Near the end of November, 1805, as William Clark was trying to figure out how to dress for winter on the lower Columbia, local chinook people described a robe for the captain, “which is made of the skins of a Small animal about the size of a Cat, which is light and durable, and highly prized”. By mid-January of 1806, Meriwether Lewis had put local women to work sewing together seven of these robes to make an entire long coat, lined with bobcat skin for extra warmth and perhaps a little bit of flash.
In a journal entry, Lewis noted that he had no idea of exactly what animal was supplying him with cold weather protection. “Had a large coat completed out of the skins of the Tiger Cat and those also of a small animal about the size of a squirrel not known to me.”
It was not until the end of February that Lewis, always particular about describing new species, found a tribal term for the creature. “Sewelel is the chinook and the clatsop name for a small animal found in the timbered country on the coast….the natives make a great use of the skins of this animal in forming their robes, which they dress with the fur on them and attach together with the sinews of the Elk or deer”.
Although Lewis himself had still not seen the creature, one of his hunters caught a brief glimpse of something running up a tree like a squirrel and then quickly disappearing into a hole in the ground. It had short ears and fur of a uniform reddish-brown color. The captain was probably stroking his new coat when he described the individual hairs as “very fine, short, thickly set and silky”. From the hunter’s account, Lewis reasoned that the animal probably belonged to the weasel family, or was “perhaps the brown mungoo itself” – that is, a mongoose. But during the course of their long winter at Fort Clatsop, the captain never managed to see a sewelel in the wild.
When Scottish naturalist David Douglas arrived on the lower Columbia exactly 20 years later, he had read all about Lewis’s sewelel in the published journals of the Corps of Discovery. Always ready to build on the landmark information gathered by the Americans , Douglas was determined to find one of these sewelels and bring back a specimen for British science. Headquartered at the Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver, opposite modern Portland, Douglas made numerous trips to the mouth of Columbia, exploring north from Ilwaco along Willapa Bay to Gray’s Harbor in search of Lewis’s little unknown animal. He never saw one.
Cockqua, the Chinook headman who determined all of Douglas’s routes on these journeys, was a man well versed in the natural history of his home. It was Cockqua who traded to Douglas a pair of polished spirea gambling sticks inlaid with orange beaver incisors; Cockqua who fed Douglas on local berries and roots when storm battered them on the trail; and Cockqua who contracted with a female relative to weave Douglas four hats out of native rushes and beargrass.
But Cockqua’s general knowledge extended even beyond that. When the Chinook man traveled from Willapa Bay to Fort Vancouver to delivered three of the specially ordered hats, he brought along seeds of a coastal huckleberry Douglas had admired. And after two more of Douglas’s coastal expeditions failed to turn up a sewelel, Cockqua also apparently agreed to keep an eye out for the little unknown animal.
David Douglas was not the kind of man who forgot about a prize he had missed. In March of 1827, the naturalist traveled upstream on the Columbia with the spring express fur trade brigade, making his way across the continent to Hudson Bay in order to catch a return ship to England. When a brigade laid over a few days at Kettle falls to refit for the rugged journey across the Rockies, the naturalist was still thinking about his loss. From there Douglas penned a note to be carried back downstream and “read to my friend Cockqua” , reminding the Chinook man of his promise to continue the search for the elusive sewelel.
Douglas returned to England and presented his bird and mammal collections to Dr. John Richardson, including some recent boxes shipped around Cape Horn from Fort Vancouver. Richardson studied them all carefully, and in 1829 made a presentation to the London Zoological Society that described a new species of rodent he called Aplodontia rufa, often known today as mountain beaver. This was the sewelel of the Chinooks, and the specimen that allowed Richardson to define the species, although credited to David Douglas, was much more likely to have been brought into Fort Vancouver by the ever-present Cockqua at some point after Douglas departed.
Later in that same year Richardson published his landmark Fauna Boreali-americana, two volumes that carefully catalogued the current knowledge of mammals and birds in northern North America. It included fine illustrations of the feet and skull of the Aplodontia.
In the text, Richardson added that Mr. Douglas has placed in my hands an indian blanket or robe, formed by sewing the skins of the sewelel together. The robe contains twenty-seven skins, which have been selected when the fur was in prime order. In all of them the long hairs are so numerous as to hide the wool or down at the roots, and their points have a very high luster. It seems likely that the Cockqua not only fulfilled his promise to supply Douglas with a sewelel specimen, but that he procured a fine winter robe to go with it.
When John James Audubon included a painting of this mountain beaver in his 1846 mammal collection, he didn’t have much idea of what the animal looked like , and even today, when the internet offers plenty of cute Aplodontia rufa photographs to cover, the mountain beaver remains an elusive and curious animal.
Although mostly thought of as a coastal species, they definitely also inhabit western mountain ranges. Collections have been made at Lake Tahoe and far to the south in the Sierra Nevada, all over the interior of the Olympic Peninsula, and up and down the Cascade Range. Individuals even cross the Cascade Divide into north Columbia country; outliers have been found on Mount Adams, in British Columbia’s Nicola Valley near Merritt, and in the Loomis forest just above Tonasket.
Genetic studies indicate that Aplodontias are perhaps the oldest rodent on the evolutionary tree, and their lustrous pelts harbor several endemic fleas that are also ancient. One of those is the largest flea known to science, stretching more than a centimeter in length. That’s a big flea, but it is not known whether its exclusive presence on such a small mammal has any relationship to deep time.
The hunter who described his mountain beaver to sighting to Meriwether Lewis was apparently correct- the little rodents do climb trees , especially hardwoods such as alder, to get to the leaves. For food, they rely almost exclusively on green vegetation, including coastal salal and all kinds of ferns.
Although mountain beavers keep their surface trails well concealed, large piles of visible debris surround the entry holes to their extensive burrow systems. They usually come out only at night, which is why they remain so seldom seen.
Tunnels include dead-end lines, chambers for food refuse and fecal pellets, dedicated nesting areas, and odd piles of rounded stones and mud balls known as “mountain beaver baseballs” that may be used for dressing their sharp and ever-growing incisors. When cornered, sewelels are known to express their irritation with audible teeth-gnashing and making lightning-quick bites at any size of pursuer. Vocalizations have been described as ranging from “soft whining and sobbing” to “a kind of booming noise”.
The mysterious of these mountain beavers will always be tied to the people who have lived with them for thousand of years. A full century after Cockqua delivered those sewelel parts and robe to David Douglas, a linguist arrived at Willapa Bay in search of elders who could still speak the vanishing Chinook and Chehalis languages. When he asked about the sewelel, a woman named Emma Luscier responded immediately. “My mother had one of those robes, “ Luscier said “They were high priced blankets. The skin were treated with oil so they were soft as cloth and were sewed together so neatly that you could not see the seam.
Emma Luscier knew what Cockquq knew, and what Meriwether Lewis and David Douglas never quite found out; the whole life history of the little unknown animal, and a real way to make a robe that could keep you cozy through a cold, wet, blustery winter.
Jack Nisbet’s latest book, Ancient places, is now available in paperback. For a listing of Jack’s spring presentation and field trips , visit www.jacknisbet.com
Treasured Northwest writer Jack Nisbet is a teacher, naturalist, and writer who lives in Spokane, Washington with his wife and two children. http://www.jacknisbet.com/
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