Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America
by Eric Jay Dolin
Reviewed by Peter Sleeth
The myth of the American fur trade is so imbued with romance that it is easy to forget the real reasons behind the decimation of the natural resources at hand. From John Colter's epic 250-mile sprint -- au natural -- from at first bemused and then enraged Blackfeet Indians to Buffalo Bill Cody's personal killing of 4,280 buffalo in one year, the lore of the fur trade is as endemic to the American story as is that of the 19th-century cowboy.
Eric Jay Dolin's new book, Fur, Fortune, and Empire, The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America, is here to tell the real story behind the men who transformed a continent while in pursuit of pelts. Or, at least as much of the story that can be told in 464 pages.
Fueled by an international business model built on vanity, fur trappers from the 17th century to the late 19th century decimated species ranging from sea otters (so overhunted they are still not recovered in Oregon) to beavers. In doing so, they opened North America to settlement, exploring and mapping the future while expanding national boundaries, particularly in the Northwest. The characters in this drama are at once so outrageous and so admirable that it is no wonder the era has become a stew of fable and truth. Dolin does his job separating the two in his popular history, explaining that the demand for furs for expensive clothing in China and Europe was such an economic driver that even the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony found themselves propelled into the trade.
At first, Native American tribes benefited. Some countries, notably Britain and France, made an effort to protect the tribes and their territories. Initially, European-born fur trappers did little of the work. Historian Harold Hickerson, Dolin notes, said the Natives became, "a kind of forest proletariat whose production was raw fur and whose wages were drawn in goods."
That all changed rapidly. Soon European-born trappers took over and the consequences could be horrific. Entire regions saw fur-bearing animals disappear. Russian fur traders enslaved Alaskan natives, forcing them to hunt.
The great virtue of the book is in its sweep. While Dolin reveals little that is new in this popular history, his ambition to tell the whole story of the American fur trade brings a depth of understanding to the economic driver the fur trade was that few other authors put forth. Don Berry and others have concentrated their magnificent histories on the Western fur trade, but Dolin is much more ambitious. Fur, Fortune, and Empire illustrates how the business was a vital factor in the development of the Americas from the start. Even the Swedish government tried to for a piece of the action early on.
What is necessarily missed in a such a flyover of nearly 300 years of economic history are the intricacies of the diplomatic and capitalistic relationships among nations, Native American, European and Asian alike, that allowed all of this to happen. To be sure, Dolin labors hard to give context to the slaughter of animals and humans, but, alas, there is so much to tell, much has to be omitted, and at times, the book can read more like a textbook than the product of high-quality research and mostly fine writing Dolin has produced.
Ultimately, Fur, Fortune, and Empire is at once a sad and thrilling tale of the inevitable destruction of resources and cultures in the name of social evolution. That the same story, to varying degrees, continues with the destruction of Amazonian rain forests -- or, to place it in an immediate context, the race for ever deeper and deeper ocean oil well drilling -- makes the lament even more painful.