First seen in Paris in 1577, beaver hats from the New World reached London in the early 1580s and became very quickly objects of a commodity fetishism unseen elsewhere in the age of Elizabeth—“an item as essential to the dignity of rank as a crown and scepter were to medieval monarchs.” (Hats made from beavers native to Europe and particularly Russia had been terrifically desirable among the European royalty of the late medieval world, but by 1450 the continental population had been entirely eradicated.) Beaver fur was smooth, soft, and naturally waterproof, thanks to a creamy lubrication excreted from the animal’s anus, and “no other colonial product fetched so high a price, in Paris, in London, or in Holland.”
“From the very first they fascinated those who saw them,” Bunker writes, and “in an age obsessed with rank and degree, the beaver hat’s adaptability gave it a special appeal.” As prince, Charles bought sixty-four beaver hats in 1618, fifty-seven in 1619, forty-six in 1623, and forty-three in 1624. “Half the history of England in this period can be found written on the surface of felt hats,” Bunker remarks, with typical enthusiasm. During the 1620s the price of a beaver pelt quadrupled, reaching a peak of forty shillings—enough to rent nine acres of English farmland for a full year. By the mid-1630s, a single beaver hat cost five pounds, more than double the price of fifteen years before. In 1628, more than thirteen hundred pelts from North American beavers arrived in England, and at the peak of the trade in the 1630s, the pilgrims were delivering more than two thousand skins annually. A corner had been turned: the Pilgrims were rich.
But how had that happened? The turnaround in colonial fortunes was quick and decisive—especially quick in Bunker’s excited telling—but it was far from inevitable. What distinguished the Mayflower pilgrims from their Virginia cousins, and what explains their special willingness to penetrate the new continent in search of game, Bunker writes, was not theology so much as genealogy. To be sure, the Puritans possessed what Bunker calls an “evangelical superego,” but they also possessed an unusual and unacknowledged degree of comfort with precisely the kinds of problems, and precisely the kinds of possibilities, posed by the untamed landscape of the New World—comfort that had developed on the other side of the Atlantic. When Miles Standish led an early beaver expedition up the Mystic River, he “already knew a kind of terrain that he saw in replica along the shores of Massachusetts Bay.” The New England wilderness was familiar to the Pilgrims, Bunker says—“a game-filled land that echoed on a vastly larger scale the semi-wilderness they knew in the land of their birth.”