Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

Trappers of New York
by Jeptha R. Simms
A Reprint with New Supplementary Matter
Printed by Enterprise and News
St. Johnsville, N.Y. 1935

Albany: J. Munsell, 82 State Street. 1850


Believing that the reader who has followed the footsteps of our trappers, would be interested in knowing something more of the animals they sought for fur, and of their habits, I here insert a portion of their history. The full grown beaver will weigh from fifty to sixty pounds, and is about four feet in length from the snout to the end of the tail. The tail is a foot long, five or six inches wide, by one inch in thickness; and what is peculiar, although the body of the animal is so well covered with fur and hair, the tail is without either, except at its insertion, and is covered with scales. The fore part of the beaver has the taste and consistency of land animals, while the hind legs and tail have not only the smell, but the savor and nearly all the qualities of fish.

The peculiarity is thought by some to be accounted for by the habits of the animal, as when in the water its hind legs and tail are submerged and never seen I but it appears rather to be a connecting link between the inhabitants of land and water, its singularity in this respect being placed by nature beyond the control of mere circumstance. The beaver, when captured young, may easily be domesticated, and when hungry will ask by a plaintive cry for food. It is not very particular about its food, if of some green vegetable kind; but it generally refuses meat.

The bait used to entice beaver to a hunter's trap is castoreum, as I have elsewhere remarked. This substance is obtained from the glandulous pouches of the male animal, and is often called by hunters barkstone. It is squeezed by hand into some vessel such as a cut) or bottle; a full grown animal affording several ounces. Beaver castor is sometimes used by physicians in medical practice. Oil, extracted from the tail of the beaver, is used medicinally by the Indians. The beaver is found only in cold or northern latitudes. Its senses are acute. In its habits it is very neat, and will allow no filth near its habitation.

In its natural or forest life, where undisturbed by man, the beaver is social in its habits, often numbering twenty or more habitations in a single community, containing from two to twenty members each at some seasons of the year, as circumstances warrant. The following account of the manner in which those sagacious animals construct their dams and dwellings is from Godman's Natural History.

"They are not particular in the site they select for the establishment of their dwellings, but if in a lake or pond, where a dam is not required, they are careful to build where the water is sufficiently deep. In standing waters, however, they have not the advantage afforded by a current for the transportation of their supplies of wood; which, when they build on a running stream, is always cut higher up than the place of their residence, and floated down.

"The material used for the construction of their dams' are the trunks and branches of small birch, mulberry, willow, poplar, &c. They begin to cut down their timber for building, early in the summer, but their edifices are not commenced until about the middle or latter part of August, and are not completed until the beginning of the cold season. The strength of their teeth, and their perseverance in this work, may be fairly estimated, by the size of the trees they cut down. These are cut in such a manner as to fall into the water, and then floated towards the site of the dam or dwelling. Small shrubs, &c., cut at a distance from the water, they drag with their teeth to the stream, and then launch and tow them to the place of deposit. At a short distance above a beaver dam, the number of trees which have been cut down, appears truly surprising, and the regularity of the stumps which are left, might lead persons unacquainted with the habits of the animals to believe, that the clearing was the result of human industry.

"The figure of the dam varies according to circumstances. Should the current be very gentle, the dam is carried nearly straight across; but when the stream is swiftly flowing, it is uniformly made with a considerable curve, having the convex part opposed to the current. Along with the trunks and branches of trees, they intermingle mud and stones, to give greater security; and when dams have been long undisturbed and frequently repaired, they acquire great solidity, and their power of resisting the pressure of water and ice, is greatly increased by the willow, birch, &c., occasionally taking root, and eventually growing up into something of a regular hedge. The materials used in constructing the dams, are secured solely by the resting of the branches, &c., against the bottom, and the subsequent accumulation of mud and stones, by the force of the stream, or by the industry of the beavers.

"The dwellings of the beaver are formed of the same materials as their dams, and are very rude, though strong, and adapted in size to the number of their inhabitants. There are seldom more than four old, and six or eight young ones. Double of that number have been occasionally found in one of the lodges, though it is by no means a very common occurrence.

"When building their houses, they place most of the wood crosswise, and nearly horizontally, observing no other order than that of leaving a cavity in the middle. Branches, which project inward, are cut off with their teeth and thrown among the rest. The houses are by no means built of sticks first, and then plastered, but all the materials, sticks, mud and stones, if the latter can be procured, are mixed up together, and this composition is employed from the foundation to the summit. The mud is obtained from the adjacent banks or bottom of the stream or pond, near the door of the hut. Mud and stones, the beaver always carries by holding them between his forepaws and throat.

"Their work is all performed at night, and with much expedition. When straw or grass is mingled with the mud used by them in building, it is an accidental circumstance, owing to the nature of the spot whence the latter was taken. As soon as any part of the material is placed where it is intended to remain, they turn round and give it a smart blow with the tail. The same sort of blow is struck by them, on the surface of the water when they are in the act of diving.

"The outside of the hut is covered or plastered with mud, late in the autumn, and after frost has begun to appear. By freezing it soon becomes almost as hard as stone, effectually excluding their great enemy, the wolverine, during the winter. Their habit of walking over the work frequently during its progress, has led to the absurd idea of their using their tail as a trowel. The habit of flapping with the tail is retained by them in a state of captivity, and, unless it be the acts already mentioned, appears designed to effect no particular purpose. The houses, when they have stood for some time, and been kept in repair, become so firm from the consolidations of all the materials, as to require great exertion, and the ice chisel, or other iron instruments, to be broken open. The laborious nature of such an undertaking may easily be conceived, when it is known that the tops of the houses are generally from four to six feet thick at the apex of the cone."

The tail of the beaver when swimming, serves for a rudder to aid the animal in its changing and often rapid movement in the water. Near their habitations, beavers establish magazines of green bark and soft wood for food, keeping them well replenished; and never do the members of one family plunder from the larder of another. A community of beavers, altho it may consist of several hundred members, is seldom disturbed by domestic difficulties! peace and harmony being the bond which cements their union. If an individual is threatened with danger, it immediately takes measures to forewarn the whole village; which is done by striking the water furiously with its tail. Thus apprised of an enemy's proximity, the animals take shelter either in the water or their strong dwellings, which are very tidily kept in order. The entrance to a beaver's dwelling is by a small open door towards the water. The legs of a beaver are short, the foot has four toes, and what is remarkable, the hind feet have membranes between the toes to aid the animal in swimming.

The Otter, which is also hunted for its valuable fur, resembles the beaver somewhat in size, but very little in its general habits. It lives a more solitary life, often changing its habitation, especially in the winter, when seeking to find unfrozen water. It often travels a great distance at such times, and if threatened by danger on the snow, it slides on its belly rapidly, leaving a furrow behind it. Some suppose it is done by the animal in an attempt to bury itself in the snow. This is not the case, but rather a necessity arising from the shortness of its legs, as proportioned to its body. The animal has been known, not unfrequently, to get upon a hill near its own residence, when covered with snow, and with its fore feet bent back, slide down the hill for several rods, with great rapidity. This feat is evidently performed for a pas time.

The otter usually feeds upon fish, frogs, and other small animals; and when they can not be obtained, it will eat the tender branches and bark growing in or near the water, and sometimes grass. They are bad economists of food, and often annoy a community of beavers, by destroying their husbanded store of growing eatables. The otter is less numerous than the beaver, and its fur more valuable. The foot of the otter has five toes, connected by webs, like the toes of a duck. It displays considerable sagacity in preparing its burrow, which it makes upward under a bank, the entrance being beneath the water, and that in a freshet it shall not be drowned, it opens a small vent to the surface, often concealed by leaves and bushes. The otter taken young has been tamed, and taught to fish for its master.

The Muskrat in its habits much resembles the beaver, but is small as compared with that animal, being scarcely one-third as large. It is called the muskrat, because it is furnished with a peculiar matter, of a strong musky odor. The entrance to its burrow like that of the beaver, is usually made under a bank beneath the water. Its food, which is similar to that of the beaver, is usually sought in the night. Although the latter animal entirely disappears as the country becomes settled, it is not so with the muskrat, it continues its proximity to man's abode, occupying marshy lands along the shore of some river or pond, long after the lands are cleared up and cultivated to the water's edge. It is an excellent swimmer, and dives with great celerity. The flesh of the muskrat is seldom eaten unless in cases of great hunger, because of its powerful odor. It is still quite numerous in and about the Mohawk river, where the country has been settled for more than a century, and is destroyed every spring in great numbers, when driven from its burrows by heavy freshets, at the breaking up of winter. On such occasions the banks of the Mohawk are lined with men and boys, watching with eagle-eye to shoot the terrified animals, which are often slain in the very villages contiguous to the river. Not unfrequently they are, by freshets, driven up drains into cellars, where they make great havoc among cabbage and other vegetables there stored.

The Pine Marten, or forest weasel, is so called, because of its preference to forests of pine, in the lofty tops of which it resides. It lives upon small quadrupeds and birds, obtained in the forest, and seldom approaches the habitation of man. It sometimes lives in the hollow of a tree, and not unfrequently takes forcible possession of a squirrel's nest, which it enlarges and occupies to rear its young.

The fur of the marten is often used in the manufacture of hats, and in ornamenting winter dresses. The animal is about eighteen inches in length to the tail, the latter appendage being about ten inches long. The male is nearly one-third larger than the female. Trappers have often found the taking of the marten profitable.

The Wolverine, which annoys the hunter by stealing game from his traps, resembles the skunk somewhat in appearance. It is about two feet two inches long and from the end of the nose to the origin of the tail, and the latter, which is quite bushy, is some eight inches long to the end of the hair. The animal is very strong for its size, having very sharp claws and teeth. It is covered with fur, but not of fine quality. It is said to be able to defend itself against the attacks of much larger animals, not unfrequently overpowering and destroying them.

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