Fur, Fortune, and Empire: the epic history of the fur trade in America,
by Eric Dolin (also author of Leviathan, history of US whaling). Review
from The Washington Post follows below.
Founder, Managing Director
Even among historians of colonial America -- who should know and care about such
things -- the fur trade tends to elicit groans of boredom. The subject is so
blandly ubiquitous that it seems to demand little explanation even as it
remains, at heart, a confounding mystery to anyone but the most narrowly focused
specialists. Like the transatlantic slave trade, the fur trade exists more as a
nebulous concept than as a richly complex industry populated by some of the most
colorful and nefarious personalities in world history. And that's because it is
rendered unrecognizable by its powerful association with a primitive,
Yet the fur trade remains very much alive: a multi-billion-dollar global
business with discernible ties to its earlier incarnation. In "Fur, Fortune, and
Empire," Eric Jay Dolin ranges far and wide over land and sea, searching for the
beating heart of a gargantuan industry touched by almost every aspect of human
society and human nature: war, power, money, faith, desire and ambition. Dolin
concerns himself primarily with the trade's North American theater between the
17th and late 19th centuries, from European colonization to post-Revolutionary
America 's colonization of its own Western interior. But he keeps a close eye on
the wider world, too. As in "Leviathan," his highly praised book on U.S.
whaling, he restores what most of us regard as an American institution to its
rightful place on the international stage. The result is easily the finest tale
of the trade in recent memory, a crisply written tale unburdened by excessive
detail or homespun provincialism.
One of the great virtues of "Fur, Fortune, and Empire" is its emphasis on
continuity. The American trade ebbed and flowed over its first 150 years, often
dramatically. But contrary to what historians of the trade's earliest days
suggest, the storied American pursuit of fur didn't cease with Britain 's
disruptive wartime invasion of the rebelling colonies or even with the near
extinction of certain fur-bearing animals in the Northeastern colonies. If
anything, the trade expanded and flourished as never before in the wake of
decolonization -- when American traders were forced to seek pelts well beyond
familiar shores. The craze for furs inaugurated by Henry Hudson's abortive
search for the Northwest
Passage, in 1609, had waned for numerous reasons by the time George
Washington assumed office nearly 200 years later. But it came vigorously to life
again in the Pacific Northwest , when Americans eventually learned of Capt.
James Cook's lucrative trade in sea otter skins.
The colonists were probably too busy fighting Britain in the late 1770s to
follow Cook's machinations in the Pacific, much less in Canton , where his sea
otter pelts fetched unheard-of sums. Although word of Cook's success in China
ultimately "sparked one of the biggest rushes of the American fur trade," the
man's place in the history of the American trade is easily overlooked. After
all, he wasn't American.
Dolin claims too much when he says, "In time, the fur trade determined the
course of empire" and "spurred the colonization of eastern North America ."
Imperial policy and colonial settlement never hewed to a starkly economic
course. What about those elaborate Elizabethan schemes for the transplant of
social undesirables, or those starry-eyed French Jesuits angling for martyrdom?
Yet there is no disputing the fur trade's deep implication in the clash of
empires that embroiled the continent in vicious warfare throughout the colonial
period and in the tumultuous wake of independence. The Netherlands , England ,
France , Sweden and Russia all engaged in the 250-year contest for domination of
North America and control of its natural resources. Dolin's cast is suitably
polyglot -- a welcome reminder that ethnic discord among traders ran deeper than
animosity between Indians and whites.
If any theme dominates, it's violence. As supermodel Naomi
Campbell has surely learned from her blood-diamond imbroglio, the Earth's
bounty isn't always as unspoiled as it appears. No doubt Campbell would take
little consolation in the knowledge that she's hardly the first person to divest
a natural wonder of its weight in human misery. But from Dolin's book she might
acquire a deeper understanding of why her critics have judged her so harshly.
To be sure, the international legal uproar over blood diamonds owes at least
part of its intensity to the 20th-century conservationist movement that grew up
in opposition to fur. Like Campbell 's lovely stones, America 's precious
beaver, sea otter and buffalo pelts drew people across the globe into sinister
relationships with the natural environment. They, too, enriched and adorned
people separated by thousands of miles from a world of hurt.
Kirk Davis Swinehart teaches history at Wesleyan University . He is at work on a
book about a family undone by the American Revolution.