The North American beaver (Castor canadensis) has an average weight of 40 – 50 pounds and the potential to grow as large as 80 pounds, making it the largest rodent on the continent and the second largest in the world, along with the similarly sized Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber). Beaver are widely distributed throughout North America, including Virginia, and are plentiful enough that several counties including James City and York still permit a continuous open trapping season. Beaver significantly modify their ecosystems by felling trees and damming rivers and streams.
Beaver bones have been identified in a wide variety of contexts at Jamestown, spanning several different periods of the site’s history. The English colonists brought iron traps with spring mechanisms to hunt beavers, otters, raccoons, foxes, and other small to midsized mammals that could provide much needed meat and valuable furs. Virginia Indians used snares made of wood and cord for the same purposes. Beaver pelts, along with fox and otter, were quickly identified as one of the profitable resources that could be exported from Virginia.
Many early Fort Period contexts such as the Kitchen & Cellar are dated to the Starving Time winter of 1609-10, and the beaver and other faunal remains from those features were likely valued primarily as food. As the colony recovered from the Starving Time the profitability of the venture quickly became a priority once more. The beaver remains excavated from later Jamestown contexts like Midden 1, near the East Bulwark, are likely evidence of the rapidly expanding fur trade. While it was most profitable farther north in the New England colonies, the exchange of beaver and other furs was an important part of the local Virginia economy as well. Native trappers supplied many of the pelts, and one of the complaints raised around the time of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676-77 was that traders exchanging gunpowder, shot, and other weapons for furs were arming those that Nathanial Bacon and his followers viewed as enemies.
Intensive beaver trapping continued until the late 19th century, supplying England with fur for fashionable beaver hats and other wearable status symbols. North American beaver populations were decimated by centuries of overhunting, but protective legislation enacted at the turn of the 20th century has allowed the species to rebound.