a Jules Verne novel. You are left with water—water and boats, or birchbark canoes, to be more precise.  I am going to give you the very brief and uneducated version, which goes a little something like this:

The French made friends with the native populations in the area and received vital information on how best to navigate the area. They were advised to navigate the waterways through current day Voyageurs and the Boundary Waters to Lake Superior where they could load pelts onto larger ships that could move more easily across the pond to Picadilly and Parliament.

This brings us to the word Voyageur. It is a French word and describes the person who was responsible for rowing the canoe the carried the bundles of beaver and other pelts. They were generally short, 5’6”, and quite stout. They were short to fit in the canoe and they were stout to carry the 180 pounds of pelts over portages.  Yes, 180 pounds, or 2 stacks of pressed beaver pelts. 

The term portage was new to me, but it basically means, “to carry.” When you are canoeing, you get to the end of one lake and you hit land. You need to get your canoe and all of your belongings to the next lake, which is 50, 100, 1,000 or 5,000 feet away. You portage the canoe and the supplies to the next lake where you reload the canoe and start rowing again. Portaging is usually measured in rods.

My very cursory research leads me to believe that a day in the life of a Voyageur looked a bit like this:

Wake up. Eat breakfast. Load the canoe. Row. Portage to the next lake. Eat lunch. Row. Portage to the next lake. Row. Find camp. Eat dinner. Sleep.

They did this for 12-14 hours a day and they did it until they got to their destination. This meant carrying enormous loads over and over all day, every day. They didn’t have GPS watches or odometers, so they measured the lakes by smoke breaks. Smoke breaks were taken every 40-50 minutes. If it took two hours to row across a lake then you could call it a two to three smoke lake, depending on how quickly you wanted to cross. The job was not easy or glamorous, and it often ended with herniated discs and an early death. Besides the 180 pounds and the 14 hours of work, they also had to deal with snow, rain, mosquitoes, bears and everything else that nature had to offer. If that wasn’t enough, when they were nearly at the end of their trip, they arrived at the Grand Portage. It was so named not because of how great it was, but because of how long it was. Eight miles to Lake Superior with a 180 pounds on your back, and if the canoe was loaded down and you needed to make multiple trips then you hiked back and did it again, and again.

It’s incredible. The trappers and hunters and Voyageurs are all arriving in Grand Portage around the same time, during what was called Rendezvous. They would sell their furs, drink, gamble, reload their canoes with supplies and return back to the wild. Many of the trappers who came from the far north would often only stay a day or two as they had to return to their cabins in the north before the rivers iced over.

The machine behind all of this is so close to the story of Zoolander that it amazes me. You have several rich investors who have paid the money to sponsor the supplies, salaries and canoes necessary for numerous men to go out and bring back furs. They aren’t just making a one-year investment; they are investing for a minimum of five years in hopes of seeing a steady return. If they can send out more trappers and bring back more pelts then they will see a massive return on investment as the pelts are shipped to England. They are essentially running the fashion industry out of what is now a tiny Minnesota town.

For me, this is the real story of Voyageurs. It is the story that connects continents. It brings together the trappers that braved the winters of the northern reaches of North America. It connects them from what is current day Canada, Alaska, and the west with Minnesota. It connects Voyageurs National Park with the Boundary Waters, Grand Portage, Lake Superior, the Great Lakes, the New England shipping industry and culminates in the high society of England. It is the story of a young nation and a young world that has the one thing that everyone wants. It is the story of the greed of men, the desire to be fashionable, and the downfall that happens when you deplete an unstable natural resource.

Voyageurs provided the raw materials that were necessary to create something that became a social icon, a social necessity. The beaver pelt. We often say that history repeats itself and I can’t help but be intrigued. As I play BubbleWitch2 on my iPhone, I wonder. Will our children’s children laugh at us for these handheld devices as we laugh at the silly top hats worn by Abraham Lincoln? Will they scold us for mining the precious metals from Africa that are necessary to make the power cords and internal devices as we scold those who killed all of the beavers?** Will Africa be the next America? Will our desires to be social elites lead us to once again destroy our natural world?

I can’t put my iPhone down, but I also can’t help but think I am destroying the future for my progeny, if I should decide to have them at all. Is this our condition? Is this what we do to ourselves and our world?

**The Eurasian beaver, Castor fiber, was hunted to near extinction. The North American Beaver, Castor Canadensis, used to number between 60-400 million before European settlement after which it is now estimated to number 6-12 million

Time traveler wearing a beaver hat while explaining to Darius how important beaver hats were in the 1800s.

Beaver hat man pointing to the place where all the beaver pelts came from.

Pelts upon pelts upon pelts.  Really, they had a lot of pelts at Grand Portage.