1735 – Letter between two prominent merchants discuss the shipping of “Pennopscot” beaver pelts and “Liver Oyle” from Boston to London
Boston to London: 1735. This two-page stampless folded letter measures 15” x 11¾” unfolded. It was sent by William Clark in Boston “To Mr Christr: Kilby / Mercht / In London”. The letter was favor carried by a ship’s master, Captain Cary. In nice shape. Transcript will be provided.
The letter which is primarily about the export of beaver pelts reads in part:
““Inclosed you have Invoice and bill of lading for the three hhd [hogshead] and a box of Beaver. . .. Inclosed are the three first bills of Exchange with the letters of advice & the beaver in the hhd is as good as a parcell as ever came from Annapolis & I could have sold it all here at 13S a pound round, the box is a parcel of Suparlative Spring beaver from Pennopscot, you may order the sale of it as you see it. . .. the number of skins I put at Randum . . . an uncertain No: about 1¾ lb to a skin three papoose [young beaver] making but one skin and two half grown one for one. . .. Since righting the foregoing Donwell is arrivd from Annopolis and Penopscot and hath brought a good quantity of Beavor from whence I have engaged a Thousand . . . half of which shall send you by Harris, the other half shall ship John Bell. . ..”
Clark also discusses the transport of other goods including exports
““I have also shipt you by the John Robert Harris master who will sail in a Week fifty bbls of Liver Oyle, which we Esteem Superior to whale Oyle. Could I have litt on anything to have shipt should have sent you £500 more. . .."
““I pray gett me 100 squares of Window crown Glass . . . that is 12 long. 9 broad for Reparing my own house Garlin [a type of sheer linen] sorted and brown Ozenbrig [a tough coarse linen from Osnabrück] & holland & Roushia [Russia] Duck & Roushia linnens such as you sent me by Wingfield the last year. . ..”. Item #009955
Indigenous North American tribes had traded furs amongst themselves long before the arrival of the first Europeans. However, once the newcomers arrived, they became eager participants and began exporting the furs back home. Beginning in 1628, the Iroquois Confederacy came to dominate the trade through a series of genocidal “Beaver Wars” by systematically exterminating their competition (e.g., the Wenro, Neutral, and Erie) and driving the defeated remnants of other tribes (e.g., the Huron, Shawnee, Lakota, Manahoac, etc.) from their homelands. With their monopoly, the Iroquois Confederacy controlled almost all of the furs traded to the French, Dutch, English, and later Americans.(For more information about the Beaver Wars, see Barr’s Unconquered: The Iroquois League at War in Colonial America and Jenning’s TThe Ambiguous Iroquois Empire. . ..)
Europeans had held beaver fur in high regard since Roman times, and North American pelts, which were used to produce full-fur or felted-fur hats, became the most desirable product within the trade. The pelts were sold in a variety of grades and prices that fell within three broad categories: castor gras (the most desirable and expensive pelts had been worn by Native American trappers for at least one hunting season and as a result were more pliable and easier to felt), castor sec (pelts that had been scraped clean, but never worn), and bandeau (pelts that had been minimally scraped and might be partially rotted by the time they arrived in Europe). While Clark doesn’t use these terms in his letter, it is likely his box held “Suparlative” castor and the hogshead barrels castor sec pelts. In 1735 the average price paid per pelt was 8.33 shillings. Hogshead held between 254 to 325 pounds, and the average weight of Clark’s pelts was 1.75 pounds. Therefore, not counting the additional thousand pelts that were shipped later, the value of this shipment would have been somewhere between $17,150 and $22,300 in 2022 dollars. (For more information about the beaver trade, see Feinstein’s “A Brief History of the Beaver Trade” Carlos and Lewis’s “The Economic History of the Fur Trade: 1670 to 1870,” and McIntyre’s “John Pynchon and the New England Fur Trade: 1652-1656,” all available online.)
William Clark was a prominent Boston merchant who also served in several government positions including as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Provincial Council. It’s said his death in 1742 was due to a huge financial disaster incurred by the loss of 40 merchantmen during the French Revolutionary Wars.
Christopher Kilby, whose son married William Clark’s daughter, was one of the most prosperous merchants of Boston and, in conjunction with Clark, carried on an extensive trade with England, Nova Scotia, and the West Indies. He was named as the Massachusetts Colony’s agent to London in 1739 and his provisioning business thrived with the outbreak of the War of Jenkin’s Ear which was soon subsumed by the War of Austrian Succession and followed by the Seven Years War. He was a friend of John Hancock, who served as Kilby’s attorney. Although Kilby relocated to New York and then London, he still played a role in Boston commerce and after the Great Boston Fire in 1760, Kilby contributed £200 after which a street (that still exists today) was named in his honor.
(For more information, about Clark and Kilby, see Lee’s “The Clark and Hutchinson Houses” in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical SocietyCapt. Francis Champernowne: The Dutch Conquest of Acadie, and Other Historical PapersEveryday Life in Massachusetts Bay Colony, Nehgs’s “Christopher Kilby, of Boston” in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register Vol 26, Godfrey’s Pursuit of Profit and Preferment in Colonial North America, Schutz’s Legislators of the Massachusetts General Court, 1691-1780, and Nye’s online “Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency.”)
Very scarce. There is one 1724 French contract relating to a “beaver expedition” for sale in the trade. Nothing similar has been sold at auction per the Rare Book Hub. No beaver-related manuscript material is held by any institution per OCLC, however Christopher Kilby and William Clark letters (that may or may not be related to the beaver trade) appear in personal papers collections at several libraries..