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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Almanac: New World Fur Trade

Air Date: Week of December 14, 2001

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This week, facts about the first fur trade from the New World. Three hundred and eighty years ago, a shipment of beaver skins set sail for England.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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CURWOOD: Three-hundred-and-eighty years ago this week, the first shipment of furs from North America was on its way to Europe. In December, 1621, pilgrims in Massachusetts Bay were hunkering down for another hard winter. They'd gotten through their first year by eating corn and cod, but their numbers were down by half. And those 50-or-so survivors were deep in debt to the merchants who had bankrolled their passage from England. So, the colonists traded with Native Americans to get pelts. And when the English boat called The Fortune arrived in Plymouth, the pilgrims loaded it up with beaver hides. Beaver felt hats were so popular in Europe that beavers were almost extinct there. But North America's lakes and streams were full of the critters.


Photo: White Oak Society(Photo: White Oak Society)

That first cargo of beaver fur was worth 500 pounds, or about 200 thousand dollars today, but it never made it back to England. A French man-of-war captured the ship and took the pelts to France. Still, trading fur became a lucrative business for the pilgrims. And by 1640, beaver were seldom seen in coastal Massachusetts. Fur trappers headed west, piling the pelts as they roamed.

By the mid-1800's, though, the winds of fashion had shifted. Fur was out, silk was in, and the beaver was narrowly saved from extinction. And that's this week's Living on Earth Almanac.

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