________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 26 . . . . March 12, 2010


The Beaver Men: Spearheads of Empire. 2nd. ed.

Mari Sandoz.
Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press (Distributed in Canada by Codasat), 1964/2009.
335 pp., pbk., $23.50.
ISBN 978-0-8032-2656-2.

Subject Headings:
West (U.S.)-History-To 1848.
Northwest, Canadian-History.
Fur trade-West (U.S.).
Fur trade-Northwest, Canadian.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Thomas F. Chambers.

*** /4


The Indian directly behind the white men was carrying the dead beaver by the tail, holding him away, dark blood still dripping a little off the whiskered nose. He was measuring the big hole in the plump flank, a hole bigger than the fist he held against it, and made without arrow or spear, just the hole and the bleeding and torn flesh. Repeatedly he exclaimed at the wonder of it to those behind him, and to those running out to see and then racing back to send alarm spreading through the village, alarm that such mysterious and powerful weapons were to come into the midst of their families.

The Beaver Men is a history of the fur trade in North America from the early days of New France up to the 1830's. It looks at the trade of the French, English, Scottish (from Montreal), American and Spanish as well as the formation of the Hudson's Bay and North West Companies. It is scholarly, well researched and suitable for a sophisticated audience. It has an index, excellent bibliography and a two-page map of North America showing the location of trading by the participants such as the Hudson's Bay Company. There is a key to this map. Two other black and white maps are also included. Grouped together in the centre of the book are nine pages of functional black and white illustrations. The book is divided into three sections entitled "Soft Gold," "The Rise of the Company," and "The Fiercer Rivalries."

     Author Mari Sandoz, who died in 1966, also wrote Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas, The Battle of the Little Big Horn and some twenty other historical works. The Beaver Men was originally published in 1964.

     The story of the early trade in beaver is so vividly recreated that the reader feels like a voyeur looking down on each scene as if s/he is a witness to the events described. Adding to the reader's pleasure are details of native myths and legends. These are very interesting and are often an indication of the natives' respect for nature. Some tribes, for example, dropped the bones from a beaver feast into deep water to keep them safe from scavengers. If this was not done, it was believed that the beaver would avoid the hunter.

     There is, as one would expect, a great deal of information on the beaver and how they live. Often described as nature's engineers, beavers are intelligent and industrious. Sandoz gives detailed accounts of their often amazing engineering skills, as in the following passage: "Sometimes canals are dug to transport large logs for considerable distances, with one water level or two. Their activities sound quite human."

     Several themes stand out in The Beaver Men. The clash of cultures is the most obvious, highlighted by the white man's use of guns. A second, less obvious, but equally significant, is the gradual erosion of the native way of life once they became willing partners in the fur trade. A feeling of sadness prevails as the natives gave up their independence in return for trinkets, mirrors, guns and brandy.

     The Beaver Men can be used to illustrate both good and bad aspects of capitalism. The trade in beavers provided considerable employment to both whites and natives. It resulted in the creation of The Hudson's Bay Company, Canada's oldest company, and the opening up of North America to commerce. It also resulted in the exploitation of native people and the eventual destruction of their traditional way of life, a destruction, which in many cases has yet to be overcome.

     One small criticism, but an irritant, nonetheless, is Sandoz's use of an apostrophe in Hudson Bay. The apostrophe is only used in the name of the company, not in the body of water.


Thomas F. Chambers, a retired college teacher, lives in North Bay, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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