May 8, 2008


After the American Revolution (and probably before the war, too) the new world, from Virginia to Maine, was replete with wild animals. Tales of one, the beaver, are recorded in journals of French men exploring the country either after the American Revolution or while waiting out the French Revolution, between the 1780s and the 1790s. Surprisingly, this creature is credited with playing a role in American history.

The journal of Clermont-Crevecoeur, a French military officer assisting with the American Revolution, relates, about beavers in Virginia, that they were among the animals he located “but since they live in colonies and are very shy when hunted or when the virgin land where they live is cleared, they are rarely seen except in wild and uninhabited country.”

Park Holland, a surveyor of Maine lands, concurs. While he was explored Maine near an outlet of a large lake (possibly the Aroostook River headwaters), he wrote “We crossed a large beaver stream, and halted to examine the works of theses curious little animals. They had a large quantity of timber cut for completing a dam upon which they were evidently at work before our arrival though we could not find them. We should have supposed from appearances that men and oxen had been employed to cut and arrange timber as we found it done by the wise heads and strong bodies of these wonderful creatures.”

Even so, beavers influenced town-naming. Thomas Sosnowski, a Stark Campus, Kent State University history professor, referred to Castorland, near present day Watertown (and near the Beaver River) in northern New York. It was a “grand” community developed by Le Ray de Chaumont.  “The nomenclature (castor means beaver in French) was, in itself, sufficient propaganda to whet the economic appetites of some settlers, since furs were still popular in European fashion and would remain so for several decades. One article referred to “intrigues practiced by great American proprietors to seduce French adventurers to this country and to sell them territories to which they cannot prove their right.” The community attracted some twenty families between 1796 and 1800.

The Verger (another French military officer in the American Revolution) Journal recorded the existence of some beaver lodges about six miles outside of Williamsburg, where he “saw these animals cut down trees and drag them long distances to build their dams, which are constructed with astonishing neatness and solidity.” He inspected one beaver lodge at the foot of a tree, near a little pond. It was round, about three feet wide and consisted “of three stories built on piles. Thus, when the water rises, the beavers retire to the second floor, then to the third if necessary, but they always keep their tails in the water.” The beaver deposit their winter provisions in a corner of each level. “Beside the house, and sometimes inside it, they build a tunnel through which they can escape when they see hunters approach.” When they sense danger, they knock on the ground with their tails, warning their comrades. The beaver then remain under water until the danger disappears, and signal that “the coast is clear” by again using their tails.

Beaver were among the wild animals that were a “principal resource of the first inhabitants” along the coast of Downeast Maine, according to Talleyrand’s journal, written in the mid 1790s when he explored this area to determine if he wanted to speculate on land there. Their skins, along with the skins of deer, bear, stags, and squirrel, were a major product of the forests, and “the industry which procures them is so simple that one can place this among the natural products.”

Verger and Talleyrand relate instances where the beaver provided more than the necessary food for survival and an economic advantage in fur trading.

“It is common to encounter on the unsettled lands of America meadows which present to the eye the spectacle of the most astonishing fertility and which one would believe had been formed by industrious men,” Talleyrand wrote. These meadows were, however, “only the result of the work of beavers,” who built dams which would stop creek waters, forcing them to flood the valleys. This inundation of water killed the trees. “With time the dams of the beavers are destroyed and the waters escape, but the land fertilized by their stay produces an abundance of grasses,” Talleyrand noted. The beaver found natural pasturage in these marsh grasses, which also benefited settlers establishing themselves in the vicinity of these meadows, who reaped “rich harvests of hay which he has neither sown nor cultivated.”

Hunters had several methods of hunting beaver, according to Verger’s journal in the early 1780s. One was especially amusing. “Without making any noise, you come out in the evening to one of their dams and make a hole in it so that the water runs out of the pond; then you quickly go off and hide nearby. The beavers in the lodge immediately notice that the water level is falling and come out to locate the leak. Once they find it, they beat three times with their tails to summon the other beavers to work. Some bring earth, which stems the flow of water somewhat, others bring sticks, and still others apply mortar on the dam with their tails, working with incredible diligence. Meanwhile you have time to select the animal you wish to shoot. But immediately afterwards the rest jump into the water, and you do not see them again for the rest of the day. The beaver lodges smell of amber, and the beavers communicate this odor to everything on which they lie.”

Verger also related the tale of a certain Mr. Egleson, one of the richest inhabitants of the Virginia area. On hearing that “the British were on their way to pillage his house,” he “retired with two negroes” to an inaccessible marshland, which had an entrance known only to himself. He took “all his treasures and some provisions” with him. “One of his negroes betrayed him and led in a party of British soldiers to capture him. When they came within gunshot, they had to crawl through a narrow defile, whereupon Egleson shot the negro, and reloading his musket, picked off a British soldier.” The others, discouraged and having lost their guide, “beat a retreat.” Although Mr. Egleson had a price on his head, “no one had the courage to go out and attack him… This country is very difficult to penetrate.” Mr. Egleson remained in his marsh six weeks.

Beavers still played a role in more recent times. My husband, Monte, recalls a beaver dam on Maple Ridge Road in DeKalb, New York.

“In the late 1940’s and 1950’s, when my father, and then my brother, were farming the family farm on Maple Ridge Road, there was a part of the farm that we called ‘the flat.’ It was probably forty or fifty acres of meadow where we cut hay. Part of this meadow was a little higher and grew the regular timothy, alfalfa and clover hay crop. The other part, which was lower, flooded during the wet season. It grew a broad-leaf, swamp-like grass. We cut both of the fields in the summer and put the hay up in the large barn for cattle feed in the winter.

“The lower portion had a small stream that ran across it and continued onto my brother’s farm that was next door.

“Some time after the 1950’s,beavers began building rather large dams on that stream on the property line between the two farms. I heard that over the years the work of the beavers resulted in almost year-round flooding of the lower swamp grass level. Since our family had not owned the home place since the late 1950’s, I had no occasion to see the change.

“One day (after year 2000) one of my sisters, my wife, and I, trespassed on the property. We went back across the pasture to the hillside where we could see down into ‘the flat.’ The reports were correct. Even though it was summer and the drier part of the year, only the higher ground was above water and had been cut.

“Even though we didn’t get down to the water level to see the beaver dam, it was impressive and seemed to be quite large. The beaver has made a dramatic change in the landscape of this back portion of my home farm.”

Thus, the beaver continues to play a role in the natural make-up of the American turf. It is quite an amazing creature.






What is a Mantua Maker?


From the Bastille to Cinderella

Madame Rosalie de la Val: A Character Sketch



ALEXANDRIA, D. C. (Virginia) IN THE 1790s

The French military in America during the American Revolution Part 1


Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

What is your opinion?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: