The northern river otter (Lontra canadensis) is found throughout Canada and the United States and even into northern Mexico. These semi-aquatic mammals can live in both freshwater and coastal marine habitats and are found in rivers, lakes, marshes, swamps, and estuaries, including the James River. They are mostly nocturnal, making sightings fairly rare despite their relative abundance and wide geographic range. River otters hunt fish, amphibians, turtles, snakes, crayfish, crabs, and other invertebrates using their sensitive whiskers to aid perception in murky water, and are also known to eat birds, eggs, and small mammals on land. Known for their playful behavior sliding down river banks and cavorting in groups to strengthen social bonds and teach their young to hunt, otters are fueled by large appetites and a very high metabolism.
River otters have historically been trapped by Virginia Indians, European colonists, and modern hunters for their dense, water resistant fur. Even sea otters lack a layer of blubber to keep them warm, instead relying entirely on the insulation of their coat. Virginia Indians used woven snares to catch otter and beaver and traditionally ate the meat in addition to using the pelt, as described by Captain Smith: “They have many Otters, which, as the Beavers, they take with snares, and esteem the skinnes great ornaments; and of all those beasts they use to feede, when they catch them.”
While the English settlers would have eaten otter, beaver, and much more unusual foods as they endured periods of scarcity and outright starvation, they were primarily interested in the valuable furs. One of the main goals of the Jamestown colony was to turn a profit from the natural resources of the New World, and otters were frequently listed by early European explorers as a “merchantable commodity” (Letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, 1590). A True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie in Virginia, written in 1610, assured investors that “the woodes do harbor exceeding store of Beavers, Foxes and Squirrels, the waters do nourish a great encrease of Otters; all which are covered with precious furres.” Although they brought their own iron traps with them to Virginia, the English colonists largely procured pelts for export through trade with the Virginia Indians. This was a point of contention, since some Englishmen feared that the guns and munitions the Virginia Indians preferred to receive in return would be used against them. The English were also concerned by the extensive and profitable fur trade networks established to the north by the French and Dutch.