|Subscribe | What is RSS|
“Get the furs while they last” was the rallying cry in America for nearly three hundred years. Between the early 1600s and the late 1800s, the international fur trade not only helped refine America—it helped define its economic life. In FUR, FORTUNE, AND EMPIRE: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America [W. W. Norton & Company; July 12, 2010; $29.95 cloth] Eric Jay Dolin takes us on a dramatic journey through the fur trade and delivers a compulsively readable, richly detailed account of the most important, lucrative trade in early American history.
America was built around “The Bible and the beaver. . . . The former saved its morale, and the latter paid its bills.” Indeed, even before the early 1600s, when explorer Henry Hudson reported encountering natives with an “abundance of provisions, skins, and furs,” European powers saw America as a place of vast economic potential, a limitless playground for profiteering.
From the establishment of the first trading posts by the Dutch East India Company to the dissolution of John Jacob Astor’s vast American Fur Company, and the near destruction of the buffalo, Dolin shows us how the fur trade was not some fringe history about wild mountain men and trappers like Kit Carson chasing beavers, buffaloes, and otters (though it was that too); instead, Dolin reveals that the fur trade was one of the key motivating forces in the imperial struggle for the colonies, and later the driving inspiration for America’s westward expansion.
Along the way, Dolin exhumes revelatory historical details surrounding the commercial nature of the Mayflower voyage, which was sponsored by a company intent on using the Pilgrims as a source of colonial profit. By 1630, “the most highly developed enterprise in New England was the exportation of furs by the Pilgrims.”
Fur would quickly become a source of great conflict between the European powers on American soil, with the French, Dutch, Swedes, and English all vying for control over trade, using strong-armed tactics and deadly force to beat the competition.
Like the history of corn, that still-ubiquitous staple of contemporary American life, the history of the fur trade in America is also intricately bound up in dubious dealings with Indians. Dolin’s clear-eyed assessment of the stark effects the trade had on the Indians, who grew dependent on European goods (primarily alcohol, guns, and cloth) purchased in exchange for the furs, never veers from what is essential in this sad and, to our contemporary sensibilities, controversial trade in animal pelts: the human and environmental toll.
Dolin’s great gift is to make this intricate, exhaustive history not only accessible and highly readable—he makes it brim with life. As it moves through three hundred years of the trade, FUR, FORTUNE, AND EMPIRE brings to life a vibrant cast of characters, from sundry Indian chiefs to freelancing European hunters gone native to colonial founders, political leaders, and early moguls.
A dazzling mix of history, economics, and politics that includes rare illustrations, maps, and photo as well as ninety pages of end-notes, FUR, FORTUNE, AND EMPIRE is a striking evocation of a bygone industry that uncovers the very roots of the American project.
Dolin will be presenting and signing his book at the Cal S. Taggart Bighorn Canyon Visitor Center on August 6, 2010. The presentation will begin at 7:00 PM with discussion and book signing to follow.
For more information, please contact Christy Fleming at 307-548-5406.