North American Fur Trade
The North American fur trade was a central part of the early history of contact between European-Americans and the native peoples of what is now the United States and Canada. In 1578 there were 350 European fishing vessels at Newfoundland. Sailors began to trade metal implements (particularly knives) for the natives' well-worn pelts. The pelts in demand were beaver, sea otter and (in the 1870s) buffalo, as well as occasionally deer, bear, ermine and skunk.
Fur robes were blankets of sewn-together, native-tanned, beaver pelts. The pelts were called castor gras in French and "beaver coat" in English, and were soon recognized by the newly developed felt-hat making industry as particularly useful for felting. Some historians, seeking to explain the term castor gras, have assumed that coat beaver was rich in human oils from having been worn so long (much of the top-hair was worn away through usage, exposing the valuable under-wool), and that this is what made it attractive to the hatters. This seems unlikely, since grease interferes with the felting of wool, rather than enhancing it. By the 1580s, beaver "wool" was the major starting material of the French felt-hatters. Hat makers began to use it in England soon after, particularly after Huguenot refugees brought their skills and tastes with them from France.
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