Among the myriad facts I never knew is this: in 1624, the very first year the Dutch were in New York, New Amsterdam's first residents sent a couple thousand beaver and otter pelts back to Holland--because that's how big beaver hats were. It's another one of those astounding facts of history that a weird European fashion--hats made from beaver felts--was the most obvious cause of European settlement in the New World. Once upon time in most of these United States, beavers were royalty.
The very first paleface explorers to the whole region--the whole great "northwest" (which includes Iowa and Minnesota) --were the frontiersman who made their living by trapping beaver and trading with the Native people who did also. All for beavers. All for furs. All for fancy hats that were so much all the rage that Europe had depleted their own supply of the rotund furry rodent. Hence, on to the New World--all because of beavers.
We watched them last week--beavers, that is--in a couple of ponds along an old railway bed now paved as biking trails. We were lucky enough to see them, lucky enough to hear one of them blast the water with the massive, scaly tail each of them is blessed with. I couldn't have made more noise if I'd cannon-balled into that murky mess myself. None of them w0uld crawl out of the water, but one of them did some Olympic swimming dance routine for us before surface diving and simply disappearing, the routine over.
Beavers are monogamous, and couples have twins annually. They live in mud huts that dot the whole region, fabricated with branches and cattails and whatever else they can pile up, but suitably equipped with underground doors. They're big--we're not talking muskrats here; beavers look like big, fat cocker spaniels. And their brown. And they're fun to watch.
We stood out there gathering horse flies and mosquitoes longer than we should have, but they deserve some attention and honor, after all. Once long ago, they were monarchs of the realm, royalty of the region. Able-bodied men--red and white--made it their calling to catch 'em.
Think of it this way--we're here in Iowa, all for the love of a hat.