From Reflections in Bullough’s Pond
by Diana Muir


An excerpt from Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England by Diana Muir.

Chapter 3: The Economics of Extermination

Reflections in Bullough's Pond Cover The Beaver was a small animal weighing from twenty to forty pounds and resembling the bear.
—W. R. Cochrane, 1880


WE DON’T KNOW THE NAMES OF THE FIRST Europeans to visit the coast of New England; we don’t even know what year they came. Viking sailors, who certainly landed in Newfoundland, may have visited the coast as far south as Maine—or it may have been Nova Scotia that they referred to as Vineland.

We do know that in the mid-1400s, European fishing boats met the demands of a growing population by venturing farther and farther into the Atlantic, and we know that by 1480 or 1481, boats from Bristol, England, were catching fish off the shore of Newfoundland. Within a few years French, English, and Basque fishermen were coming regularly to fish the Grand Banks. At some point, one of these fishing boats made landfall in the New World; we don’t know where, only that the captain wasn’t named Columbus, and that those anonymous, fifteenth-century fishermen had a reason for keeping mum that anglers of any era will understand: having found a good place to fish, they wanted to keep it to themselves.

These men had not come to trade, settle, or explore; they had come only to fish. If they visited the nearby coast, it was to get fresh water or firewood. Once on shore, they met the indigenous people, and a little trading went on, and reports of the land they had visited filtered back to Europe. But it was not anything the fishermen found on this coast that inspired Henry VII of England to back John Cabot’s voyages of exploration; that decision was prompted by news of Columbus’s voyages to the Caribbean, and by the fear that new Spanish trading posts on islands then thought to be located off the coast of Japan would cut England out of a potentially profitable trade sailing west to bring Oriental spices to Europe.

It soon became clear that neither the lands Cabot explored in the North Atlantic, nor Columbus’s Caribbean islands were anywhere near Japan, China, or the spice islands of the East Indies, but the news was worse for England than for Spain: natives in the Spanish islands wore necklaces and earrings wrought of gold, natives in New England wore seashells. The fishing was good, but the long-anticipated northwest passage eluded discovery and there seemed very little reason to bother with the northern islands, or continents, or whatever they were. The new land had lumber; England had lumber. It seemed likely that grain would grow here; grain grew in England. If spices, jewels, or precious metals had been found in New England it would have been a different story; they were not. For over a century the unpromising, new-found land was left to fishermen and the native peoples.

No cities of gold were discovered in Maine between John Cabot’s voyage of 1496, and Elizabeth I’s interest in colonization in the late 1500s; no mountains of emeralds were found in Connecticut. New England was the same country of forest and hill—but old England was by no means the land it had been a hundred years before. The England of 1496 was a poor, undeveloped backwater; a country that exported such unprocessed raw materials as cord-wood to wealthier lands and imported the few cannon its meager navy possessed from Antwerp, for lack of English iron foundries. By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, England not only produced but exported iron, glass, copper, and finished woolens. A century of cutting forests, of burning timber to manufacture everything from salt to ale to the cannon that defeated the Spanish Armada, and of expanding farming into recently cleared forest lands, had made England rich and powerful. That same century of industrial development saw a doubling of England’s population, a scarcity of arable land, and widespread deforestation that raised the threat of famine and caused the poor to shiver for want of fuel. The wooded farmland of New England took on a new allure.

Colonization was vaunted as the answer to many problems. Perhaps the landless poor could be resettled abroad. Perhaps the native people would buy the surplus woolens England produced. Perhaps a short, profitable trade route to the Indies would yet be found in some deep bay or river leading west. Perhaps southern colonies could produce the olive oil, currants, wine, and sugar England imported from the Mediterranean at great expense. Perhaps northern colonies could produce the ship timber, tar, and cordage England was forced to import from the Baltic now that British forests had been cut down. And perhaps—oh, most wonderful possibility of all!—perhaps English colonists would discover mountains of silver, emeralds, and gold.

England was not alone in its dreams of gold and glory. Holland, Sweden, and France envied the Spanish and Portuguese empires; all four nations sent expeditions to explore the North American continent, planted or attempted to plant colonies, and brought Native Americans into close contact with large groups of Europeans for the first time.

Fishermen had continued to cross the Atlantic in such numbers that the occasional explorer was likely to be greeted by Indians able to conduct trade in rudimentary English or French. English explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert, sailing into the harbor at St. John’s, Newfoundland, in 1583, found thirty fishing boats from various European nations lying at anchor. Unperturbed, Gilbert exercised the explorer’s prerogative in newly discovered lands by setting up a pillar claiming the island in the name of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth.

From the Native American perspective, early explorers must have seemed to differ little from fishermen. Both groups traded kettles, glass beads, and woven cloth for beaver and other furs; both were liable to kidnap unwary individuals or turn a trading meet into a battle with their lethal guns. A century of such contact had relatively little impact on life in New England beyond teaching Americans to approach European visitors with caution. The effects of the large exploring expeditions of the early 1600s were different, not only because they were harbingers of colonization, but because their crews harbored the diseases that killed the native people.

Death rates from the epidemics that swept New England in the seventeenth century were almost unimaginably high: 80 percent, 90 percent, 95 percent. Where twenty people had lived in 1600, one would survive. In a countryside where 120,000 native people had lived when the first Europeans came, a mere 16,000 would survive a century of fatal epidemics and wasting disease.

When small groups of big game hunters crossed the Bering Strait to populate this continent twenty-eight millennia ago, they traveled in small bands; too small to harbor diseases like smallpox, chicken pox, and measles that must be transmitted directly from one infected individual to the next. Disease-free themselves, they conferred freedom from contagious Old World diseases on their children. Domestic livestock are reservoirs of disease organisms that occasionally mutate and spread from chickens or pigs to human hosts. Flu, measles, cholera, smallpox, malaria, plague, and tuberculosis are epidemic human diseases that evolved from diseases of domestic livestock. The Americas knew only a handful of species of domestic livestock, guinea pigs, muscovy ducks, and llamas in the Andes, turkeys in Mexico; dogs were the only domestic animals kept north of Mexico. With such a meager array of livestock, there was little opportunity for diseases to arrive in domestic animal populations and be transmitted to humans, and little chance that uniquely American epidemic diseases could arise that would slay immigrants to these shores with the efficiency with which Old World diseases mowed down New World people.

The New World’s freedom from disease would one day turn and kill its children in a macabre epidemiological paradox. For twenty-eight thousand years, no American child suffered from chicken pox—and no American girl grew to adulthood with an immunity to the disease that she could pass on to her children. When European exploring and fur-trading expeditions brought infections across the ocean, virulent microbes attacked a people with no natural immunities, none of the inherited and acquired antibodies that enable Europeans to survive contact with infectious diseases.

An unknown European sailor landed on the New England coast in 1615 with a case of shingles from childhood chicken pox, or perhaps it was an active case of smallpox, or of measles. We cannot be certain which disease it was, only that it spread with a consuming intensity, devastating communities from Narragansett Bay to the Merrimack and as far as thirty miles inland. Within a year the Massachusetts coast was empty; entire villages lay dead with no one to bury the victims or even remember their names. The Pilgrims, arriving four years later, found meadows strewn with bleached bones and human skulls.

Because the crews of early transatlantic voyages were small and their contact with the natives slight, more than a century elapsed between the arrival of the first European fishing boats on these shores and the first of the lethal epidemics that nearly exterminated New England’s aboriginal people. The size of the crews is important. Fewer than a dozen sailors manned a Breton cod-fishing boat, and even John Cabot’s Matthew , voyaging to discover new worlds under the sponsorship of the king of England, shipped a mere eighteen souls. The incubation period for measles is eight to twenty-one days; for smallpox it is eight to ten, and you can only become infected by coming in contact with someone who has the disease. The crew of a sixteenth-century fishing boat, even if every hand had come down with the pox, would have all been convalescing, or dead, before landfall in the Gulf of Maine.

Seventeenth-century voyages of exploration were on an altogether different scale. When he explored the coast in 1604, Champlain had a hundred men with him, men who went ashore for the purpose of meeting the indigenous inhabitants. And, even earlier, by the late 1500s, fishermen and entrepreneurs were actively trading with native Americans for furs. With so many Europeans in contact with so many Americans, the transmission of the disease became inevitable. It required only a single European sailor who had once had chicken pox and was now suffering from shingles to shake hands with a single American on the densely populated Massachusetts coast for an epidemic to start that would consume tens of thousands of lives.

Measles, smallpox, influenza, venereal disease, scarlet fever, plague, yellow fever, malaria, chicken pox and more; Americans died from Old World diseases to which they had no immunity. We are mistaken if we think our ancestors slew the Indians to win this land. They didn’t have to. They had only to watch them die. There were no cures for scarlet fever or measles, no inoculations against smallpox, no quinine to treat malaria. There was nothing but death.

London and Bristol were full of men talking about colonization in 1620, the year the Pilgrims set sail for America. In 1614, the London Company had sent the redoubtable John Smith to explore the New England coast with an eye to commercial possibilities and colonization. Sir Ferdinando Gorges, undeterred by a failed attempt to plant a colony in Maine, sent Richard Vines and Thomas Dermer to scout New England for likely spots to establish trading posts and colonies. Dermer, returning to England in 1619, was able to inform his employer that the thousands of warriors who had been expected to fiercely defend the Massachusetts coast from foreign incursion were dead. To Pilgrim colonists stepping ashore from a harbor recommended by John Smith onto a well-watered land of cleared fields and fair prospects, it seemed as though the hand of God had reached out and made a place for them in the wilderness just as surely as He once opened the Red Sea for Moses to lead the children of Israel to the Promised Land.

The Plymouth colonists could have lived well on venison, goose, salmon, and corn, with plenty of clear water to drink. A village site that had supported two thousand Pawtuxet could amply provide for the needs of fifty English; but the Pilgrims were not satisfied with so simple a life. Partly because they were deeply in debt to the London merchants who underwrote their voyage, but mostly because they were European, they wanted more than to live in warm houses and eat well. They wanted to make money.

Gold, everybody’s first-choice road to wealth, has never been found in New England in any quantity, but in the mid-1500s, a new trend in millinery fashion created a very reasonable alternative. The soft hats of the Renaissance—those large, velvet berets of gathered brim and elegant plume familiar from Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII—went out of style, and hats made of felt came in. These were the wide-brimmed, round-crowned hat of the Quaker merchant and the rakishly upswept and befeathered chapeau of the Restoration cavalier, the plumed hats of the Three Musketeers and the sober, high-crowned buckled hats of the Pilgrim fathers. Sober or extravagant, pious or worldly, modest shopkeeper or wealthy merchant: for nearly three centuries every European man who could afford a hat at all had one made of felt. Very often the women did too.

The finest felt is made by skilled furriers from beaver pelts. Specifically, from the thickly grown underhair of beaver trapped in the winter months in a cold climate. Beaver, once as common in the Old World as the New, had been eradicated everywhere in Europe except for eastern Russia and the steep valleys of the Pyrenees, a region far too small to supply the fashion needs of a prosperous continent. North America had millions of beaver, a flat-tailed, buck-toothed rodent that will live happily in a riverbank or natural pond, but is famous for its ability to dam streams and create ponds—and make a mess in the process.

The unwary hiker happening upon a beaver pond for the first time stumbles into a scene of ugly devastation. Approached from downstream, the ground underfoot becomes boggy as mud flats flank rivulets of clear water running between trees whose thin crowns and yellow leaves betray roots rotting in slow death. Upstream, the destruction is even worse. On the muddy shore, marsh grass and cattails grow between the stumps of felled alder and birch, while the bleached bones of maple and oak stand in a watery grave. A blue heron rising to croak ugly imprecations at the interloper adds to the weird ghostliness of the scene; taking wing at close range the great bird resembles nothing so much as some unwieldy pterodactyl improbably reincarnated to preside over the drowning of a forest.

The guilty authors of this sylvan destruction are asleep. As industrious in life as in fable, the beavers’ workday runs dusk to dawn. While humans sleep, beaver fell timber, store provisions, dig canals, construct lodges, excavate tunnels . . . and build dams. Those dams, messy heaps of gnawedoff sticks that hold back water with admirable efficiency, shape the face of the land more dramatically than the activities of any other nonhuman species.

One hardly supposes that the beaver care. Like the rest of us, they’re just trying to make a living for the family. Picking a good spot, a stream with plenty of tasty aspen, alder, willow, and birch along the bank, the beaver dam it, build a safe home for the kids, and venture out on dry ground only as often as they need to bring home fresh sticks for supper or cut timber to maintain the dam— no point in risking encounters with wolves, bobcats, or mountain lions. Beaver are remarkably savvy at picking real estate, unerringly selecting optimal pond sites first, settling more marginal neighborhoods only when the prime locations are all taken. Prime, in this context, means a stream of a certain size—big enough to fill a pond, not so big that it might wash a dam away in the spring floods—flanked by acres of hardwood forest. Having found a likely spot, the beaver begin a process that only looks like destruction; in reality it is a thousand new beginnings.

Life in a pond begins with death: the death of leaves, branches, or whole trees that fall through the water and cover the pond floor to become food for aquatic fungi and bacteria—immense hordes of bacteria so small that a million of the tiny beings may inhabit a cubic centimeter of pond mud, eating dead leaves and releasing phosphorous and carbon dioxide into the water. The dead leaves, and the bacteria and fungi that feed on them, lie at the dark bottom of a pond; currents carry the gases they release to the surface where sunlight penetrating the water begets algae.

Green, brown, or red-brown, algae is slimy; when great masses bloom simultaneously, deplete the nutrient supply, and suddenly die, it smells bad. Slimy, unsightly, malodorous—algae is the very stuff of life. Tiny leaves of algae, drawing carbon dioxide from decomposing matter in the water, turn their faces to the sun and create matter. It is a miracle no member of the animal kingdom can perform. Photosynthesis, from the Latin for light and putting together. This is what algae does, it takes energy from sunlight to put together carbon dioxide and water into a living, growing plant; a tiny miracle of creation replicated with such wonderful regularity that we fail to notice the marvel of it. The black fly larvae that feed on the algae surely fail to recognize its abundant growth as a miracle of creation. The trout that feed on black fly larvae notice only that they have had a good meal, not the fact that neither fish nor black fly are able to synthesize, to create green food from sunlight.

Yet there it is, the lowly algae, competently producing food for the tiny creatures that feed the small fish that feed big fish that feed the majestic osprey, plunging out of the sky to catch an unfortunate perch. The pond and its marshy edge are dense nurseries of life fostering animals large and small. Tiny, round leaves of duckweed, their delicate roots hanging unanchored, float in rafts on the open water, while far up on the banks where the land is only slightly damp, the feathery fronds of ostrich ferns wave. Wild turkey favor the winter stalks of ostrich ferns; humans eat the furled tops in spring and call them fiddleheads. Sedge, moss, arrowhead, pickerelweed, water milfoil—every plant between the ferns far up the bank and the duckweed floating on open water is home to some animal or its young, a necessary food for some growing thing. Like the beautiful water lily.

Snails, water mites, and freshwater sponges make their homes on the under-side of green lily pads. Dragonflies and frogs rest on them. The lily leaf caterpillar neatly cuts out two pieces of leaf and joins them to make a tidy cocoon where it retreats to turn into a moth. Even as the dragonflies rest and moth larvae swim among the lily pads waiting to grow big enough to learn to fly, a twelve-hundred-pound bull moose may wade into the beaver pond, submerge himself up to the nostrils to escape the pestilential black flies, and, while there, munch lily pads by the mouthful; the succulent green leaves are a moose’s favorite food.

Even the hulks of dead trees killed by rising waters are a life-giving part of the ecosystem, as perfect homes for wood ducks. These beautiful waterfowl nest in the cavities of dead trees, but the young must tumble from the nest and spend their childhood on the water. Whole forests of dead trees without ponds cannot produce wood ducks any more than can oceans of water without dead trees; the ducklings need both, dead tree and pond together. Beaver ponds are so perfect a place for raising wood ducklings that populations of the handsomely colored birds rise and fall with fluctuations in the beaver population. From the kingfisher devouring a polliwog to the fingerling bass in the shallows, the beaver dam has created a nursery of life. Yet the invisible effects of the beaver’s work are even more subtle and more profound than the lives of the animals moving in and about the water.

A beaver dam is a bursar, not a gaoler. The waters it impounds are not prisoned behind an impermeable wall; they are doled out, slowly, as the land needs them. Rain, falling unevenly through the year, overfills the stream beds of April, leaving August dusty and dry. Beaver dams moderate the seasonal extremes of rainfall, trapping the rains of April to release them in slow, even seepage through the hot, dry days of summer and early fall. A single beaver dam releases only a small flow of water into an August stream bed, but when settlers arrived in New England there was not just a single beaver pond—there were tens of thousands. Dozens of dams on a single stream. A new dam each time the water ran downhill into new acres of forest. Hundreds of dams on each tributary, thousands in every river valley—all releasing the waters of spring in an even, life-giving flow.

Water that failed to go over the dam was equally important, because it seeped into the soil and, depending on the underlying geology of the site, replenished the groundwater. Abundance of every kind impressed the first Europeans to reach these shores, abundance of strawberries in the fields and of deer in the woods, abundance of trees, and an astonishing abundance of fresh, clear water. “The country, it is as well watered as any land under the sun, every family or every two families having a spring of sweet water betwixt them. No man hath been constrained to dig deep for his water, nor to fetch it far.” The ground-water was so abundant, any man could reach it by digging a shallow well, if he lacked a spring, but springs were abundant. Springs pure, ever flowing, and plentiful, springs that bubbled out of the ground everywhere, even bringing fresh water to the surface on sandy beaches, “where the tides overflow them, which is accounted rare in England.”

It is accounted rare in twentieth-century New England as well. A reservoir of groundwater so abundant that it burst forth in ever-flowing springs on the beach could be created only in a forested land with myriad marshes and tens of thousands of ponds. Forested, because the forest absorbs water that would run off if it fell on a plowed field or open meadow. Dammed with tens of thousands of ponds, because that is how many there were; each beaver dam holding back a few acres of rainwater that seeped slowly into the earth, producing the vast reservoir that amazed the first settlers by bubbling up in springs on every farm and even on the beach.

In holding back water, the dams also stopped the downstream flow of silt. A beaver dam, or a series of beaver dams on a forest stream, is a filtration system, each dam catching and holding silt washed downhill by a heavy March downpour before it can saturate the water and bury and suffocate fish eggs, or suffocate the adults by clogging their gills with fine particles of water-born soil. Safely trapped behind an untidy wall of gnawed sticks, the waterborne particles settle peacefully to the bottom where they begin the slow process of killing the beaver pond.

Slowly, silently, every pond is dying from the minute it is born. Even as a beaver pond grows and deepens with the building up of a dam, it is sowing the seeds of its own death. Behind the dam, the layer of silt thickens until it fills the low spot the first beaver selected as his home and the dam, no longer at the edge of a small valley, can no longer hold back the waters.

All around the pond, even when the edges are new and the water still rising, plants begin to grow that will fill the pond and choke it to death. Sedges and water lilies, which give life to the pond and its inhabitants, add to the layer of organic matter gradually accumulating on the pond bottom. Leaf by leaf, year by year, the decayed matter accumulates, silt and leaf litter filling the valley floor, where water once stood, held back from washing downstream by the dam, decay giving birth to new life, decaying and accumulating until the valley that became a pond is full, and a damp meadow stands where beaver once built and wood ducks swam.

This meadow, too, is a fertile gift of life from the beaver. The process of damming a stream, filling a valley with silt and pond muck until it becomes a meadow with a stream running through it may take decades or millennia, but when it is over the beaver leave behind land richer than the land they came to, for a beaver dam traps the promise of new life behind its wooden wall. Soil, minerals, and organic debris that might have washed out to sea stay in the forest where they were born, stopped from running away by the dam. In a final gift to the forest that supported them, generations of beaver who lived in the meadow when it was a pond left an immensely fertile soil into which a new forest can sink its roots and grow.

Outside my window, at the foot of a great oak where a pair of Baltimore orioles perch this May morning, Bullough’s Pond is turning rapidly into a marsh. It has to happen someday; it happens to all ponds—quicker, if they are shallow and fed by slow-running streams, and over a much, much longer period of time if torrents of water sweep through in spring, scouring the bottom and carrying silt and debris seaward. Bullough’s Pond is slated for a rapid conversion from pond to marsh. The dam at Dexter Road insures that almost nothing washes out, however heavy the rain, while warm, shallow water encourages luxuriant blooms of algae, duckweed, and the beautiful, yellow iris that ring the pond in spring—all of which drop their leaves to the bottom where bacteria turn them into the muck that is rapidly making this pond into a marsh, and, someday, a meadow. In Bullough’s Pond, there is an additional factor at work, a man-made factor that condenses a process of decades or centuries into a few years.

Every winter it snows in Newton, and when it snows the highway department sprinkles the streets with sand. Then it rains, and the sand is washed into storm drains. In spring, the whirly-gig seed pods of maples and the tasseled green blossoms of oaks fall to the pavement and are washed into the drains. These are seeds and flowers that, when this land was a forest, stayed to fertilize the forest floor. Leaves, acorns, mud washed from construction sites, dirt, debris of all description—for a radius of five square miles, whatever falls onto the pavement and washes into a storm drain ends up in Bullough’s Pond, depositing a layer of silt so thick that mallards can stand up to feed in the shallow water.

The first English settler arrived in Newton in 1636. If he walked through the woods to the spot where my house stands today—though I doubt he did; the first settlers were too busy getting a crop into the ground and a roof over their heads to stroll about—he would most probably have found an open meadow in which a few alder or red maple seedlings were starting to grow, and, about where Dexter Road runs today, the remains of an abandoned beaver dam. I am as persuaded that a beaver colony once lived on Bullough’s Pond as I am convinced that an aboriginal village did not, for the simple reason that it was a perfect spot for beaver but not anything special for native people. Algonquin summer camps were always near a body of water large enough to provide an abundance of fish, such as the Charles River or Boston Harbor, not the small stream that feeds Bullough’s Pond. Beaver, on the other hand, want very much what a colonial miller wanted: running water in a place that can be damned to make a pond. Ours would have made a very nice beaver pond, with two glacial moraines to keep the water in and flat woodland spreading to the south. From the favorable lay of the land we can be almost certain that beaver were here—they built ponds on virtually every favorable site in the country—and from what we know of the fur trade we can almost pin down the year when the last beaver on Bullough’s Pond died. It happened in 1631 or 1632; they were killed by Native Americans, probably by a hunter from Chief Waban’s band on the slope of Nonomtum Hill, and their demise was profitable to somebody, probably to Mr. William Pynchon of Essex, England, and Roxbury, Massachusetts.

Pynchon was the leading fur merchant among the Puritan settlers who arrived in 1630 to establish the colony of Massachusetts Bay. A gentleman of some wealth, Pynchon speculated that his fortune, modest by the standards of England’s upper classes, could be increased by coming to Massachusetts and engaging in the fur trade. He was correct. In 1632 and 1633, Pynchon shipped 400 of the 622 pounds of beaver fur exported from Massachusetts Bay. While those 400 pounds of fur represented the lives of 250 or 300 animals, the last beaver to live on Bullough’s Pond very likely among them, it was a drop in the bucket compared to the 10,000 pounds a year the Dutch were exporting annually from trading posts on the Hudson and Connecticut Rivers, or even the 3,738 pounds sent to London in 1634 by the Plymouth Colony from trading posts on Narragansett Bay and on the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers. Yet that 622 pounds of fur probably represented a good share of the skins of the beaver living on tributaries of the Neponset, Mystic, and Charles rivers.

William Pynchon could see that there was little future in being a fur trader in Roxbury. In 1636, he moved to a site on the Connecticut River that would become Springfield, Massachusetts, and built a warehouse at Enfield Falls, the head of navigation on the river. This location—along with wealth, social standing, political savvy, business acumen, and close connections with the ruling oligarchies of the Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay colonies—put Pynchon in a position to control the fur trade of central New England. At the height of that trade, between 1636 and 1652, Pynchon exported 4,000 to 6,000 pounds of beaver pelts a year.

Pynchon was the most successful of a small army of fur traders who spread through seventeenth-century New England, the only one successful enough to retire to England a wealthy man. But, from the fishermen who bought a few furs on the Maine coast, to the Puritan merchants who settled New Haven, Connecticut, in hopes that fleets of native canoes carrying beaver skins would float down the Quinnipiac River to their trading post, every trader dreamed of wealth. It was not a foolish dream when every barrel of fur sold in London brought a small fortune; the difficulty lay in filling the barrels. Englishmen could not trap the furry animals, though some tried. Superlative swimmers that come out mostly at night, beaver were “too cunning” for English hunters. Indians would have to hunt beaver and bring the skins to trade; there were fortunes to be made by English fur traders in such an arrangement. It was not, however, immediately apparent that there was anything in it for the Indians.

Here was a people who stalked, or picked, or raised everything they needed. Indians lived secure in the knowledge that so long as rivers flowed to the sea and trees grew in the forest, they and their children would have warm lodges to live in, warm skins to wrap themselves against the cold, and plenty to eat. Accumulating more coats than a family could wear or more pots than were needed for cooking was worse than pointless: it was burdensome. Real prosperity depended on moving frequently from fishing camp to hunting camp; somebody would have had to lug all those brass kettles the English wanted to trade.

Englishmen viewed the world in quite a different light. Against life’s vicissitudes, with the ever pressing need to provide for one’s children, the constant striving for social position, the always threatening possibilities of financial loss, a bad harvest, or an investment gone sour, one could never pile up too many goods. Wealth was the shining prospect that beckoned every man forward; sufficiency, a thing no Englishman could attain. The Indians not only had sufficiency, they had the assurance that their children would have it too. Living in a land that supplied all a family could want, with no desire to pile up heavy, hard-to-transport goods, Indian hunters would have had little incentive to trade furs with the English, had vanity and ambition not been as common on the Penobscot as on the Mersey.

The English, not knowing what would induce the Native Americans to trade, offered brightly colored cloth, glass beads, brass and copper kettles, shiny mirrors. The Indians, after an initial flurry of enthusiasm for the curious goods, lost interest. They noticed that steel knives could hold an edge better than flint, and that was worth something. So were hatchets, iron hoes, and woolen cloth. But Indian desire for even these useful goods was finite. When Plymouth colonists brought shiploads of Massachusetts-grown corn to northern Maine, the Indians traded enthusiastically—if the hunting had been poor. When hunting was good, they were less eager to trade, and the Pilgrims sailed back to Plymouth discouraged. In the 1620s, trade languished for lack of a commodity Indians wanted in the same unlimited way Europeans wanted fur. Then, in 1622, a greedily incompetent Dutch trader named Jacques Elekens seized a Pequot sachem and threatened to behead him if the natives did not produce a “heavy ransom.” The sachem’s kin handed over 140 fathoms of wampum. Horrified company officials denounced and withdrew Elekens, but the shell beads he had collected revolutionized the fur trade.

Wampum was made by drilling the purple-white shells of whelks and quahogs to form cylindrical beads. The right kind of shellfish for making wampum live only in the eastern waters of Long Island Sound. The necklaces and belts were worn by powerful sachems as emblems of rank and power, and sometimes given by one sachem to another in a symbolic exchange of gifts on important ceremonial occasions.

When the Plymouth colonists got some wampum from Dutch traders and tried to buy furs with it on the coast of Maine, the hunters they dealt with were uninterested: either wampum was unheard of so far north, or it was known and reserved for the use of high-ranking chiefs. Whatever the cause of this initial resistance, it was soon overcome. Hunters who had brought a modest number of beaver pelts to trade for corn and brass kettles became willing to empty the streams of beaver to trade for strings of shell beads that proclaimed their prowess. But wampum could buy something more desirable than prestige; it could buy power. In the political turmoil of native life destabilized by high death rates from European disease, alliances shifted and leadership vacuums were created. A brave display of wampum helped ambitious men climb into leadership positions. An aspiring chief could never have too much of it.

Every Indian who took beaver in the seventeenth-century New England woods knew that the animals were being hunted to extermination, yet they kept on hunting. Although beaver tail was considered to be good eating, beaver were not a vital food source. It was not as though the English wanted hunters to kill all the deer or all the salmon; beaver were expendable. But the Indians did not kill beaver in a conscious decision that they were expendable in a way that deer would not have been; they hunted because they were swept up by economic forces too overwhelming to resist.

No individual hunter had the choice of trapping only a few animals while others were left to breed. If the man who first came upon a beaver colony did not slaughter every animal present, another hunter would soon finish the job.

The choice was not kill or conserve, it was take the wampum or let somebody else have it; a brutal crash course in market economics.

Larger power networks of the aboriginal community, those channels of authority that regulated fishing rights at major waterfalls and the rights to hunting territories, could have stepped in to conserve the beaver—if they had not been destroyed by the epidemics of European disease that ravaged populations. Instead, the striving of ambitious individuals to fill power vacuums encouraged the rapid killing of beaver to obtain wampum. Only in northern Maine, where sparse population and less regular contact with Europeans slowed the spread of disease, were native communities able to regulate hunting in order to conserve beaver as an economic resource.

These northerners limited the beaver kill not because the beaver were a totem animal or because they attached any particular value to conserving every part of the ecosystem, but because killing only a few animals every year ensured a perpetual supply of wampum, corn, steel knives, woolen blankets, and muskets. Beaver conservation also allowed Indians in the Penobscot drainage and further north to become farmers. Relying on corn for winter food is foolhardy in regions with fewer than 150 frost-free days in the growing season, as Indians certainly knew. Bangor and Oldtown have 120 to 140 days without frost, enough to grow corn with the expectation that in some years the crop will be lost to an early frost, or have to be planted a second time after a late one. Before contact, Indians in the region were too wise to rely on a food crop that was guaranteed to fail every few years. Once the beaver trade was established, they could plant corn secure in the knowledge that in years when the crop failed they could buy grain with beaver pelts. Elsewhere in the region, the beaver were extirpated.

By 1675 it was over. English, French, and Dutch fur traders had paid for, packed into white oak barrels, and shipped to Europe the skin of virtually every beaver that once lived in New England. On the St. John, the Hudson, and the St. Lawrence, the fur trade would continue for two profitable centuries, pushing inexorably north and west until the North American beaver was driven to the brink of extinction.

(c) Copyright 2000 Diana Muir All rights reserved.



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