Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/April 1894/The Beaver Eater
|THE BEAVER EATER.|
A VOCABULARY of the Chippeway Indians in J. Long's Voyages and Travels (1791) conveys a slight knowledge of the fur trader's vernacular of just a century ago. The records offer many attractions to the naturalist, acquainting him with the curious Indian names for animals, together with their English equivalents, and exhibiting the original forms of many words familiar now only in a modified or corrupted state. In this vocabulary the Indian word quickwahay is translated "beaver eater," and neither of the terms being current to-day in natural history, they suggest a field for investigation.
To discover the truths which are the foundation of most fables is a task both useful and interesting, and the curious facts which underlie the fabulous history of the animal about to receive our consideration illustrate this rule in an extreme degree.
If a bad name be sufficient excuse for hanging a dog, what should be the fate of that animal whose evil names outnumber his digits? Probably no animal has ever possessed a longer list of synonyms, and none could possibly possess worse. The first written accounts of our subject date back to Olaus Magnus (1562). He attributed to it most disgusting habits and applied the supposed appropriate name of gulo—a "glutton." Judging the animal by its external appearances, it was classed with the Ursidæ, or bear family; and its gluttony made it at once conspicuous in comparison with its less voracious relatives. That the "glutton" is grossly carnivorous is a fact, but the stories of its insatiable appetite, and its reputed habits of gorging till distended like a balloon, and the consequent method of obtaining relief, are purely fabulous.
With the discovery of America a magnificent field was opened to adventurers, and "travelers' tales" found extraordinary inspiration. In 1663 Pierre Bouchet, the Governor of Three Rivers, in New France, described an animal "smaller than a fox, that climbs up trees; it is called 'child of the devil,' "and rapidly following this account came the most astounding stories. Not so repulsive but quite as improbable accomplishments were freely
The shaded portion shows the distribution of the beaver eater while the lines _._._ mark the northern and southern limits of the beaver.
recounted. The animal, it was said, killed the moose and caribou, and was more than a match for bear or wolf; but as for the timid beaver, the appellation "beaver eater" significantly suggests the fate of this defenseless rodent. It is important to remember that during almost the entire period in which these fables were so current the object of the chase was beaver pelts. Giant monopolies controlled the traffic and inspired relentless war upon the innocent owners of these integuments. In olden times the hapless beaver was hunted for his castoreum pouches, which, Pliny says, the creature would bite off and leave to the hunter as a ransom for its life; but no compromise was possible when its coat was demanded in midwinter. Thus every beaver was the counterpart or token of value for some article of use or ornament,
brought from France to quicken the cunning and perseverance of the trapper, who would naturally exaggerate his losses, although the slaughter of beavers each fall and spring by the ever-watchful "beaver eater" must have been very appreciable. It is also worth noting that the distribution of the destroyer completely overlaid that of the destroyed, and that where the beaver has been exterminated the "beaver eater" has soon disappeared. The explanation of the other romances lies in the fact that the gourmand having already well earned unenviable notoriety, had the sins of the cougar, the lynx, the badger, and the fisher visited upon him, and many feats impossible otherwise to understand are thus accounted for.
The Indians called it ommeethatsees and okeecoohawgew, as well as quickiwahay; and corruptions from these have given us the English forms queequehatch, quiquihatch, quiquehatch, quickehatch, and quickhatch; also the French quincajou, corvajou, corcajue, cartajou, carcayou, karkajou, and carcajou, to one or other of which forms we find references in nearly all early American writings. The trials endured by the luckless hunter, whose track was once discovered by this monster, are frequently recounted. Day after day would the hunter visit his traps, only to find the ruinous work of his four-footed enemy, who, not satisfied with robbing the occasional prize, would often, simply for the morsel of bait, completely destroy scores of traps. Hence arose the stories of the impossibility of trapping the fiend. No deadfall, snare, or spring gun ever injured this "evil one" and it does not require a vivid imagination to trace the growth of fiction, when we consider the impulsive coureur de bois, after the toil of setting his chain of traps and visiting them with the result above referred to, allowing himself to believe that he was verily beset by a devil, and at the camp fire, or, better still, as the honored guest of some credulous settler, unfolding and enlarging upon his experiences. These stories, however, become comprehensible when we remember that the track through the deep snow, beaten by the snowshoes of the hunter on his rounds, formed an inviting highway along which the short-limbed quadruped could freely travel, while it soon learned that a journey of a few miles meant the picking up of a substantial meal which some kind friend had carefully placed in sheltered nooks as if regardful of its wants; for the traps of those days were mostly modifications of the "deadfall," and required but limited strength and cunning to circumvent.
The creature has always been comparatively scarce, although its habitat is large; hence the stories are widespread and the scientific study of its reputed habits difficult. That the pelt is rather an uncommon article of commerce does not necessarily imply that it is of great value, although we find numerous exaggerations associated with this feature. It is stated in reports from the East that the skin was formerly held in such high repute that the angels permitted this fur alone to appear on their celestial robes, and Eastern merchants are said to have allowed an equivalent of forty or fifty dollars per skin; yet we find no market during the past one hundred and fifty years has ever quoted the pelt at more than one fourth of these figures, and today's quotations place five dollars as the maximum value. The demand, being as limited as the supply, accounts for this, for the skins are not more plentiful than those of the silver fox, which easily fetch one hundred dollars. The fabulous values seem to have reference to albino varieties, which must ever have been excessively rare; and though there is much beauty in the normal coloring of rich sable brown, with the paler bands along the flanks, the utility of the pelt is restricted, owing chiefly to the coarseness of the hair; and the size—only one fourth that of the black bear skin—is of a decided mediocrity, filling but few wants.
Admitting that sufficient knowledge of the animal has now been acquired to place it in its true systematic order, it is found to have no connection whatever with the bears, nor does there appear to be any affinity with the evil spirits; while the Anglo-Saxon name, implying associations with the wolf, is equally in correct, and this chimerical "child of the devil" becomes a respectable member of the weasel family and its largest terrestrial representative, known now to scientists as Gulo luscus, and popularly as the "wolverene" or "glutton".
If the wolverene does not hibernate, but spends his winter searching the woods for mere sustenance, the musteline propensity for blood is, no doubt, the impulse which makes it the great destroyer. Who has caught the weasel sleeping? Trappers say the martens run all day as well as all night; and these traits are
quite pronounced in the glutton, while, also, the well-known strength, pluck, and endurance of the weasels belong naturally to it.
The early name of "beaver eater" would therefore appear to be much more appropriate than either of the terms now generally used, for it has been shown that "glutton" is quite a misnomer, and the other synonym, equally incorrect, has the additional disadvantage of uncertain orthography—each of the following forms being countenanced by good authority: wolferin, wolferine, wolferene, wolvering, wolverin, wolverine, wolveren, wolverene, wolverenne, and woolverene.