Soft Gold on the Snake
Jackson Hole was the center of the Fur Trade for a short period in the 1820s and 1830s due to the abundance of beaver. This squat brown mammal (once decreed a fish by the Bishop of Quebec, to fit dietary law) was once abundant throughout North America. Fur trappers venturing west to collect beaver pelts (referred to as “soft gold”) pioneered many overland routes from the Mississippi River plains to the coastal reaches of California and Oregon before the shift in fashion from beaver felt hats to silk chapeaus ended the trade. Once numbering over 60 million, the North American beaver population had been reduced to an estimated 100,000 by the 1840s. (Don’t be alarmed: their numbers have rebounded to an estimated 20 million, and we see them frequently on our evening float trips down the Snake.)
Osbourn Russell, a fur trapper who worked along the Snake River in what is now Grand Teton National Park during the waning years of the fur trade left us with a lively diary of his adventures. This diary is available online, and like many first-hand accounts of the time, includes some fascinating editorializing and dubious “facts” about the place we know as Jackson Hole.
Among his flowery descriptions of the region’s landscape, wildlife and indigenous peoples are these “observations” about beaver: “The female brings forth her young in April and produces from 2 to 6 at a birth but what is most singular she seldom raises but 2 a male and a female. This peculiarity of the Beaver has often been a matter of discussion among the most experienced hunters whether the dam or father kills the young but I have come to the conclusion that it is the mother for the following reasons 1st The Male is seldom found about the lodge for 10 or 15 days after the female brings forth. 2dly there is always a male and female saved alive 3dly I have seen the dead kittens floating in the ponds freshly killed and at the same times have caught the male where he was living more than 1/2 a mile from the Lodge. I have found where beaver are confined to a limited space they kill nearly all the kittens which is supposed to be done to keep them from becoming too numerous and destroying the timber and undergrowth too fast – I have caught 50 full grown Beaver in a valley surrounded by mountains and cascades where they had not been disturbed for 4 yrs and with this number there were but 5 or 8 kittens and yearlings.”
Contemporary research does not verify Russell’s impressions about beaver. The notion that beavers selectively reduce the size and manage the gender distribution of their litters to preserve timber simply isn’t supported by the facts. Beaver have many natural predators and kits face many possible causes of mortality – but infanticide isn’t one of them. Beaver are highly territorial, and a population will stop reproducing rather than exceed the carrying capacity of its territory – though adult beaver may strike out for new territories.
Though historians place high value on primary sources and first-hand accounts, it’s important to remember that these accounts are reflections of the time in which they were written. Russell as a product of his time did not have a sophisticated understanding of the complex ecosystems of the wild places in which he operated. He could no more comprehend the life cycle of the beaver than he could appreciate the rich culture of the Crow or Shoshone people he encountered in the West. Still, his journal is of great value as an artifact of the western frontier in the early 19th century, and is a valuable document for amateur historians (and professional Barker-Ewing boatmen) like myself who are fascinated by the contrasts between life then and now.