These three artifacts were found in the c. 1608-1610 well located in the center of James Fort. Measuring 4 ½ – 5 inches in length, they are springs thought to be elements from animal traps. Known in the 17th century as engines, the traps were most likely intended to capture small animals like beavers and otters. Virginia Company planning documents enumerating possible lucrative commodities to be found in the new colony, optimistically noted that “beaver skins being taken in wintertime will yield great profit: the like will other skins.”
At the time of Jamestown’s founding, animal furs and skins were highly desired for clothing and dress accessories, as they had been for centuries. But the supply of fur from England’s traditional sources in Scandinavia and Russia was dwindling from over-harvesting the Eurasian fur-bearing animals. With the Dutch, English, and French colonization of North America came hopes of a new thriving fur trade. According to historian John C. Appleby, while French and Dutch traders dominated this commerce in Canada and New Netherland, Virginia and Maryland still contributed a significant share of the English fur supply before 1680.
Even though the presence of trap springs at Jamestown suggests that the colonists arrived intending to do their own capture of fur-bearing animals, most of the colony’s pelts seem to have been acquired through trade with the Indians. William Strachey, who was in the settlement for one year from 1610-11, noted “otters there be many, which, as the beavers, the Indians take with gins [engines] and snares, and esteem the skins great ornaments.” These “gins” would have used twine, sticks, and perhaps even basketry rather than iron springs, but the Indians were more adept than the English at trapping through their familiarity with animal habitats, behaviors, and stages of development. As the fur trade developed through the 17th century, European traders came to rely heavily on the Indians as skilled middlemen involved in trapping and preparing the furs for export.
In Jamestown’s initial years, a black-market trade in peltry was practiced by the mariners bringing new settlers and supplies to Jamestown. Despite laws in the settlement that prohibited unauthorized exchange with the Indians, ship captains and sailors seemed to consider themselves outside of the regulations and acquired “otter skins, beavers, rakoone furs, bears skins etc.” from the Powhatan for their own personal re-sale in London. In 1608, Captain John Smith complained that at the same time “Virginia afforded no Furres for the Store,” a ship captain returning from a voyage to Jamestown confessed he had sold £30 of animal skins he acquired through “indirect means.” Not only did this illegal commerce deplete the fur supply, but the whole balance of trade was thrown off by the large quantities of copper used by the mariners to purchase the skins.
Beavers comprised one of the most desirable New World animal pelts for export in the early 17th century. This is because hats made of beaver felt, which held their shape through years of wear, had become the “to die for” fashion accessory among wealthy Europeans. From about 1575 to 1660 broad-brimmed beaver hats costing from £3 to £4 pounds each were symbols of status for style-conscious English consumers. Clothing was a visible sign of one’s position in society and, as noted by Appleby, with the growth of leisure and entertainment in the early modern London society, “fashionable city men and women wanted to be seen out in the new parks and squares, or in the coffee houses, or at the bear-baiting, wearing their best beavers.” Even Pocahontas can be seen wearing a beaver hat in her 1616 portrait engraved in London. Dressed by the Virginia Company in the finery of a Jacobean gentlewoman and holding an ostrich feather fan (a symbol of royalty), Pocahontas’ appearance is meant to convey her elite status — as one Englishman snidely remarked, “her tricking up and high stile.” Accompanying her husband on a company-sponsored promotional visit to London, Pocahontas was clothed to represent not only her position as a native princess of Virginia, but also the success of the colonial venture. A beaver hat was one of the important visual markers to communicate belonging to the elite.
The European craze that began in the late 16th century for hats made from beaver pelts “laid the basis for the emergence of a new transatlantic trade, linking Indian suppliers with European consumers, through an extensive and complex chain of commerce and production,” according to Appleby. In no other North American enterprise were the Indians so much a part of the European commercial network.
Bly Straube, Former Senior Archaeological Curator