Lewis H. Morgan's

The American Beaver

by Bob Arnebeck

I have a great deal of respect for nineteenth century books on natural history, especially those written earlier in the century, because their authors generally relate to nature differently than we do. They are not condescending and they are not seduced by the exotic. The animal in question is seldom presented as a fragile, endangered species, and the native, next door variety is deemed complex enough to exhaust the author's talents for observation and analysis. Beavers do not suffer as much as otters in the latter regard. I am always stunned when I get a book about river otters, in another effort to learn about the mysteries of this neighbor of mine, only to see it confined to one chapter and the rest of the book devoted to Asian, Indian, African and South American otters. To be sure, the nineteenth century author's incessant collection of specimens by shooting or trapping can be tiresome to modern sensibilities, but that generally arises from his intense interest in the animal being studied. And I use the pronoun "his" for a reason. These old books seem to have a masculine way of looking at nature. This is the nature study of know-how and woods craft, of careful measurement and pride in the exploits of both the observer and observed. There is less searching for expressions of personal relationships with the animal in question, less focus on family and feeling. It is the beaver's mark in the world these old authors are after, not what mark the beavers might make on our own souls, that more modern, and, more or less, my own quest.

That said, Lewis Morgan is not at all the typical macho outdoorsman. He was a lawyer who became a naturalist and anthropologist. He is perhaps most famous for being the first student of American Indians to recognize that Indian society was based on decent through the mother. And he recognized that the most significant member of a beaver colony is the mother. Morgan's matter-of factness is not that overbearing variety featuring clipped sentences of unequivocal assertions. Indeed, what really drove Morgan was a desire to understand animal psychology. "There is no animal, below man, in the entire range of the mammalia," he writes in the first chapter, "which offers to our investigation such a series of works, or presents such remarkable materials for the study and illustration of animal psychology."

As the lawyer for a group of capitalists building a railroad in the Upper Penninsula of Michigan to serve the copper mines of the region, Morgan took advantage of the opportunity to enjoy this wilderness area before it was changed by civilization. Hope Ryden might capture the essence of beavers in a pond, but Morgan aims at much more. In the preface, he writes: "It so happened that this Railroad passed through a beaver district, more remarkable, perhaps, than any other of equal extent to be found in any part of North America." Beaver district! How I love that phrase. How jarring it is to modern ears. We expect beavers to be confined to a pond or two, a corner of a state park, and when they stray onto campgrounds and hiking trails, not to mention roads, orchards and woodlands, they are a nuisance. Morgan recognized that literally miles of wilderness should properly be called "a beaver district." During several summer visits in the 1860's he went to great pains to record the extent of beaver activity in this district which he describes as spanning an area of lakes and streams six by eight miles.

Morgan recognized that he was writing the first comprehensive book on the beaver, and so discusses prior descriptions of beavers beginning with Herodotus [quotes about the self-castrating beaver footnoted in untranslated Latin; see Classical beavers] and ending with Brandt, a German who was then the expert on the Order Rodentia. Morgan is most indebted to Samuel Hearne who included a chapter on beavers in his 1795 books on his tour of the Hudson Bay trading company lands. Morgan recruited a specialist to write the second chapter on the beaver's anatomy. Morgan's own observations of the beaver begin in chapter three, where he introduces us not to a beaver but to beaver dams.

Morgan notes that dams are not necessary for the beavers' survival, and writes, "it is, in itself considered, a remarkable feat that he [the beaver] should have voluntarily transferred himself, by means of dams and ponds of his own construction, from a natural to an artificial mode of life." Then not only does Morgan elevate the beaver out of the natural world but he gives beavers a cultural history: "I am altogether satisfied that the larger dams were not the joint product of the labor of a large number of beavers working together, and brought thus to immediate completion; but, on the contrary, that they arose from small beginnings, and were built upon year after year until they finally reached that size which exhausted the capabilities of the location; after which they were maintained for centuries, at the ascertained standard, by constant repairs." A page later he adds, "these dams have existed in the same places for hundreds and thousands of years, and that they have been maintained by a system of continuous repairs." Here, indeed, is the romantic grandeur of the Victorian Era! Later in the book Morgan does allow that some dams he saw deteriorated rather rapidly when beavers moved or were trapped out, but he still insists that that neglect in 1865 was the first time in centuries that the beavers gave up on the dam. No doubt because he believed that these dams were long standing and enduring legacies of animal intelligence, he enlisted help to undertake the laborious project, for that era, of providing complete photographic documentation of some of the large dams. It took several days to photograph one dam and resulted in a photograph six feet eight inches long.

Morgan observed his area for roughly six years. After three years of observing the beaver district near me, I was about to undertake the project of having the ponds the beavers had created mapped and named and dutifully recorded on the town records, if not by the US Geological Survey. By the seventh year of my observations, one grand pond lost 90% of its water; another lost about 50%. The dam I considered most ancient and grand actually seemed to begin to flatten out. The dam I fretted about meticulously recording with film and tape measurer is now riddled with holes made by otters and muskrats and loses more earth with each heavy rain, and I've just observed that beavers do take logs from one old dam to use in a new one. All is flux in a beaver district.

But again, I am glad of Morgan's elevation of the beaver since it inspired his exhaustive analysis of the beavers' works which is valuable until that point when Morgan speculates on the time spent to accomplish the work. For example he writes: "The theory upon which beaver dams are constructed is perfectly simple.... Soft earth intermixed with vegetable fibre is used to form an embankment, with sticks, brush, and poles imbedded within these materials to bind them together, and to impart to them the requisite solidity to resist the effects both of pressure and of saturation. Small sticks and brush are used, in the first instance, with mud, earth, and stones for down weight. Consequently these dams are extremely rude at their commencement, and they do not atain their remarkably artistic appearance until after they have been raised to a considerable height, and have been maintained, by a system of annual repairs, for a number of years." The first part of the passage is right-on. After the word "consequently," Morgan reveals the limitations of his observations which were made during the summer months when beavers generally pay less attention to dam building. The last dam I saw built grew from a laughable little attempt to break water into an architectural and engineering gem in a matter of a little over a year. The speed at which beavers work is simply dictated by the speed with which the water ponds behind. For nine months it seems the beavers will always be behind and water will flood over the brim with every rain. Then there is a period of perfection, and then with the next drought it appears that the dam is an impregnable natural feature and the water behind it vainly waits for the day when it might flow over or around it.

After two chapters on Beaver Dams, Morgan turns to Beaver Lodges and Burrows and immediately waves a flag of warning: "Notwithstanding our familiarity with the beaver, through the persevering efforts made for his capture by both American and Indian trappers, the amount of our miute information concerning him is not as large as might have been expected. Any attempt to pronounce definitely upon his habits and mode of life will lead us into errors, if we pass beyond such facts as are suscptible of verification. These facts, from the nature of the case, are difficult of ascertainment. Although not exclusively nocturnal in his habits, the beaver performs the principal part of his work at night." So this chapter is a mixture of trappers' lore about which Morgan is skeptical and his own measurements of beaver lodges and speculation on how the beavers managed inside them.

Skepticism aside Morgan can't resist a good story: "The cry of a young beaver resembles very closely that of a child a few days old. A trapper illustrated to the author the completeness of his deception by this cry, when he first commenced his vocation in the Rocky Mountains, by relating the following incident: he was once going to his traps when he heard a cry which he was sure was that of a child; and, fearing the presence of an Indian camp, he crept in cautiously through the cotton-wood to the bank of the stream, where he discovered two young beavers upon a low bank of earth near the water, crying for their mother, whom he afterwards found in one of his traps."

Again he is skeptical of Indian claims that beavers can return to the family after be expelled in the their third year, but he tells the tale: "A fanciful notion prevails among the Indians, that if young beavers, thus sent out, fail to pair, they are allowed to return to the parent lodge and remain until the ensuing summer; but as a mark of parental disapprobation, for their ill matrimonial success, they are required to do the work of repairing the dam." From that Morgan moves down in a footnote to the Arabian belief (circa 1288) that there was a class of slave beavers. [see Arabian references to beavers]

Finally he relates the Indian belief in the beavers annual migration to new areas: "The Indians affirm that in their local migrations the old beavers go up stream, and the young go down, assigning the reason that, in the struggle for existence, greater advantages are afforded near the source than lower down upon any stream, wherefore the old beavers wisely appropriate the former."

Morgan than discusses how the beaver moves, gets from that to its propensity to make burrows, and then gets to lodges. (He notes that the Ojibwas call a beaver lodge a "wig-e-wam;" and to distinguish it from their own lodge call it an "ah mick wig-e-wam.") He opened some lodges and provides measurements in detail. I do most of my beaver watching on state land, and so do not open any lodges. I can only admire and not criticize Morgan's descriptions, though I did get far enough in to marvel at the lacework roof of one entry way to their inner chambers.

I do think his insistence that the beavers strain to maintain pond levels so their entryway is just a few inches above the water is inconsistent with what I've seen. Water levels in the ponds I see vary a great deal and the beavers seem to have no trouble adjusting. And as with dams, Morgan sees some lodges as lasting for centuries. The beavers I watch seem to like to make a new lodge, often less than fifty yards from an existing lodge.

Morgan rightly points out that beavers do not rely on lodges alone but also use burrows into nearby banks. This is especially the case in smaller ponds.


more to come


Return to Beaver Lore

This page is maintained by Bob Arnebeck at

mailto: arnebeck@northnet.org