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“There is a Beast They Call Aroughcun”: Raccoons and Colonialism in Early America

Phillip Grider


The commodification of animals as pelt was foundational to the economic success of the colonial project(s) in North America. At the same time, it signified a point of convergence and contention between English and French settlers and Native peoples of the Northeastern and Great Lakes regions of the continent: Most prominently, the Beaver Wars (1603-1701) represent great conflict arising from colonial presence, colonial economic interests, and complex trade relations between Native peoples and colonizers. The fur trade remained central to the North American economy well into the late nineteenth century. In this article, I trace the raccoon in the context of colonialism along lines of race, class, and Anglo-European notions of civilization. I focus primarily on early natural histories and travelogues as well as on historical documents concerning the fur trade of America to uncover how the raccoon and their pelt served as a vehicle for colonial mechanisms of Othering.

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1In 1612, Captain John Smith makes the first mention in literature of Aroughcun, the animal we know today as the raccoon (Goldman 3). Smith’s description of the raccoon in A Map of Virginia is brief and claims that “there is a beast they call Aroughcun, much like a badger, but vseth to live on trees as Squirrels doe” (23, emphasis original). This comparison between raccoons and badgers is echoed by William Wood in 1634 with the addition of attributes of foxes and even lambs (see 23). In a gesture of what Hayden White deems “familiariz[ing] the unfamiliar” (86), Smith and Wood compare the unknown raccoon to animals they know from their native Britain. The “they” that Smith refers to as calling the animal “Aroughcun” points toward the Powhatan people—Smith was famously in contact with a Powhatan woman named Matoaka known to many today as Pocahontas (see Justice 155). It is this contact with Matoaka and Wahunsenacawh (Powhatan) in present-day New England that informed Smith of the animal’s name, which would in turn develop into today’s raccoon.

2Daniel Heath Justice notes that the name raccoon, which the English-speaking world knows and uses today, is “the English corruption of a geographically narrow and culturally specific term,” and comes from the Algonquian Powhatan “arakunem… ‘one who scratches with its hands’” (155, emphasis original). This corruption would develop into rackoone in William Wood’s New England’s Prospect twenty-odd years later, in 1634 (24, see also Justice 155). The raccoon was known under a variety of different names to a number of Algonquian people across the North American continent. Virginia C. Holmgren observes that there exist more than twenty tribal names for raccoons, all of which are related to the dexterity the animals exhibit with their paws. Holmgren writes: “‘They pick up things’ was the translation for the name used by Cree and Chippewas. Lenape Delaware choice was ‘they use hands as a tool.’ Another Delaware choice was ‘those with clever fingers’” (23). Justice highlights yet another: “esiban: ‘one who picks up things’” (Justice 155).

3The Indigenous etymologies of the word used today are relevant for the purposes of this paper because they signal a number of aspects in the colonial context. For one, the fact that the word “raccoon” can be traced back to a culturally specific term used by a specific people in a specific region of North America is clear indication of the British colonial project on the continent, particularly of the settling of the northeast. Here, Smith and his company came into contact with Powhatan Algonquian peoples and ultimately fought the first Anglo-Powhatan war against them between 1609 and 1614. Given that “it is colonialism that brought ‘raccoon’ into English” (Justice 54), it is also crucial to highlight the etymology of “raccoon” as an indication of colonial naming and claiming practices. The animal has a number of names within the Algonquian language family and other Native American languages, as we have seen. However, it is Smith’s colonial contact with the Powhatan people and his position of power of being able to publish an account of this contact that would inform not only him but his readership and subsequent naturalists—and, ultimately, us today—of the name “raccoon.” Thus, Smith, as a personification, in this case, of the colonial project in North America, is in the powerful position to “name” the animal, and with that, displace the Indigenous cultural heritage inherent in the animal’s multitude of names prior.

4Secondly, there exists great tension between the uncanniness of the animals named for their dexterous abilities with their hands, resembling humans in a sense, and the raccoon’s ultimate and culturally significant role in the fur trade as a slaughtered and skinned animal, as the artifact “pelt.” Indeed, the pelt itself is accompanied by the linguistic skinning of the lively sign “arakunem”—which communicates the Algonquian Powhatan people’s impressions of the living raccoon and their relationship to this human-like animal at the same time as it functions as a name—leaving the more inert sign “raccoon,” which, in English, functions merely as a name. This linguistic process appears to embody the U.S.’s expansionist politics connected to the fur trade in the nineteenth century, which was responsible for the displacement of Native peoples in fur areas. Moreover, as I will touch on further below, the tension between the human-like raccoon and the raccoon pelt is also mirrored in the entanglement of raccoons and racial stereotypes. Here, I argue that (raccoon) pelt as simultaneously a commodity and symbol played a significant role in the structuring of early American society. This is realized through discourses of class, race, and of American self-fashioning associated with animal skins: specifically beaver and its adversary, raccoon.

5One hundred years after John Smith, in 1714, the naturalist John Lawson describes the raccoon in his History of Carolina in the following terms:

[the raccoon] is the drunkenest Creature ever living, if he can get any liquor that is sweet and strong. The way that this Animal catches Crabs, which he greatly admires, and which are plenty in Carolina, is worthy of Remark. When he intends to make a Prey of these Fish, he goes to a Marsh, where standing on the Land, he lets his Tail hang in the Water. This the Crab takes for Bait, and fastens his Claws therein, which as soon as the Raccoon perceives, he, of a sudden, springs forward, a considerable way, on the Land, and brings the Crab along with him... The Fur makes good Hats and Linings. The Skin dress’d makes fine Womens Shooes. (121, emphasis added)

  • 1 Helmbrecht Breinig makes similar observations concerning the pronouns of a raccoon in the contempor (...)

6I quote this passage at length because it is indicative of a change in tone that foregrounds Lawson’s (and other naturalists’) central reason for their interest in the raccoon (and other animals) in North America. Lawson describes raccoons as cunning and skillful fishers, with a number of tricks up their sleeve in order to catch their bait. Though Lawson, of course, acknowledges the raccoon’s animality, interestingly, he continuously uses the masculine second person pronoun “he” instead of “it,” as would commonly be the case for more-than-human animals in texts of this genre and of this period.1 Swedish naturalist Pehr Kalm, as an example, in his description of the raccoon in North America (1750), does refer to the animal as “it” (Kalm in Benson 52-53). Jonathan Carver, in Travels (1778) likewise consistently refers to animals such as woodchucks, raccoons, beavers, foxes, muskrats, etc. as “it” (see Carver 454f.). The same is true for William Bartram’s Travels (1793). This distinction is important because Kalm’s, Carver’s, and Bartram’s conventional use of “it” to describe the raccoon and other animals emphasizes that Lawson’s wording is peculiar. All authors are eighteenth-century naturalists producing similar texts on different regions of North America. Granted, language changes over time, and it could well be that I am reading too much into Lawson’s choice of pronouns for the raccoon. However, his contemporaries write differently about animals and raccoons, specifically. The point here is that one can observe a shift in tone in the passage from Lawson’s History of Carolina. The contrast between an almost humanizing—for lack of a better term—language and the cut-and-dry last words referring to what the animal’s value is in terms of economy is stark and remarkable.

7The addition of the uses of the animal’s fur initially seems out of place in Lawson’s description. The passage ends rather abruptly with the estimation that “[t]he Fur makes good hats and linings” and “[t]he Skin dress’d makes fine Womens Shooes” (121). In what otherwise seems like a depiction of an intelligent and human-like and cunning creature, the mention of raccoon fur at the end of the quoted paragraph highlights the interwovenness of naturalistic and economic discourses in the early sciences. Lawson presupposes the raccoon’s role in the American fur trade of the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries.

8It is important to consider the genre of these texts—they are natural histories and travelogues. They are written by colonizers of North America (see Shannon and Gellman 93-94). Their purpose is to present a very distinct perspective on the North American landscape and its wildlife in the context of the colonial project of which their authors are a part. Smith’s account refers specifically to Virginia and Lawson’s to Carolina, both of which are early colonial settlements. These authors and other famous commentators of the colonial project painted a picture of “[a]n unmarked, empty New World wilderness with its multitude of wild creatures,” which was often used as an “incentive [for settlers] to occupy the land” (Smalley 2). Andrea L. Smalley contends that

Over centuries, from the time of the initial European ‘discoveries’ of the New World until the closing of the frontier, the benefits of abundant wild animals appears as a recurring theme in colonizing discourses. Explorers, travelers, surveyors, naturalists, and other promoters routinely advertised the richness of the American faunal environment and speculated about the ways in which animals could be made to serve their colonial projects. (2)

9Records show that, even though “data on the harvest of raccoons are... incomplete,... they do suggest that in most decades a substantial harvest was taken relative to other furbearers at the time” (Obbard et al. 1019). Daniel Heath Justice observes the raccoon’s significance in the fur trade and, in particular, the prominence of raccoon pelts on the frontier. The raccoon’s fur became a “symbol... of rebel patriotism, rooted in an untamed and untameable [sic] land” (157).

10However, when we think of the fur trade in North America of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the animal that will undoubtedly come to mind first is not the raccoon but the beaver. The Iroquois or French and Iroquois Wars of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries are also known as the Beaver Wars, due to one of the major reasons for this conflict being about control over the fur trade (see Smalley 66-77). The fur trade was pivotal to the colonial project of North America. As Eric Jay Dolin observes, it “was a powerful force in shaping the course of American history from the early 1600s through the late 1800s” and played “a major role in the settlement and evolution of the colonies” as well as “in the growth of the United States” (XV-XVI). It is perhaps due to the aforementioned conflicts and the apparent prominence of beaver pelts at their root that a large amount of research on the fur trade is focused largely on beavers and not on other furbearers, such as foxes, bears, coyotes, and raccoons.

11The Hudson’s Bay Company, which controlled the majority of the fur trade in most of the British colonies in North America (see Galbraith 3), echoes this in early iterations of its coat of arms: it displays four beavers, a fox, two elk, and the Latin phrase “pro pelle cutem.” The entry for “pro pelle cutem” in Western Words: A Dictionary of the American West reads as follows: “‘Skin for skin,’... suggesting the danger of loss of life involved in the fur trade” (237). The presence of multiple fur-bearing animals in conjunction with the phrase “a pelt for a skin” on the seal appears to make direct reference to the Beaver Wars. The phrase especially may be understood as meaning something along the lines of “an animal skin for a human skin”—pelt being used for animal hide exclusively, and skin most often associated first and foremost with humans (see The Canadian Encyclopedia, “pro pelle cutem”). As such, pelts are “traded” for human skin in the sense that a war is being fought over the control of the fur trade on the one hand. On the other, it is also a colonial war that is being fought against the Indigenous peoples of Northern and Northeastern territories of the later United States in attempts to control the fur trade.

12Despite its racist sentiments and language overall, the 1895 article “The Treatment of the Canadian Indians” by William Trant claims that “a waggish translation of the [Hudson’s Bay] Company’s motto, Pro pelle cutem, has a grim reference to skinning an Indian [sic]” (507). Concerning the fur trade and “North American Indians [sic],” Harold Hickerson observes that “[i]n the fur areas, Indians [sic] provided the labor to produce fur traded in international markets of which they had no cognizance” (15). In a more benign understanding of “skin for skin,” it can also be taken to mean animal skin used to protect the fragile human flesh. In light of the reference of the motto to the Hudson’s Bay company and the fur trade, this well-meaning interpretation, however, could serve as a means of covering up the violence inherent in other translations and readings of “pro pelle cutem.” Violence prevails even in the benign understanding of the motto—in a different way, it too is brutal in that it gestures toward the inherent violence of skinning an animal in order to cover and protect a human body. What Trant’s observation and Hickerson’s quote exemplify, respectively, is the colonial violence, physical and structural, that went hand in hand with the North American fur trade.

13While beaver pelt dominated the market in the early decades of the fur trade, “the... raccoon quietly replaced... [beaver] as the dominant fur in the American trade” (Clayton 215). Justice’s observation that the raccoon’s fur became associated with “rebel patriotism” also helps explain why the British elite preferred beaver pelts, which lacked such symbolism (155). In his study on the economic significance of the American fur trade, James L. Clayton characterizes the raccoon as “ubiquitous and unpretentious” (215). The connection of the raccoon and the notion of “unpretentiousness” implies the opposite concerning the beaver. The alleged non-pretension of the animal in direct contrast to the beaver underlines the idea that a raccoon pelt represents the “unpretentious”: the rugged frontiersmen, the trappers, the hunters, and other folks not associated with the presumably “pretentious” upper classes and European elites. These upper classes, Clayton’s wording implies, would have much preferred the beaver pelts.

14With regard to specifically the contraction of raccoon, “coon,” which holds “complex and provocative” (Justice 76) implications concerning racialized ethnic groups in the U.S. (see further down), Daniel Heath Justice discusses its etymological history, and uncovers the term’s and its animal counterpart’s connection to the frontier as well as the distinguishing factor regarding class:

‘Coon’ as a term for human beings dates at least to the late eighteenth century, when it was largely associated with shrewd rural whites. In the mid-1700s U.S., drawing on the popular presumptions about raccoon cleverness and their association with the wilderness, the contraction ‘coon’ in reference to a human being was a ‘term for a white rustic’.... [B]y the American War of Independence (1775-83) white colonists had fully embraced the abundant indigenous raccoon as a... symbol of the masculinist American frontier, untouched by the corrupting urbanity and class hierarchies of the decadent European powers. (77, italics added)

15The “decadent European powers” and their class hierarchies inflected in beaver and raccoon pelts position them, indirectly, as adversaries. However, concerning the supposed inferiority of raccoon pelts, the naturalist Pehr Kalm observed in 1748 that raccoon skins “are next in quality to those of beavers” (Kalm in Benson 52-53), negating any factual difference in quality. As such, we may consider the raccoon’s skin as cultural artifact, an actor in the national discourse of America and of its central frontier-myth, and at the same time, as an actor in the discourse of class.

  • 2 While this article’s frame of reference is “early America,” it would be an oversight to not at leas (...)

16The alleged inferiority of raccoon pelts, in addition to class discourse, also gestures towards discourses of race. It holds implications of hegemonic narratives of a racialized Native Other.2 Raccoon pelt is not only associated with the frontiersmen, but also with various Native peoples living in the allegedly untamed land that simultaneously is or would soon become the frontier. William Wood, for instance, in 1624, describes seeing Native men in Massachusetts wearing garments made from “Beares skinnes, Mooses skinnes, and Beaver skinnes sewed together, Otter skinnes, and Rackoone skinnes” (Wood 68). In an admittedly problematic conflation of animality and Native peoples, Virginia DeJohn Anderson suggests that “[v]iewed from a distance, Indians [sic] draped in such clothing must have presented the English with disconcerting apparitions of beings who resembled animals more than people” (24). One of these animals, whose skin the Native peoples in Wood’s description are seen wearing, is the raccoon—an animal that was extensively used for its pelt by various Native peoples long before the colonial fur traders did. As such, the raccoon, and specifically its pelt, sustains hegemonic colonial narratives of “barbarism,” “roughness,” “wildness,” “the untamed,” “the savage,” in opposition to the “civilized” and “cultured” characteristics ascribed the beaver pelt in colonial discourse.

17In my example, this happens through raccoon skin, specifically. However, the Othering of Native peoples occurs through various animal skins, furs, or feathers, and can be observed across a number of early American travelogues and natural histories. John Smith, in 1629’s The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England & The Summer Isles, writes about meeting Chief Powhatan:

Before a fire vpon a seat like a bedstead, [Powhatan] sat covered with a great robe, made of Rarowcun skinnes, and all the tayles hanging by. On either hand did sit a young wench of 16 or 18 yeares, and along on each side the house, two rowes of men, and behind them as many women, with all their heads and shoulders painted red; many of their heads bedecked with the white downe of Birds[.] (Smith 1629: 48-49, emphasis original)

18On the surface, this passage reads as a description of the Powhatan chief Wahunsenacawh—called Chief Powhatan by English settlers—in his quarters. The descriptions of “Rarowcun skinnes” and “heads bedecked with the white downe of Birds” must not only be understood as Smith documenting traditional Powhatan attire but as holding settler colonial implications of racialization along the trajectories of animality, non-civilization, and “the wild.” Smith’s text connects animals to Powhatan people through metonymical representations of animals in the raccoon skins and bird down worn by the Powhatan people in the quoted passage. The various animal skins metonymically point toward the lands they inhabit. And these lands, in early American writing, are presented as hostile and fear-inducing.

19With a glance, then, toward early American travelogues and natural histories, we know that bears, moose, beavers, and raccoons populate the mountains, forests, and swamps. The spaces are always represented in these texts as hostile and dark, avoided by most English, and conversely, are portrayed as the space of the “Indian.” Roy Harvey Pearce observes that “with hardly a variation,... the voyage narratives” depict “American Indians... [as] men who were not men” and across the board liken them to “’bruite beasts’” (5f.). Native peoples are thus directly connected to discourses of the wild and wilderness, and by extension, with the later frontier. Richard Slotkin writes that “the moral landscape of the Frontier Myth is divided by significant borders, of which the wilderness/civilization, Indian/White border is the most basic” (Gunfighter Nation 14). In Slotkin’s terms, then, the construct of “wilderness” figures diametrically to that of “civilization,” the same way the construct of “Indian” does to that of “White”—conversely, following this logic, in colonial and frontier America and its settler narratives, Native peoples are the embodiment of wilderness as much as the English settlers are the embodiment of civilization. This is corroborated by Mark Spence’s observation that “the West [was conceived by Americans] as a vast ‘Indian wilderness,’ and [the Americans] rarely made a distinction between native peoples and the land they inhabited” (4).

20Concerning the concept and term of “wilderness,” Lisa Brooks points out that, “[o]nly in the latter half of the 19th century, as American settlers and the US Army displaced Native people from resource-rich homelands in order to create separate spaces for colonial settlement, ... did ‘wilderness’ become a term for ‘unpeopled’ spaces” (58). Accordingly, in early American and settler discourses, there is a conceived correlation between “wilderness” and Native peoples. There are abundant examples of this narrative, from William Bradford’s description of a “hideous and desolate wildernes [sic], full of wild beasts and willd [sic] men” (78), Mary Rowlandson’s account of traveling through what she terms a “vast and desolate wilderness” (71, see also 78, 80, 88) and her connection of these spaces to “barbarous heathens” (88), to the countless travelogues alluding to hostile swamps, dark forests, and desolate plains landscapes.

21Besides its role in race and class discourses, the raccoon pelt is also an indirect actor in the expansionist politics of the American government and anti-Native legislation and rhetoric. An example of a policy that would prove to have a substantial effect on the role of the raccoon specifically in the American fur trade was introduced in 1825:

In 1825,... the federal government began to pay individual Indian [sic] debts to fur traders out of tribal funds. The philosophy behind this practice was simple: The government was vitally interested in Indian [sic] land cessions to meet the needs of an expanding population.... [B]y the late 1830s about $200,000 was secured annually by traders from Indian [sic] treaties, and in 1842 such claims amounted to over $2,000,000. The bulk of this money was paid to individuals in the Great Lakes region—the heartland of raccoon production. (Clayton 216, emphasis added)

22In this sense, raccoon pelt plays a key role in mechanisms responsible for the displacement of Indigenous life in North America—in this case, in the Great Lakes region. It is significant that this is “the heartland of raccoon production” (Clayton 216). This land specifically is ceded to the US government by its Native inhabitants in exchange for the cancellation of debts to the very fur traders whose interest lies in the opportunity and lawful right (by settler law) to hunt the prevalent raccoon in these lands. The cession of land to the US effectively means that these regions are, in the settler-colonial mind and law, no longer Native. The raccoon then becomes a vehicle through which Native dispossession is made possible.

23This dispossession can be observed on another level, being the exploitation of a Native American workforce. Clayton mentions that “the price of raccoon varied widely after the late 1830s,” depending on quality (216). He further explains that “two thirds of the raccoon crop of the American Fur Company was graded number 1 prime, and about a third of this was labeled ‘Indian Handled’” (216). What this meant was that these “Indian Handled” pelts were chewed in order to cure and soften them, a more careful process that would remarkably heighten their worth (see Clayton 216). Not only then do U.S. fur traders displace Native peoples with exploitative treaties in raccoon and other fur regions. They also exploit traditionally Native curing methods for pelts and a Native workforce in order to achieve higher quality and greater profits on dispossessed Native land.

  • 3 It is of note that Russia, as early as 1784, established a trading post on Kodiak Island, which wou (...)

24There is an additional level to class and race discourses and the raccoon’s role in it, one that reaches beyond the borders of the American continent and essentially represents US exportation of racism and classism. Concerning the growing popularity of raccoon pelt in lieu of the previously sought-after beaver in the first half of the 1800s, James L. Clayton mentions that “[i]n 1837 the Russians lowered their fur tariff, and raccoon skins were particularly sought after by Russian Jews and Poles, who demanded coonskin caps à la Davy Crockett” (216, emphasis added). The czar subsequently prohibited their use by 1847 (see Clayton 216). In consideration of the anti-Jewish sentiments across Europe but especially prevalent in czarist Russia of the nineteenth century, it is significant that the czar indicted the use of raccoon pelts because of the demand by, in the majority, Russian Jews. This is indicative of not only class difference perpetuated symbolically, through the raccoon, who does so unwillingly, but also of the racialization and marginalization of Jewish life in Russia. The raccoon pelts, which, in this instance, are the vehicle for this difference of race and class, are imported to Russia and the European continent from America and as a result of the American fur trade, directly.3 As such, these mechanisms of marginalization negotiated along the lines of race and class in Russia have points of contact with colonialism on the American continent. While Russia and its treatment of its Jewish and Polish citizens is not directly connected to colonialism per se, an argument can be made for the colonial legacy of “Othering” and marginalizing people from non-majority classes and ethnic groups.

25As I have attempted to show in this article, raccoon skin in the context of colonial early America and its fur trade economy serves in numerous ways as a vehicle of Othering groups of people along lines of class, race, and land ownership. This rears itself in many different forms: in class difference between frontiersmen and British elites perpetuated through raccoon and beaver skins; as part of the racialization of Native peoples through the lens of colonial authors and naturalists, who describe Native people’s clothing made of animal skins; through narratives extending far beyond the British colonies in America, connecting certain animal skins to marginalized ethnic groups, as in Russia concerning Jews and Poles; and in expansionist politics of the US for the sake of fur-hunting, leading to the displacement of Native peoples. In the examples discussed in this paper, these mechanisms all have in common the theme of the entanglement of a colonial economy with the harvest and production of animal skin—in this case: raccoon skins.

26The transition from raccoon as animal, as living being, to raccoon as body through its killing and skinning represents the moment where the animal becomes a commodity—it is no longer an animal, but an artifact. This is also a transition from individual being to exchangeable ware. In Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capital, the author points out the double entendre of the word render:Rendering signifies both the mimetic act of making a copy, that is, reproducing or interpreting an object... and the industrial boiling down and recycling of animal remains” (20, emphasis original). Shukin further argues that “[t]he double entendre of rendering is deeply suggestive of the complicity of ‘the arts’ and ‘industry’ in the conditions of possibility of capitalism” (20, emphasis original). These two understandings of rendering allow the establishment of a link between animal bodies and representation, specifically within the context of economy. Here, the multivalency of rendering sheds light on the workings of a colonial market.

27Finally, the fact that the animal by proxy of its skin can be produced and owned as commodity and exchanged in the marketplace has two substantial effects: First, in the context of early North America, the processes and means of production of animal pelts disenfranchised, most of all in these examples, Native peoples of the beaver and raccoon harvest regions. Second, by killing and skinning living animals in order to make them exchangeable, animal bodies became wares that represented, in the case of beavers and raccoons, greater or lesser wealth, and as such greater or lesser prestige, respectively. They came to be associated with some people and not others. In Shukin’s terms then, the “rendered” raccoon and beaver skins became commodities that, in turn, were used to “render” identities along distinguishing lines of class and race.

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1 Helmbrecht Breinig makes similar observations concerning the pronouns of a raccoon in the contemporary short story “Hands” (1983) by Gregory Blake Smith (see 215f.).

2 While this article’s frame of reference is “early America,” it would be an oversight to not at least briefly touch on the role of the raccoon as a means of racializing Black people in the United States. The term has a complex history ranging from describing rural white folks and rustic frontiersmen as well as the racist minstrel figure of Zip Coon to becoming the symbol of the Whig party and its associations with rural white people and back to a racist epithet, along with racist and widely popular “Coon Songs.” For an in-depth discussion on the etymology of the word and how it came to be used as one of the most degrading racial slurs in the U.S., see the chapter on “The Racist Coon” in Daniel Heath Justice’s Raccoon.

3 It is of note that Russia, as early as 1784, established a trading post on Kodiak Island, which would become the Russian American Company after 1799 (see Galbraith 114). The history of the Russian American Company and its role in North America in relation to the British Hudson’s Bay Company is complex, and I will refrain from expanding fully on it here. In short, early on, Russia did, in fact, play a part in the American fur trade and stood in competition with the British Hudson’s Bay Company and the American Fur Company. However, the export of raccoon pelts from America to Russia did not occur primarily through what was the Russian American Company, as it primarily acted on the West Coast of the US. Racoon country was mainly the Great Lakes Region in the Midwest. For further and detailed reading of the Russian role in the fur trade, please see John S. Galbraith. The Hudson’s Bay Company as an Imperial Factor, 1821-1869. U of Toronto P, 1957.

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Electronic reference

Phillip Grider, “There is a Beast They Call Aroughcun”: Raccoons and Colonialism in Early AmericaEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 19-1 | 2024, Online since 07 February 2024, connection on 19 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Phillip Grider

Phillip James Grider is a research assistant and Ph.D. candidate in the North American Studies department at the University of Göttingen in Germany, with an emphasis on literary and cultural studies. Phillip is also a member of an early Americanist research network titled “Voices and Agencies: America and the Atlantic, 1600-1865” funded by the German Research Council. They were the 2023 Ebeling fellow at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. Their PhD project is concerned with nonhuman agency in the representation of flora, fauna, and landscapes across a number of early American textualities. They attempt to answer how these representations are capable of sustaining discourses of hegemonic and colonial mythmaking and how their understanding as more-than-human agents is able to subvert or counter these discourses.

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