Aside from foodstuffs, peltry was perhaps one of the earliest and most common mediums of exchange between Native Americans and European colonists. In the lands that became Mississippi, natives bartered all manner of hides to French and English traders for clothing, metal goods, liquor, and other European manufactures. For most of the eighteenth century deerskins were a standard currency in the Lower Mississippi River Valley.
As settlers displaced the native populations and agriculture dominated much of the landscape in the nineteenth century, the hide trade declined in importance. Mississippi never produced as many furs as Louisiana, with its vast southern wetlands, although professional trappers roamed Mississippi, especially along the river systems and in the marshlands of the coast. Small catches of furs were important to farm families, who welcomed the additional income in a cash-poor environment. Part-time trappers sold the hides of raccoons, opossums, mink, and muskrats, among others. Hunters also contributed a significant percentage of the skins, especially from coons and possums, common quarry for hounds. Itinerant buyers bought pelts from people in the countryside, and larger dealers maintained fixed trading houses. By the late 1800s, hunters and trappers might also sell pelts to mail-order firms such as Sears and Roebuck.
Possums made up the bulk of the catch in Mississippi and might have totaled more had not the traditional preparation of the possum as food destroyed the pelt. Folks often singed or scalded the possum and scraped off the hair before cooking. This method saved the fat of the animal for the pot but of course destroyed the fur. In the often-desperate times of the 1930s a possum hide was worth an average of about twenty-six cents. A fat possum on the table might well be worth just as much to a family.
In this context of struggling small-farm life state conservationists began to contemplate the reintroduction of the beaver. Beaver pelts from other parts of the country and Canada were relatively valuable, but beavers were so rare in Mississippi that there was no open trapping season for them, and a late 1930s survey suggested that only about a thousand beavers remained in the state. Biologists saw the beaver as an important addition to the furbearers that trappers could catch. In addition, beavers would create wetlands helpful to other furbearers and to waterfowl. The beaver impoundments could even offer folks a place to fish.
With federal money from the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Act, which placed a tax on sporting equipment and designated the money for conservation, Mississippi created a program to trap and transplant beavers in 1940–41. World events and economic transformation helped the beavers to thrive in the state. Small-farm living declined as people left the countryside for service in World War II and for jobs connected with wartime industry, and the price of beaver pelts never rose high enough to make them truly profitable to trap. The state eventually offered bounties for beavers, which are now classed as nuisance animals with no closed season or bag limit. The federal government employs trappers who remove the more troublesome colonies that destroy too many trees, damage levees, plug culverts, and the like.
The last significant boom in wild fur values in the Southeast occurred in the late 1970s, and interest in trapping has subsequently diminished. While prices have remained depressed, Mississippi’s hunters and trappers still take a wide variety of fur animals. Some, primarily coons, are also sold as food. Furbearers such as coons, possums, and muskrats are, in fact, the only truly wild game legally sold for food in Mississippi.
- Fannye A. Cook, Beavers in Mississippi (1943)
- Fannye A. Cook, Fur Resources of Mississippi (1945)
- Mattie May Jordan, Where the Wild Animals Is Plentiful: Diary of an Alabama Fur Trader’s Daughter, 1912–1914, ed. Elisa Moore Baldwin (1999)
- Daniel H. Usner Jr., Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley before 1783 (1992)