by Cori Hilsgen
Retired anthropologist and museum educator Douglas Petersen recently spoke to ASA sixth-grade students about fur-trading voyageurs in Minnesota history.
Sixth-grade teacher Susan Huls said the class was studying Minnesota history in social studies, as required by the state standards. They had studied the Ojibwe and Dakota Native Americans and were beginning to study the fur trade. Petersen was their first introduction to the subject.
Petersen, dressed in his voyageur costume, came as “Pierre DuBois” and spoke to the students about the European demand for animal pelts and how the fur trade developed in the Great Lakes area. Through a PowerPoint presentation, he also discussed the voyageurs and their lifestyle, the trading season and more.
He passed around objects such as mink and beaver animal pelts, a beaver skull, a stone knife, trap, blanket and more for the students to gain hands-on knowledge. Petersen discussed striking sparks with flint and steel for fires, how the voyageurs carried or portaged their belongings, how Fort William (in Canada at the edge of Lake Superior) was opened and more.
He discussed the mink furs the wealthy European people wore as collars; how top hats were made of the fine, soft hair of the beaver; and how this changed when silk was brought to the country on ships.
Petersen displayed a beaver skull and showed why beavers are constantly sharpening their teeth because their teeth continue to grow. Without sharpening them, he said the beaver’s teeth would continue to grow and it wouldn’t be able to eat.
Petersen discussed how the Native Americans loved wool blankets and how both the Europeans and the Native Americans felt they were getting a better deal than the other because they were getting items they needed in exchange for some things of which they had so much.
Several students commented on Petersen’s presentation.
“My favorite part was learning how the voyageurs traveled on rivers and lakes in their big birch-bark canoes,” Jack Skahen said. “I would like to learn about the Anishinabe people’s point of view when the voyageurs came.”
“My favorite part was looking at all of the tools and furs that he brought, and I’m looking forward to learning about the different fur trade companies,” Eli Ebel said.
“I am glad I learned about how the traders brought their trading materials around and I liked how the voyageurs did their canoeing and singing,” Ellie Schleper said.
“It was a great way to be introduced to the fur trade and the role the voyageurs played,” Huls said. “He was very knowledgeable. Having the items to touch and examine will make it easier for my students to visualize during our later study.”
Petersen worked for 25 years as the education director at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History in northern California, where he created education programs. After retirement, he and his wife moved back to his home state of Minnesota. Because he missed teaching, he volunteered at the Heritage Center, the Stearns County Museum, the Camp Quest summer program, and at several schools and organizations in the area.
Besides the fur-trade PowerPoint presentation, he also teaches classes on skull identification, scat identification, “Native American Tales of Coyote” and “Tall Tales of Paul Bunyan” storytelling.