Thursday, June 14, 2012

How much was a beaver pelt worth?

One of the questions I get now and then from visitors to Fort Vancouver is some version of “how much was a beaver pelt worth?” This is even more important if we consider that in trade with natives and trappers a common unit of value within the HBC trading network was the "made beaver" meaning the value of a prime adult beaver pelt ready for market. It might seem strange given the importance of beaver pelts in the whole HBC story, but the answer is harder to find, and more difficult to understand in modern terms, than we might think. It involves, first, what monetary value might have been put on beaver pelts in British currency, and how such a number changed over the two centuries from 1670 to 1870 when HBC's main focus was the fur trade. There was also change from place to place: We can’t assume that a pelt turned into York Factory on Hudson’s Bay was given the same value as a similar beaver skin traded at Fort Vancouver. Once we have a figure in British currency, most of us would like to have that converted into U.S. dollars. Since the old adage that “a dollar isn’t worth what it used to be” is all too true, we would also like to know the rough equivalent of the dollar value then with the dollar now. People who brought furs to HBC often received trade goods in return rather than monetary credit, so it would also be useful to know how much those goods cost the Company to acquire. And this is all at the first level of getting furs from those who trapped them, not considering how much HBC received for each pelt in the wholesale fur markets of London or New York. The difference between what they paid out to acquire a fur, and what they received when they sold that fur that eventually went into a felt hat, minus their operating expenses, determined HBC’s profits.


I wouldn’t string you along this far without providing at least a start at an answer. To do that I need to give a little background on my source: William A. Slacum.  Slacum was a purser in the U.S. Navy whose trip to the Pacific Northwest was commissioned by President Andrew Jackson. For his travels he adopted a civilian persona and the profession of trader, either to help pay for the trip, or as cover to its true purpose of reconnaisance ordered by the US government, or both. After traveling across Mexico he made it to Hawaii where he hired a ship, the "Loriot"  with its crew, purchased enough supplies to appear to be a trader, sailed for  the Columbia River, and stayed in this area from late December 1836 to early February 1837.
Slacum’s report was published as John Forsyth and William A. Slacum, “Slacum’s Report on Oregon, 1836-7,” Oregon Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 2 (June 1912), pp. 175-224. Here is a passage from page 191:

“The price of a beaver skin in the ‘Columbia district’ is ten shillings, $2, payable in goods at 50 per cent on the invoice cost. Each skin averages one and a half pound, and is worth in New York or London $5 per pound; value $7.50. The beaver skin is the circulating medium of the country.”

Lots of stuff in these few lines: 1) The “made beaver” unit functioned as a sort of currency. 2) The value of a made beaver in the Columbia District in 1837 was 10 shillings, or half of one British Pound. 3) The exchange rate with the U.S. dollar was 5 shillings to the dollar, or one £1= $4.00. 4) Once the furs reached the wholesale fur markets of New York or London they were measured in bulk by weight, not by the individual pelt. 5) A pelt that cost HBC $2 at Fort Vancouver would bring something like $7.50 on the wholesale fur market. Finally, 6) Slacum mentions the important detail that the value of the goods the Company exchanged to obtain the fur was calculated at what HBC paid for those goods, plus a 50% markup. For example, let’s say a trapper wanted a point blanket. He brought in a prime beaver pelt, worth 10 shillings. The trader said “You’re in luck. This 3-point blanket is worth 10 shillings, exactly the value of your pelt.” But the Company paid just 6 shillings 8 pence for that blanket, and added 50% on its cost to come up with the 10 shillings trade value.(1) HBC made money at both ends—on the trade by which it acquired pelts, and on the sale of those pelts to the brokers who sold them to the hat makers.

So how much would $2 in 1837 be worth today? There are inflation calculators online to do the heavy lifting here. My favorite is Measuring Worth because it explains how the various results are derived, and gives some hints on how to interpret them. (It also provides historical conversion rates from British £ to American $.) Long story short, the $2 value of a beaver pelt of 1837 would be something like $48 today. And the $7.50 that HBC might have received in London works out to about $176 in today’s money.

I’ll close by asking anyone who has more information on this topic, or can suggest other sources that might provide a basis for responding when Fort visitors ask “how much was a beaver pelt worth?” to let me know, either via the comment box below or by direct email to tomholloway62(at)gmail.com   Of course, any other questions or comments are also welcome.
 
NOTES
(1) This is a hypothetical example for purposes of illustration. For more on what HBC paid for point blankets in 1843, see the posting on "The HBC Blanket Capot: Tradition Continues" above. And for more on what a Native trapper could receive in trade goods for one Made Beaver see the posting on "What was a 'Made Beaver' worth?" above.

6 comments:

  1. Peter Fidler's Standard of Trade 1795 from the HBCA-Archives of Manitoba. (two pages)
    One made beaver is a top quality pelt.
    1 one point blanket costs 2 made beaver
    1 four point blanket costs 6 made beaver
    24 awl blades costs 1 made beaver.
    1 gallon of brandy costs 4 made beaver.
    24 needles cost 1 made beaver.
    20 fish hooks cost 1 made beaver.
    1 three foot gun cost 10 made beaver.
    1 four foot gun cost 12 made beaver.


    http://www.furtradestories.ca/details.cfm?content_id=244&cat_id=2

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks very much for typing this up, RD. I provided a link to the images of the original 1795 document in a later posting that pairs with this one, with the name "What was a made beaver worth?":
    (The link is at the end of the first paragraph in that posting.)
    For a hint at changes from 1795 to 1843, the earlier list has a "common sword blade" at 1 beaver, and "best sword blade" at 2 beavers. The later list for the Columbia District no longer shows sword blades as a trade item.
    Any more Standard of Trade lists out there, or money values for beaver (or other) pelts?

    ReplyDelete
  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  4. That is not to say that they traded at the MB prices. each fort and employee had a certain amount of discretion that they could use in order to drive a hard bargain as they saw fit. so although the standard was the same all the way across, chances are that there were vast fluctuations between forts, depending on the pressures of competition and the strength of the native trade chiefs

    ReplyDelete
  5. Could you be so kind and share a link to other resources that have data about this theme just in case you know any.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Missis Karen: If I had more links, I would have put them in the text of this posting. There is more information (and some more links) on the general theme in the posting called "What was a Made Beaver Worth," posted July 27, 2012. As Ashley M notes in the comment above, even when a monetary value was set by Company policy, local managers used their discretion in specific circumstances. Given the importance of the fur trade over time, with its focus on beaver pelts, it is puzzling that we know so little about such a basic piece of information--the monetary value of a beaver pelt.

    ReplyDelete