Friday, July 27, 2012

What was a 'Made Beaver' worth?

One of the verbal artifacts of Hudson’s Bay Company’s fur trade history is “Made Beaver,” defined as the high quality pelt of one adult beaver prepared for shipment. As visitors to Fort Vancouver NHS often hear, from early in its history the Company used the Made Beaver as a unit of value in trade with Native people. The goods a Native trapper could receive in return for bringing a prime beaver pelt into the trading post varied by place and time. Eventually multiples and fractions were included in the list of equivalents, and other types of fur as well as meat, fish pemmican, castoreum, and other ‘sundries’ brought to an HBC trade shop were also given values in Made Beaver equivalents.  For Native people who did not use or think of money the way Europeans did, what mattered was probably their own concept of a fair trade, and the Made Beaver unit was readily translated into comparative values across the range of manufactured items they wanted and the products of nature they gathered to exchange for those items.
     Soon after its 1670 beginnings HBC developed pricing policies expressed in Made Beaver units, and the lists of equivalents became known as Standards of Trade, sometimes known as the tariff. Not many of such lists survive, but those that applied to Fort Albany on James Bay in 1706 linked HERE, and another for the same location in 1733, available HERE, are often cited. A similar list is available for York Factory on Hudson’s Bay in 1740, included in this ARTICLE by economic historians who studied HBC in the 1700s.(1) A facsimile reproduction of a Standard of Trade for Hudson's Bay House in 1795 is HERE.(2)
     These lists suggest the possibilities, but they don’t do much good when trying to get a handle on Made Beaver equivalents on the other side of the continent a century or more later. John Hussey, a National Park Service historian who studied Fort Vancouver in anticipation of the reconstruction that is now the core of the National Historic Site, pored over immense amounts of printed and archival material, and only found a couple of Standards of Trade lists he thought might be applicable for the lower Columbia in the 1840s.(3)
     While Native people apparently adapted to thinking of the value of trade goods in Made Beaver equivalents, the Hudson's Bay Company was an extension of the economic thinking of Europe, with its long-developed monetary systems and currency values. As such, it was concerned with the "bottom line," operating costs, profit margins and return on investments. Whatever Standards of Trade were in effect in its far-flung trading region, HBC's overall viability as a business depended on how much it needed to pay out in trade goods to obtain furs, and how much it brought in from selling those furs in Europe--all measured in British Pounds Sterling.
     So how much was a Made Beaver worth in such "real money"? Here is a table I've worked up in an effort to further the discussion, taking information from the 1843-44 Standard of Trade for the region of Fort Vancouver and comparing it to the money price for equivalent items at the Fort Vancouver store in the same year:

                                        Trade value in                     Sale price  
Item                                  Made Beaver (4)                 in pence (5)       
1 musket ('Indian Gun')             4                                  396  
1 blanket, 2 1/2 points               1                                    86     
1 pair men's trousers                 1                                    96      
2 men's shirts                            1                                    63
3 lb. tobacco                              1                                    45
4 knives                                     1                                    41
2 dozen gun flints                      1                                    24

    HBC's 'Common Indian Gun,' a flintlock musket with a barrel 3 1/2 feet long, was a standard trade item, although the total numbers were low compared to point blankets, knives, tobacco and the other goods listed. The sale price in the third column suggests that the monetary value of each of the 4 Made Beaver traded for such a gun in 1844 was 99 pence, (or 8 shillings 3 pence per pelt, 33 shillings total for the gun).(6)  For the other items listed the comparison is more straightforward: When trading for a 2 1/2-point blanket each Made Beaver was worth 86 pence; when trading for a pair of men's pants one Made Beaver was worth 96 pence; when trading for two shirts a Made Beaver was worth 63 pence . . . you get the idea. By these calculations, if someone brought in a prime beaver pelt and wanted gun flints in trade, one Made Beaver would not go very far. If that person had book credit worth 24 pence (2 shillings) he would be much better off to use that monetary credit to buy the flints, saving the beaver pelt for some of the items at the top of this list.(7)
    What are we to conclude from such comparisons? One take-away is that none of these trades indicate that the monetary equivalent of the Made Beaver in the Indian Trade Shop was nearly as much as the 120 pence (10 shillings, or half a pound sterling) HBC would pay to a free trapper for one prime beaver pelt in 1837 (as reported below).(8)  To put this another way, a free trapper could receive credit of 480 pence (40 shillings) for 4 beaver pelts, buy a gun for 396 pence, and still have 84 pence of credit left on the books to buy other things. Or a free trapper could get 120 pence (10 shillings) in credit for a beaver pelt, then buy a 2 1/2-point blanket for 86 pence, leaving 34 pence on the books to be used to buy other items. An Indian in the same situation could get one gun for four pelts, or one blanket for one pelt--nothing left over. 
     There is another important result of these comparisons: The trade value of a Made Beaver, when expressed in monetary equivalents, varied quite a bit depending on the particular trade item in question. HBC's pricing policies meant that the Company was getting widely differing numbers of Made Beaver for different trade items. People delivering pelts to the Indian Trade Shop, in turn, were getting widely different amounts of goods depending on the item being traded--all in comparison to the monetary cost of those items to the Company and the retail prices charged for them in its store.
     Multiply this discussion by the hundreds of items available for trade, the many species of furs and other products brought in for trade, and allow for change over time and space. It's no wonder this topic, so central to HBC's business model, is complicated to discuss in terms we can easily comprehend today, in our fully monetized world and mindset.

(1) As the article by Carlos and Lewis points out, traders in the field used the current Standard of Trade as a guide, but they were given leeway to adjust actual trade values depending on supply and demand for furs, and especially to meet competition. In Eastern Canada in the 1700s the competition was with the French. From the 1780s to the merger of 1821 it was with the North West Company. In the Columbia District, 1825-46, it was the American traders who came to the coast in ships, or occasional efforts to establish land-based trading posts to compete directly with HBC, such as that by Nathaniel Wyeth who set up shop on Wapato (now Sauvie) island, 1834-37.
     For a thorough discussion of HBC trading practices and Standards of Trade in the first century or so of operations in north America, up to the end of the Seven Years War (known as the French & Indian War in US history), see Arthur Ray and Donald Freeman, 'Give us Good Measure': An Economic Analysis of Relations between the Indians and the Hudson's Bay Company before 1763 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978).

(2) A Standard of Trade for Eastmain House in 1750 is reproduced in Daniel Francis and Toby Elain Morantz, Partners in Furs: A History of the Fur Trade in Eastern James Bay, 1600-1870 (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1983), pp. 49-50. Another such list for the Columbia River District in 1824-25, recorded in the journal of George Simpson, is in Dorothy Nafus Morrison, Outpost: John McLoughlin and the Far Northwest (Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1999),  pp. 151-52.

(3) You can read Hussey's discussion of these topics in the context of the Indian Trade Shop in Chapter II of Vol. II of his 1976 "Historic Structures Report" in this downloadable PDF version. Scroll to pages 55-59 for John McLoughlin's comments (including the need to adjust trade values on the spot to meet American competition) and the detailed list for Outfits 1843 and 1844. Or go to the online version HERE and search the text for "Fort Albert" (as Fort Victoria was called for the first  few months after it was established in 1843). 
     This 1843-44 list is the basis for the several pages of Made Beaver equivalents reproduced in a large script font, but without any date or source notation, circulating around Ft. Vancouver NHS, including a set encased in plastic and placed under the counter in the Indian Trade Shop, to aid in interpreting that location for park visitors.

(4) John A. Hussey, Fort Vancouver Historic Structures Report, vol. 2 (1976), chap. 2, pp. 57-58, available to read or download at:

(5) To arrive at these prices I have taken the cost of the item to HBC in 1844 from Lester A. Ross, “Fort Vancouver, 1829-1860: A Historical Archaeological Investigation of the Goods Imported and Manufactured by the Hudson’s Bay Company,” (Typescript, Fort Vancouver NHS, 1976), Appendix II, pp. 1,384-1,410. To get a retail price then added the 50% cost+ markup for HBC servants from Ross's Table 12, p. 150. I have converted the prices into total pence to facilitate calculations and comparability for those of us not accustomed to 'old pound' notations in £/s/d. However generations of British clerks and accountants did it, I find calculations of percentage markups and visual comparisons of data to be much easier by converting all values into total pence. Anyone who would rather see these numbers in pre-1971 notation of pounds sterling can reconvert at 12 pence to the shilling, 20 shillings to the pound (making one pound equal to 240 pence). 

(6) The value/price of a common Indian gun in Made Beaver at Ft. Vancouver in 1843-44 was also much less than the comparable values in the earlier examples of Standards of Trade linked in the text, which were in the range of 10 to 14 Made Beaver per gun.

(7) Very little actual coinage circulated in the Columbia District. Non-Indians usually bought at the Fort Vancouver store only on credit, either against their wages in the case of Company employees, or by submitting furs or provisions for which they received book credit, in the case of free trappers or settlers. Purchases would then be deducted from the credit they had "on the books." See James Henry Gilbert, Trade and Currency in Early Oregon: A Study in the Commercial and Monetary History of the Pacific Northwest (New York: Columbia University, 1907), pp. 44-46.

(8) It would be good to know the monetary value of such a pelt in 1844, but apparently the value of a beaver pelt did not change dramatically in this period. An economic study of Oregon from the arrival of European-descended people to the middle of the 19th century reported that "In the lower Columbia district the customary price for a beaver skin was 10 shillings, or two dollars, and goods were reckoned at fifty per cent advance on London invoice. When furs were brought to Vancouver, 11s 6d might be allowed for a beaver skin, and the first American merchants received them at $2.20." James Henry Gilbert, Trade and Currency in Early Oregon: A Study in the Commercial and Monetary History of the Pacific Northwest (New York: Columbia University, 1907), pp. 34-35.

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