Sunday, February 10, 2019

Gathering the Bones, 21: A Whole New World of Salt and Iron

On the one hand, I found it hard to organise myself to postblog about technology last week. On the other, some fairly basic questions about beaver pelts led me to things, even things technologico-historic, that need to be organised and put on the record. Some of it is intriguing and speculative; some of it is hard and fast everyday fact, not given sufficient attention; some of it is just disgusting.

I'll start with a pretty picture, of a housing development across the creek from the Mantle Site (Wendat Historic Village), which is where our photographer is standing.  

By Neufast (talk) - I (Neufast (talk)) created this work entirely by myself., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Fifty kilometers north of Toronto's downtown, in the Regional Municipality of York, on the "ecologically sensitive" Oak Ridges Moraine, roughly the height of land between Lakes Ontario and Huron (the overland route that gave rise to the city of Toronto), lies the Municipality of Whitcliffe-Stouffville, and, in it, "the Mantle Site."

Occupied between 1500 and 1530, the Mantle Site is the largest known "historic Wendat village." Gary Warrick thinks that it had a large population that represented the culmination of two centuries of endogenous population growth on the one  hand,  and wars of consolidation in the previous century, on the other. I was all set to run with that until I checked out the next linked bit of academic referencing in the Wikipedia page, a review by Peter Ramsden that tells me not to hold my horses. So I will! This ain't serious research, so there's no reason to be building castles in the air. I'll save that for salt, hair, pelts and "digestive enzymes." (Do you know where you got digestive enzymes from in a traditional economy? Come on, guess!)

For us, the most salient aspect of the Mantle Site is the discovery of a ceremoniously buried wrought iron axe with maker's marks from the Basque country. So although such material cultural evidence as we have locates the Mantle Site on an axis from the central New York Iroquoian sites where native silver from the Cobalt River valley has been found, we can derive this celebrated axe from Labrador or the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

For others, the most important issue is ethnic, as signalled by the site name. Stadacona," the village at the modern site of Montreal encountered by Jacques Cartier in 1534, is the source of the word, "Canada," and a place of disputed history. The Stadaconans were clearly Iroquian-speakers, and the Montreal area has two First Nations communities speaking Iroquian languages, the Hurons/ Wendats, and Mohawk/ Kanien'kehá:ka. Both claim to be descended from the people of Stadacona, but as this seems unlikely, and in a spirit of "can't we all just get along?" we speak instead of "St. Lawrence Iroquians." I imagine that the same game could be played with the ancestral Wendat communities of the Oak Ridge Moraine. We know they called themselves Wendats in historical times. It is not clear that they did in the pre-contact period, and given the way that the historic Iroquois integrated numerous formerly distinct Iroquian communities, Warrick's wars of consolidation would presumably have erased numerous local, now lost family, lineage and totem identities.


I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that this is what you imagine when I say "beaver hat." Someone has killed a beaver, skinned it, performed black arts that no-one is interested in hearing about, and, voila, a garment made of a fabric consisting of beaver skin with beaver hairs sticking out of it. Very fashion forward as of fifty years ago, but a bit of a retro statement these days, as I understand it. Fashion, society and what it is appropriate to joke about have all moved on.

On the other hand, this is what the famous beaver hats that built Canada look like something that you'd catch Jacob Rees-Mogg dead under:

Or alive. I thought I'd express a preference.
It should be clear that a different technical process has produced the latter, although the art of it might or might not be transparent to you. It certainly wasn't to me, a week ago! But, thanks to a combination of Harold Innes and the Internet, I have the scoop. Fur clothes are made by tanning hides. The famous beaver pelts are made from beaver hair, and, specifically, from the inner hair after the outer, guard hairs have been removed, apparently individually and by hand with comb and tweasers, oh my God. Once the guard hairs are removed, the inner hairs are shaved from the hide, which from this point on is just cheap leather. The hairs are then felted to produce the lustrous material of which the hat is made. Because aquatic mammal hair is spiccated, it makes unusually good felt. ( McGill library.)

So now you know why "beaver pelts" were so highly valued in Early Modern Europe. Or possibly you already knew it, and were patiently humouring me. It wasn't the pelts at all! They were just a convenient way of shipping the hairs!

It now becomes easier to understand why "coat," or "fat" pelts were preferred. These were pelts that had been worn as clothes ("undergarments," it is traditional to say) for fifteen to eighteen months before being sold. Worn with the hide turned inward for maximum insulation and also irritation value, the pelts had, by the end of the winter, been rubbed free of guard hairs and thoroughly coated with skin oil, in which condition they were far easier to process. About which . . .

A "brain" beaver pelt. Why "brain"? Glad you asked! 
A beaver pelt is a simple, organic product, perhaps the most organic thing of all, since it starts decaying and stinking as soon as it is stripped from the source animal, and soon rots away into nothing if no action is taken. The least that you should do with it, if freezing is not an option, is dry it. This is sometimes described as "smoking," but the smoke is incidental to hanging it over a fire to accelerate the drying and keep flies away. This is extremely unlikely to be enough, but it is pretty clear that some people went half-assed on the only somewhat necessary previous step of scraping the hide down to remove clinging flesh and fat that might provide a starting point for decay. What I'm saying is that fur traders did sometimes receive dried but insufficiently scraped hides, about which they were even less enthusiastic than straight up dried pelts and summer-caught ones.

Given that you want to carefully remove all flesh in the scraping process, it may seem counter-intuitive that you then give the pelt a good rubbing with bone marrow or brains, but this is where "digestive enzymes" come in. European leather workers used pig and chicken shit for this "bating" process, but those were not widely available out on the trap lines. Bating promotes the rapid decay of the fleshy material on the surface of material without, hopefully, attacking the keratinaceous material of the hide and hair. I assume that it was mainly used to treat coat beaver prior to wearing, and this in no way makes the whole process of making and wearing coat beaver any less disgusting.

Last week I brought you some videos and home instructional websites on treating beaver pelts and tanning hides that conspicuously do not use "bating." We don't do bating any more because modern chemistry has provided "mordants" with enough "bite" to remove dirt and flesh far better than promoted decay ever could; however, as we've seen, even traditional organic chemistry had means available for treating a beaver pelt to the point where product delivered in Montreal would infallibly reach the hatters of Paris. Saponified sodium hydroxide (NaOH entrained in fatty acids) removes dirt and decay material; Salt solution increases osmotic pressure across cell boundaries and draws fluid out of the keratinaceous material of hair and hide to complete the drying process; and a serious and more extended exposure to ammonia (NH3OH) produces low pH levels that scours the pelt of unwanted materials. In traditional chemistry, sodium hydroxide and ammonia are both made from common table salt. There's a bit of a complication in that potassium hydroxide can be substituted for sodium  hydroxide, but since potassium salts are produced from salt brine, or from the ashes of plants that grow in areas irrigated by salt springs, it's pretty much a wash.

Fortunately, some kind of law of conservation of disgustingness applies here, as beaver pelt was commonly prepared on receipt in European ports from salt recovered from the lees of the barrels used to ship salt cod from the New World, or, to save a few sous, from anchovy barrels instead. (But I'm having difficulties retrieving this source. More later!) Story, et al.'s Dictionary of Newfoundland English lists dry-salting as the practice of packing cod or seal pelts in salt for shipment to market, citing an 1854 entry in Chamber's Cyclopedia, indicating that by this time at the latest the salting had moved west overseas.

Long before the extrapolation of subaltern theory, Harold Innes proposed that staples trades determined Canada's dependence on foreign manufacturing economies by developing underdevelopment. A case in point, perhaps underplayed in his Fur Trade in Canada is the evolution of "Stadacona" into Montreal. Upon Cartier's 1534 arrival, Stadacona was an agricultural town mainly aiming to produce cornmeal. Cartier, was looking for minerals primarily and a route to China secondarily, and Stadacona was eager to help, and to absorb such colonists as Cartier unwisely deposited on its shores in later years. What it could not do was produce large quantities of beaver pelt until its development of underdevelopment had been completed.

For the Western Hemisphere to produce beaver in such quantity would require a range of changes. Even something as basic as actually wearing coat beaver seems to have required financial encouragement. Beyond that, winter hunting was clearly unpopular, while extended hunting trips took men away from the warpath. Once the Iroquois gained access to Dutch goods, the entire French trading situation south of the Great Lakes collapsed instantaneously, and Iroquois war parties even threatened Montreal. The cost of persuading local networks to hunt and facilitate the movement of beaver pelt could be colossal. To sweeten the native nations and end the Pontiac war, William Johnson notoriously had to pay out  £58,000 in goods at his  1765 confab, spending an anticipated year's worth of stamp tax dues (McDonnell, 48-9) to get, we conclude based on official export statistics, precisely nothing, as effectively all fur exported via the American colonies from then until the Revolution was smuggled, although the Montreal export did well. Once that was done, accidentally or not, there would be no more Stadacona, and Montreal would, necessarily, take its place.

Now, I am wondering. The essence of the staples trade thesis is the impracticality of moving up the value added chain. This clearly does not apply to furs! Salt curing before trans-Atlantic shipping just simply makes sense, and salt is an industrial raw material with a wide range of domestic uses. Amateur soapmakers

. . . if not historians, are aware that America was exporting soap ash and fats for soapmaking as early as 1621, and last week we encountered the salt boilers of Onondaga Village/Syracuse, making salt for fur trappers before the Revolution.

Now, back to Dunn for a moment. The American colonies were exporting £91,000 in furs and hides annually in the decade before the Revolution. This was only one tenth of the leading export by value (tobacco, at £900,000. Just like 1948!), but still the third largest export. Dunn estimates the illegal export from the American colonies at £128,000, notes that the British were well aware of this and took pains to search ships in port, and concludes, helplessly, like many other historians of the colonial Atlantic, that the furs were brought on board "on the river."

Which, fine. The question is whether this story is plausible. The answer is that it is a stretch, which is why one's attention turns to the Susquehanna. Furs could and did reach New York on the Hudson and Mohawk, while Philadelphia's turnpike linked it to the ferry at York and the passes of the Alleghenies beyond. But, running through it, is the great river without a port that rises in, or close to, Iroquois country. So was it Americans, or Iroquois who were doing the smuggling? But if the latter, how long could they remain Iroquois while participating in the colonial economy? It was a question that was to be resolved by the American Revolution in favour of being American, at which point Onandaga became Syracuse.

The mutabilities of townsites has its limits. The Mantle Site is not old Toronto, even if it might be ancestral to muddy York in some sense. Allowing for uncertainties about dates, populations and ethnicities, what we do know about the Mantle Site is that it was unprecedentedly large, that it had a shrine for a Basque axe, and that, if Innes and Warrick are right, it represented the culmination of a fairly rapid but widespread endogenous development into a proto-state. Population ingathering, either hypothesised in the case of the Mantle Site or perfectly well established in the Iroquois heartland a century later, is driven by a need for labour as much as anything else. New industrial processes require new labour. This is as true of fantastically hypothesised pre-colonial salt/iron industries as for the necessary, if under-documented work of drying and scraping pelts. 

In outline, this ingathering of population and creation of new political institutions to meet demand for prestige exports looks like the sudden birth of the state in the western Mediterranean littoral during the Early Iron Age in Europe. The comparison is not exact. We do not have an immediately preceding collapse of a Bronze Age social order in North America. In other respects, there are greater similarities than is immediately apparent. It is the lack of iron that makes the North American case so different from the European, but if we attend to the archaeology, the European Early Iron Age is short of iron, too, and in the Eastern Hemisphere, we are looking for it. We are not looking for it in the Western, and have a paradigm that prevents us from seeing it, in any case. Ironmaking is by definition post-colonial. Even though the earliest date at which ironmaking was present in the Western Hemisphere is 1000, the latest, around 1500, and that the continent was swarming with renegade Europeans by the 1550s, we know that ironmaking could not --and must not-- have spread from there until settlement. Indians don't make iron, any more than they make salt.

Now relax the parameters enough to allow an endogenous state, eager for European exotic goods --the true story of Stadacona, perhaps. Who then drove the fur trade? The hatters of Paris demanding the goods? Or the towns of Canada, eager to supply it? The answer seems obvious enough, until one wonders about the role of fishers with surplus salt to spend on --something. 

No comments:

Post a Comment