How the Beaver Shaped our City

June 10, 2016 1:03 am Published by

The Beavers of BeavertonBeaver Exhibit at Beaverton History Center (bw)
By Michael L. Wong

For thousands of years, the place we now call Beaverton was the home of the North American beaver (Castor Canadensis), the largest rodent in North America. Weighing about 40-50 pounds, they are the second largest rodent in the world. Beavers are amphibious and mostly nocturnal. Due to their poor eyesight, beavers have developed a keen sense of hearing and smell. Unlike other North American mammals, Beavers do not hibernate. Their life span can be up to 15-20 years in captivity or 5-8 years in the wild. A Beaver’s diet consists of twigs, roots, bark, leaves and aquatic vegetation. Beavers are well known for their dams which reengineer the environment to make it most suitable for their survival. The ponds created by the dams provide the beaver with food and protection.

Beavers were also very important to the Native Americans in the Willamette Valley, the Kalapuya. Not only did the beaver provide them food and clothing, their dams created ponds that became a rich habitat for other animals useful to the Kalapyua including elk, waterfowl, fish, and turtles.

What’s a Nutria?
The nutria, introduced to Oregon from South America in the 1930s for its fur, is often mistaken for a beaver. Thousands were released to the wild in the 1940s before the fur market collapsed. Now they roam and breed freely, often endangering native ecosystems. Although looking quite similar to a beaver, the obvious difference is in their size (only averaging 20 lbs) and their long, thin tail. Nutria are considered an invasive species and classified as “unprotected non-game wildlife” under Oregon code OAR 635-044-0132. Today, more nutria can be seen swimming in Beaverton waterways than Beaver.

Rise of the Beaver Fur TradeBHSoc Beaver Hat (bw)
Beaver hats and coats were a status symbol from the 1600s-1830s, reflecting wealth and position. Beaver fur was also a valuable commodity often traded for a wide variety of goods that included tea and spices from China. European and domestic demand for beaver pelts led trappers for the fur industry to explore the frontiers of North America. With the successful expedition of Lewis and Clark (1804-1806), the doors were open for mountain men to hunt for beavers in the valleys of Oregon.They did so at an alarming rate.

John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Trading Company was established in Astoria in 1811 and thrived as an export center for the tens of thousands of Oregon beaver pelts the trappers collected. Needless to say, the beaver population in the Willamette Valley quickly dwindled.

Luck was on the beavers side however and by the 1940s, silk goods began replacing beaver fur in global markets. As the fur trade began to soften, mountain men sought new ways to sustain themselves and their families. Many remained in the Oregon Country, guiding Oregon Trail emigrants and settling the lands on which they once trapped.

It’s estimated about 60-100 million beavers lived in North America before 1700. In a two year period from 1811 to 1813, trappers from three Astorian trading posts killed 8,400 beavers. By 1900, very few beavers remained in Washington County. Recent mitigation efforts are bringing back the population, although some calculations indicate it’s less than 5% of former numbers. It is illegal for anyone to hunt or relocate beavers in Oregon without a permit from ODFW. Beavers are classified as Protected Furbearers (ORS 496.004).

From Beaver Ponds to Farm Land
For hundreds of years, the Atfalati Tribe of the Kalapuya people inhabited the area in and around modern-day Beaverton calling it Chakeipi or “Place of the Beaver.” In the late 1840s and 50s, early settlers including Lawrence Hall, Augustus Fanno and Thomas Denney casually referred to their new home as ‘Beaverdam’. These settlers soon found that by draining the ponds, this produced exceptionally fertile soil suitable for agriculture. This of course attracted many farmers to the area.
In 1868, a group led by Joshua Welch registerd a new township with the county clerk in Hillsboro officially naming their new home “Beaverton”.

The Beavers of Beaverton

Today, the beavers of Beaverton are difficult to find but they are still around and occasionally make the news. In 2008, it was reported that a family of beavers had to be relocated from Commonwealth Lake because their dam was causing the water level to rise. Then, in June of 2011, a beaver dam along Summer Creek (at 121st Av.) was dismantled by Tigard city workers. The beaver dam in this photo was taken in 2013 near Lowami Hart Woods Park. There are also reports of beaver activity along Fanno and Beaverton Creeks.Beaver Dam Near Lowami Hart Woods Park (bw)


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This post was written by Michael Wong