The Hudson's Bay Company's Latin motto was "pro pelle cutem," which roughly translates as "skin for pelt," the skin alluding to the diligent efforts of Company employees in collecting the beaver depicted on its coat of arms. The focus was on beaver pelts, used mainly for the fur stripped from the skin and made into fine felt hats, but the HBC collected many other types of animal skins, often used for fur coats, capes, and trim on clothing. In the reconstructed fur store at Fort Vancouver visitors can see the pelts of otter, lynx, fox, wolf and other fur bearing animals.
Since the business was furs, the focus was on beaver, yet other furs were traded, several questions arise: What was a beaver pelt worth? What other pelts were collected and what were they worth, by themselves and in relation to beaver? How many pelts, beaver and others, were collected in a year? How much were they worth in total? Is there any way to estimate the values in today's dollars? Fortunately, the shipping manifests sent with the furs to London help provide answers to these and related questions.
Each fall, usually in October or November, a ship left Fort Vancouver for England, laden with furs and other products from the Columbia District and beyond, from Alaska to California, that had been accumulating at the District depot since the previous fall. In documenting each shipment, clerks listed the numbers of pelts by species and type, the value of each pelt, and the total value of each type of pelt. The actual income from these returns was eventually determined as much as a year later at public auctions in London, where furs were sold by the pound, not per pelt. We have no record of those auction results, but the assessed values in the shipping manifests provide a reasonably good proxy.
This "valuation" was done for two reasons: to provide a monetary value for insurance purposes during the sea voyage, and as the basis for a preliminary calculation of profit or loss. The Company would not want to pay for insurance over what they thought the shipment was going to yield when sold, and they wanted to get an accurate estimate of potential income to compare with expenses incurred. These figures are also good for showing the relative values of the various species and types of pelt.
This analysis starts with archival data on the annual shipment of furs and other products sent to England in November 1844, follows with a reworking of that information for clarity and additional calculations, and concludes with interpretive commentary on the data.
The image below is the summary sheet for the returns shipped from Fort Vancouver on November 13, 1844: "Valuation of Furs, Returns of Columbia [District], Outfit 1843 & 1844, shipped to England per Barque Columbia 1844." The columns are: number, species/type, value of each item (in shillings/pence), total value (in pounds/shillings/pence).
The spreadsheet below is a reworking of the same data, separating furs from non-fur sundries and sorting furs by the total value of each species or type (column F), in descending order.
Numbers presented this way can quickly cause one's eyes to glaze over, so let's try breaking the table down, picking up some interpretive points in the process.
Columns A and B are from the source document, with peltries totaling 57,354. Sundries include animal skins used for leather, not for fur, and items measured by the pound, such as castoreum, the contents of a mature beaver's musk glands, used in making perfume. Each adult beaver yielded only a few ounces of castoreum, so the 264 pounds in this shipment suggests that it was carefully retrieved from many of the 13,430 large beaver shown. Other sundries include isinglass, a substance found in the flotation bladders of sturgeon, used in clarifying beer and wine, and whalebone, used in corset stays. Feathers don't show up in every annual shipment, so those shown here may have been accumulated over several years. But we might wonder how many geese or swans had to be plucked to yield 168 pounds of feathers.
Column C shows the percentage contribution of each species to the total number of pelts. Thus we see that the 17,290 beaver (large + small) made up just over 30% of all pelts, while 21,236 muskrats made up 37%. Add the 7,900 martens, nearly 4,000 mink, and 1,428 raccoons to account for just over 90% of the pelts shipped--from just five species.
The value per pelt in Column D is from the source document. Only sea otter(144s/4p), silver fox (98s), brown bear (71s), and grizzly bear (35s), were valued higher than a large beaver (32s). On the bottom of this measure is the lowly muskrat, at 6 pence (half a shilling) each.
Column E gives one large beaver (that is, the "Made Beaver" used as a unit of value for trading purposes) the value of 1, and the value of other species in relation to that unit. This shows at a glance that, for example, one sea otter was assessed at 4 1/2 Made Beaver, and a silver fox pelt was worth 3 Made Beaver. One muskrat, in contrast, was worth a tiny fraction of a Made Beaver. Put in other words, at 1/2 shilling each, it took 64 muskrat pelts to equal the value of one large beaver.
Column F, the total assessed value of each species or type within species, is from the source document, here sorted in descending order. Column G calculates that ranked list as a percentage of the value of all furs. This brings us back to focus on beaver, which accounted for 30% of all pelts by number, but made up nearly 70% of the assessed value of all pelts. Sea otters (worth 4 1/2 beaver pelts each) accounted for less than 2% of the value of all pelts, because there were just 89 sea otters in the Columbia's cargo. Similarly, each silver fox pelt was valued at three times the value of a large beaver, but there were only 48 silver fox pelts in this shipment, so they accounted for less than 1% by value. On the other end, the lowly muskrat made up 37% of all pelts by number, but accounted for just 1.5% by value.
Column G also shows that for all the range of species and types within species, the top five items together (beaver, marten, black bear, brown bear, and land otter) accounted for 90% of the value of the peltries in this shipment.
Columns H and I use the monetary conversion and inflation calculations from the MeasuringWorth.com website to give estimated conversions of 1844 British currency in today's US dollars. It turns out that the mid-range of those calculations puts £1 in 1844 at about $120 today, making each shilling $6 and each pence $.50 today--very approximately, but also conveniently (see the note below for more on this). These estimates put the assessed value of one large beaver pelt at about $190 today, and the dollar value of all beaver pelts in this shipment at something like $2.9 million today--again helping to explain the focus on beaver. And while "thirty-six thousand pounds in 1844" might not mean much, saying that the total value of this single annual shipment "would be something like 4.3 million dollars today" might make some ears to perk up in the back row.
The source of this data is HBCA B/223/d/154, "Invoice of Furs and Peltries, Returns of the Columbia District Outfit 1844, Shipped per John McLoughlin Esquire on board the Barque Columbia, Alexander Duncan Master, for London . . ." From microfilm and digitized images in the ARC of Fort Vancouver NHS. In his letter to Governor & Committee of November 20, 1844, John McLoughlin reported: "The Barque Columbia under the command of Captain Duncan left this place on the 13th Instant . . . with the furs of the season." (The Letters of John McLoughlin, from Fort Vancouver to the Governor and Committee, third series, 1844-46, Toronto: Champlain Society, 1944, p. 52). Some information from this document is in John Hussey, Historic Structure Report, Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, Vol. 2, (1976), pp. 34-35. Hussey's purpose was to suggest what furs might be displayed in the reconstructed fur store, so he listed the number of furs by species, but not the assessed value of each type of pelt.
For historical monetary conversions MeasuringWorth.com is a best effort by professional economic historians to deal with the various problems of comparing values over time and across currencies. They also understand that whatever the methodology, no single answer can be considered "correct" nor "exact." Using the "Conversion ($ and £)" comparator, British pounds of 1844 to U.S. dollars of 2014, and the CPI result, MeasuringWorth.com gives an average value of £100=$12,300 (in a range from $8,040 to $16,500). For these estimates I have rounded that average down slightly to £1=$120. In pre-1971 British currency there were 20 shillings in a pound and 12 pence in a shilling, or 240 pence in a pound. These approximations thus make each 1844 shilling equal to $6.00 and each 1844 pence worth $.50, in today's U.S dollars. While these conversions must be considered only rough approximations, they are surely better than a wild guess or a shrug of the shoulders, when faced with the obvious question, "How much would that be in today's dollars?"