Friday, June 29, 2012

Muskrat?


Since animal pelts were the driving force of Hudson's Bay Company operations, it seems odd that we don’t have more information on how many, of what species, were harvested over time. The beaver was the prime target and surpassed all others, but they may have accounted for less than half of all skins taken in the Columbia District, of which Fort Vancouver was HBC’s headquarters from 1824 to the mid-1840s. We don’t hear much about the lowly muskrat in the heroic lore of the fur trade, but in some times and places it was not far behind the beaver and was right up there with the otter in overall numbers taken. In one of the few years for which we have a fairly complete listing of the furs shipped from Fort Vancouver the muskrat, in fact, pulled ahead of the beaver.(1)
            On November 20, 1843 Chief Factor John McLoughlin signed a list of items sent to London on the HBC ship Vancouver. The shipment consisted of furs, hides, and other items harvested or received in trade over the entire Columbia District, and collected at Fort Vancouver for tabulation, final packing, and shipment. Some were from Outfit 1842(2) that had arrived at Ft. Vancouver too late to make the ship a year earlier, but most of this shipment were returns for Outfit 1843.
            The table below shows the contents of the November 1843 shipment, with the animal species ranked in descending order:

ANIMAL         NUMBER(3)
Muskrat                  17,438                    
Beaver                    14,820                    
Marten                      9,449                    
Mink                        7,671                    
Deer                         2,161                    
Wolf                         1,904                    
Bear                          1,828                    
Raccoon                   1,663                    
Land Otter                1,028                    
Sea Otter                     214                    
Fisher                          668                    
Fox                              756                    
Lynx                            551                    
Badger                         523                    
Wolverine                    195                    
Seal                             169                    
Goat                              72                    
Elk                                   4                    
Mountain Lion                4  
TOTAL                  61,118                    

The following items were also from across the Columbia District and included in the same shipment:
Castoreum                                     236.5 lbs (How many beaver glands to get this much?)
Beaver Coating                              177 lbs
Feathers, goose & partridge          341 lbs  (How many feathers in 341 pounds?)
Isinglass                                        325 lbs
Pieces of various animal skins      116
    (partial or damaged)

So how much was all this worth?
 Chief Factor McLoughlin assigned a value for this entire shipment of £36,348.16.2 (36,348 pounds, 16 shillings, and 2 pence). My favorite online inflation calculator, Measuring Worth, suggests that would be roughly £2,780,000 today, or in today’s dollars something like $4,420,000. Four million four hundred and twenty thousand dollars.

NOTES:
(1) It should be kept in mind, however, that the average muskrat is much smaller than the average beaver, so it would take many muskrat pelts to make as much fur for felt as could be obtained from one beaver. According to one HBC list, in 1843 and 1844 one prime beaver pelt in the Columbia District was equal in trade value to 15 muskrat pelts; John A. Hussey, Fort Vancouver Historic Structures Report, vol. 2 (see note 3 below for access and retrieval link), p. 57.

(2) The HBC term Outfit referred to what today we could call the fiscal or business year, which normally ran from June 1 to May 31. In some years the furs and other items collected at a given trading post (called returns in HBC terminology) for a given Outfit might not make it to Fort Vancouver in time to be put aboard the annual ship to London until the following year, but for accounting purposes returns were recorded in the Outfit year in which they were received.

(3) Source: John A. Hussey, Fort Vancouver Historic Structures Report, vol. 2 (1976), chap. 1, available online at:
This digitized version has the advantage of being searchable on any text string, but has no page numbers. This same information also appears on pp. 33-34 of Hussey’s typescript of April 1976:
This page-by-page scan can be downloaded to your hard drive, but cannot be searched except with that old scanning tool—your eyes.

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