The Exploration of Western America, 1800-1850: An Historical Geography

By E. W. Gilbert | Go to book overview

Chapter VII
THE ANIMALS OF THE REGION

"Animals are par éminence the communities of the Prairies."2 GREGG, Commerce of the Prairies.

The distribution of animals exerted a considerable influence on the exploration of western America. The main object of many of the explorers of this region was the collection of furs, a trade which brought great wealth to the successful. Animals, particularly the buffalo, provided the explorer with food, while bears were a source of danger to human movement. Thus the animals may be considered in the following categories: the beaver as wealth, the buffalo as food, and the bear as a hindrance.

THE BEAVER (Castor canadensis). In the year 1800 the whole of America, west of the Mississippi, was swarming with beavers. "The Beaver seems to have chosen this country for his own", says de Smet.3 The animal lived along the banks of the rivers and streams, wherever there was any vegetation. As each animal was worth anything between four and eight dollars, the trapping of these animals was an extraordinarily remunerative occupation and a powerful incentive to exploration. The beaver lived in houses constructed along the banks of streams, with passages which opened into the water. If the water was too shallow to conceal the opening, the beaver constructed dams to increase the depth of the water. On September 5, 1804, when near the junction of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers, Lewis and Clark recorded that "near the mouth of this creek the beaver had made a dam across so as to form a large pond, in which they

____________________
1
This chapter is reprinted, with slight modifications, from an article entitled "Animal Life and the Exploration of Western America", which appeared in Scottish Geographical Magazine, XLVII ( January, 1931), 19-28.
2
J. Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies, E.W.T. XX, 259.
3
P. J. de S. J. Smet, Letters and Sketches ( 1843), E.W.T. XXVII, 260.

-77-

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