From the beginning the Jamestown colony was encouraged to trade with the local Algonquians for fur to turn a profit for the Virginia Company. Furs were a welcome commodity in London because England’s traditional supply sources in Scandinavia and Russia were dwindling from over-harvesting. One 1610 attempt by the Virginia Company to guide the Jamestown colonists listed “beaver skins being taken in wintertime will yield good profit; the like will otter skins.”
Even though the presence of trap springs at Jamestown suggests 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 because of 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.
The first portion of the processing, after removing the hide, was to remove the thin layer of residual flesh and fat from just under the skin. To accomplish this, Virginia Indians used a tool carved from the long bones of a large animal, such as a deer or elk. A portion of the bone was then beveled and teeth carved into the end to “comb” away flesh, fat, or even hair. Virginia Indian women processed and tanned the hides using bone and fats rendered from the very animals they were processing. If not tanned properly, the uncured leather or fur could quickly become rancid.