Americana: When the fur flew

August 19, 2018

Before there was wheat and corn, there was cotton. Before there was cotton, there was rice and tobacco; before that, there was fur.

From the vast well-watered woodlands of the north came pelts of many different creatures. Foxes with their long, soft fur; badgers and rabbits; and most importantly, beavers.

It started when cod fishermen traded with natives for beaver robes. They were merely pelts stitched together to make a simple, warm, outer garment.

But before long, hatters discovered the superior felting qualities of beaver fur. The pelt was shaved and the longer, stiff, outer hair was removed. The soft, dense underfur was washed, pressed and heated in a long process. The hairs have a microscopic Velcro-like texture that caused it to grip other hairs. The hat was formed using a wooden block and shaped with more heat and pressure.

America had beavers — lots of them. What started as fishermen trading for warm fur cloaks quickly turned into an elaborate economy that made Native Americans and Europeans rich.

One good quality beaver top hat used the fur from four to five beaver pelts. Though there were a few fur trappers of European decent, the vast majority were Native American women, in fact. As the years passed, competition for diminishing beaver supply sparked wars among the tribes.

Early in the 18th century, fur traders established fort Michilimackinac, pronounced ‘mish-i-li-mack-in-aw.’ It was guarded by the French for the purpose of protecting fur commerce. It was built on the south side of the Strait of Mackinac, a narrow passage of water that forms the connection between the Great Lakes Michigan and Huron, now in the state of Michigan.

But the low-lying peninsula was difficult to defend, and the British took it away from the French. Once the American Revolution heated up, the British feared that the Americans would in turn take it away from them, so they decided to relocate the fort to Mackinac Island, several miles to the east in Lake Huron.

They dismantled several of the buildings and reassembled them on the more defendable island. What they couldn’t move, like the underground armory, they burned.

But now, the original site is not only a national historic landmark but an extensive archeological excavation, and interpretive museum. The sharpened picket palisade encloses a fort, nearly restored to its 18th century heyday.

In one row house, visitors may see and touch the variety of animal pelts historically traded through Fort Michilimackinac. Ethan Knick, a textile historian, explained that the Gore-Tex of yesteryear were linen and wool. Linen wicks moisture and has anti-microbial properties. Wool is breathable, and when not washed in strong detergent, the natural lanolin properties make it water repellent.

In a section of a row house once occupied by a soldier and his family, the young presenter explained the arrangement of the one-room dwelling and the purpose of several household tools and furnishings. More than a million archeological artifacts have been recovered on the site, so researchers know a lot about life there.

Presenters dressed as British soldiers demonstrate period drills and firing of muskets and even the 12-pound cannon outside the palisade.

During the 18th century, Fort Michilimackinac was surrounded by flourishing villages. But when the British took over control of the fort, they levied tariffs deeply resented by the Native Americans.

Before long on a chilly day in June 1763, the Brits received a gracious invitation to watch a game of baggatiway, something like Lacrosse. The Ojibwe and Sauk teams proposed to stage a match just outside the inland gate of the fort.

Who can resist free tickets to a match like that?

The Native American women gathered near the gate, seemingly mere spectators. The game became heated as the soldiers cheered. Suddenly, the ball was tossed into the palisade. Hundreds of players raced to the women, who pulled weapons from their robes and tossed them to the players.

The tribesmen stormed the fort, killing only Englishmen and ignoring the French.

When it was over, 27 English were dead. The Ojibwe had made their point about the tariffs.

Fort Michilimackinac is now a fascinating place to relive and understand a slice of early American History.

Only in America, God bless it.

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