Thoughts on Books: ‘Fur, Fortune and Empire’ by Eric Jay Dolin

Fur furtune empireAn energetic tale of Puritan settlers, nomadic trappers and the unfortunate, lushly furred rodents that were their prime quarry.


I see Eric Jay Dolin’s “Fur, Fortune and Empire: Epic History of the Fur Trade in America” much like his 2008 book “Leviathan: A History of Whaling in America,” except on land.

Both industries relied completely on the slaughter of wild animals–no fur farming or aquaculture here. People saw both trades as astonishingly lucrative and regulation was minimal. Each depended on hardy hunters eager to take on the worst weather and terrain nature could throw at them. And most importantly, the fur trade and the whaling industry crashed when the populations of their prey, once considered miraculously abundant, disappeared due to human exploitation.

Early in the narrative, Dolin sheds light on the major role fur trading played in the settlement of the English colonies in America. The dour Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth settlements are usually thought of as farmers of dubious success (see: Thanksgiving), but Dolin points out that the trade in beaver pelts not only paid some of the colonist’s debts to their European investors, but also smoothed relations with the Native tribes. At the same time, the enormous profits from furs encouraged Dutch and French traders to horn in on English territory, leading to trade wars.

We often think of Lewis and Clark’s 1804-1806 expedition to the Pacific as the Americans’ first foray into the heart of the continent, but Dolin shows that fur traders were way ahead of them. Coureurs de bois and voyageurs (French-Canadian scouts and trappers) sailed the Missouri and Columbia Rivers, established trade with Indian hunters, and explored unknown tracts of wilderness before the U.S. government ever organized an official survey of the new nation. And decades before covered wagons rutted the Great Plains, John Jacob Astor’s fur conglomerate established the trading post called Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia.

The fur trade depended on a finite resource, however, and the dwindling populations of beaver, buffalo, bear and other fur-bearing animals could no longer support the industry by the end of the 19th century. As in the British and American whaling industry, the quarry that had been considered so abundant that extinction was impossible proved to be just the opposite. Dolin’s thorough research and deft prose enliven the ultimately tragic story of the fur trade in America.

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