The History Cat Classroom
Don't let the name fool you, the Beaver Wars wasn't a conflict between rival gangs of bucktoothed rodents. (Although that would have been awesome.) These wars, in fact, were more or less fought between two groups of Indians in the Great Lakes region in the 1600s. It just so happened that around this time the British, Dutch and French arrived on the shores of North America. One of the prime reasons for establishing colonies was trade and the hot ticket item was animal pelts. If you were a wealthy landowner, noble or merchant with money to burn, what better way to show off to the friends than by trimming your clothes with the skin of dead animals. Fashion has its price.
The Indian tribes were more than happy to trap pelts like sable and beaver for European specialties such as beads, tools, blankets, and muskets, among other things. The Algonquians of the Great Lakes area established trade with the French while the Iroquois set up shop with British and Dutch merchants. Some of the Iroquois traded with French merchants, but they did not care to admit that.
The Indians of the eastern Great Lakes (New York state) grew wealthy by working as the main fur supplier for the Europeans. In fact, they did their job so well that after a few decades of killing and skinning animals, the Iroquois began running out of their furry supply. In essence, their economy was collapsing. But they still wanted the things that the Europeans had to offer them.
Instead of applying for a government bailout, the Indians did the next best thing. They set their sights on the lands of the Algonquians in the Ohio Valley, which at that time was covered in dense forests-- and that meant there would be an abundance of beaver. Fortunately for the Iroquois, though, those Indians had already fallen victim to the diseases that were brought over by the Europeans. The Algonquians were easy pickins for their Iroquois rivals.
Encouraged and well armed by their English and Dutch allies, the Iroquois tried to monopolize the fur trade. They loaded up their weapons and headed full force into the Ohio Country. They drove out the weakened tribe of Indians in an episode of extermination that lasted between 1650 and 1700. This came to be known as the Beaver Wars, one of the bloodiest conflicts in all of American history.
The Iroquois claimed the Ohio Country for the Iroquois Confederacy, aka 'The Five Nations'. They did everything they could do to terrorize the other tribes in the area. They raided the camps with war parties, slaughtering most of the inhabitants that they encountered. At times, they would take inhabitants as prisoners. The men would get tortured to death while the women and children were often made part of the tribe.
Although there were some heroes who stood up to the Iroquois tribe, they were swiftly taken down as the Iroquois ran amuck in their quest to expand both westward and northward. It was not until the French – that’s right, the French – sent troops to the area to help their Algonquian allies regain control that Iroquois expansion was checked.
At the start of 1666, the French invaded the area from where the Iroquois tribe was operating. They took one of the chiefs – Chief Canaqueese – prisoner at the time. In September of that year, the French went through the region again to crush the Iroquois army, but they did not find any. So they did the next best thing they torched their homes and crops, resulting in many Iroquois dying of starvation during the impending winter.
Before long, the Iroquois asked for peace. This lasted for a couple decades, but things were going on in the background that they were not expecting. Many of the French soldiers who came to defeat the tribe stayed. The temporary truce allowed them time to gather and form a militia. It wasn’t long before nearly every male in the colony between 16 and 65 were issued their very own musket with ample ammunition. They were ready for a new round of fighting.
In 1683, the war began again. The French tried to capitalize on the fur trade and make themselves rich from it. This affected the crops and the growing capabilities of the Iroquois and things went back to the way of the war. The second time around, the war lasted for a decade and it was just as horrendous and as bloody as it was the first time around.
Peace is Achieved
In 1698, the Iroquois wanted peace. They sued for peace which ended the Beaver Wars. In 1701, the Grande Paix, or Great Peace was signed. It happened in Montreal and included representatives from the French, the English, and nearly 40 Indian chiefs. In the treaty, the Iroquois agreed to stop terrorizing the region. They also agreed to let refugees from the Great Lakes return to the area. Eventually, the Shawnee Indians regained control of the region. That is until American settlers began streaming into the Ohio Valley in the early 1800s. But the Shawnee War is another story...
How to prepare a fur coat
Fur coats are soft and, er..., furry. But they don't start off that way. The coat of an animal is actually quite coarse and prickly and must be treated using a labor-intensive process called tanning.
First, the skin must be carefully removed from the body of the animal. Then the hide needs to be stretched on a maple frame. Using a stone tool Indian women scraped the hide for hours to remove all of those messy layers of excess skin and fat.
The fur is then ready to be washed and dried. The coat might be clean but it is far from soft. The next step involved "braining" which meant literally taking the brains of the animal and rubbing them into the fur to soften up the hairs. This would be repeated several times. The final step before sending the coat to market was to soften it up using human sweat and oils. Indian women slept wrapped up with the fur side in. The sweat and oils would blend with the hairs, making them extra soft. The hide would then be dried over a fire to "cure it".