Fur, Fashion and Transatlantic Trade during the Seventeenth Century

Dr John Appleby reveals the inspiration behind his new book and the links between the woodlands of Chesapeake, European traders, Native American hunters, and London’s most fashionable dressers.

I have always enjoyed archival research. Close and direct engagement with evidence from the past is exciting, challenging and always fulfilling. Sometimes its unsuspected pleasures and rewards open up new lines of enquiry. Many years ago, while working on a different project, as I was exploring a large volume of material from the high court of admiralty for the 1630s and 1640s, I came across a remarkably detailed set of accounts for a transatlantic trading venture. The promoters were of great interest to me. As it transpired, the accounts were submitted by William Claiborne, one of the key figures in my new book Fur, Fashion and the Transatlantic Trade during the Seventeenth Century: Chesapeake Bay Native Hunters, Colonial Rivalries and London Merchants, as evidence in a legal suit to secure compensation from his partners for the collapse of the enterprise in 1640. They were the most detailed and fascinating accounts I had encountered, covering Claiborne’s expenditure on the business. It was some years before I was able to return to them, by which time I was aware that they had been published in the Maryland Historical Magazine.

Initially I considered using this evidence for a case study of the partnership, an early transatlantic joint stock venture, to illuminate the impressively wide ranging interests and ambitions of the London merchant community. But I was also keenly interested in the failure of the venture. After careful examination of other related material, I became aware of the scale of the partners’ ambitions for developing the fur trade in Chesapeake Bay. Consequently I decided to broaden my project to provide a deeper context for the venture. As this focused on the fur trade, it fitted nicely with my longstanding interests in the early colonial history of North America, including the relations between natives and newcomers. Both have been the subject of very impressive scholarship and research.

As my own reading and research developed I grew more conscious of the need to locate this ambitious commercial initiative within a broader transatlantic setting which took more account of supply, demand and consumption, hopefully in line with some of the new work that was appearing on ‘Atlantic history’. Out of this hesitant, incremental beginning, my study was born. For someone who had spent most of his working career studying aspects of maritime and colonial history, especially piracy and privateering, this led me into new areas of research, including fashion and the craft of manufacturing beaver hats. It was an absorbing and fascinating experience, which gave me new insights into the vital links between colonial commerce and metropolitan consumption.

Many people may be surprised by my focus on the fur trade within the Chesapeake, a region which is sometimes indelibly associated with tobacco and little else. As my book argues, however, the trade was a fundamental feature of the English intrusion into the Bay. After many years of research I was also convinced that the economic significance of the business, though by no means negligible, was far outweighed by its far-reaching cultural, social, diplomatic and environmental consequences. In provoking rivalry between Indian hunters and suppliers, and competition among European traders, moreover, these consequences ranged far beyond the confines of the Bay. Yet, although cross-cultural commerce brought Indians and Europeans together, in a myriad of small, often suspicious encounters, it became evident that it provided no guarantee for the survival of native groups, who faced mounting pressure from an expanding colonial community.

While the Chesapeake formed one strand for my work, if I was to understand the business more fully, I needed to explore the market for fur, essentially beaver skins, across the Atlantic. The ‘wool’ from such skins formed the raw material for the manufacture of a variety of costly hats, often simply described as a beaver. Aware of the symbolic importance of headwear, both in terms of status and wealth, this focused my attention onto craft production, and the emergence of the new industry of beaver-making, and consumption, as well as the vital, if indefinable, role of fashion and civility. The appeal of the beaver hat was only too apparent from a range of evidence, such as diaries and correspondence. Samuel Pepys was not the only fashionable man-about-town who invested heavily in the acquisition of such costly items of dress. In exploring the metropolitan strand to the transatlantic trade, I also gained greater understanding of the ultimate decline of the trade within the Bay

I hope the result is a more rounded treatment of one of several regional fur trades in North America which sheds light on an extensive chain of commerce, linking the woodlands of the Chesapeake region with the craft workshops and consumers of early modern England. For me, it was a hugely rewarding journey. I hope readers will find the resulting book a valuable and thought-provoking study.

This guest post was written by John C. Appleby, Senior Lecturer in History at Liverpool Hope University. He is the author of Women and English Piracy, 1540-1720: Partners and Victims of Crime (Boydell, 2013 and paperback 2015).

Fur, Fashion and Transatlantic Trade during the Seventeenth Century
By John C. Appleby
9781783275793, Hardcover, £48.75 or $74.75