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Fur, Fortune, and Empire : The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America
by Eric Jay Dolin

Overview - As Henry Hudson sailed up the broad river that would one day bear his name, he grew concerned that his Dutch patrons would be disappointed in his failure to find the fabled route to the Orient. What became immediately apparent, however, from the Indians clad in deer skins and "good furs" was that Hudson had discovered something just as tantalizing.  Read more...

 
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More About Fur, Fortune, and Empire by Eric Jay Dolin
 
 
 
Overview
As Henry Hudson sailed up the broad river that would one day bear his name, he grew concerned that his Dutch patrons would be disappointed in his failure to find the fabled route to the Orient. What became immediately apparent, however, from the Indians clad in deer skins and "good furs" was that Hudson had discovered something just as tantalizing. The news of Hudson's 1609 voyage to America ignited a fierce competition to lay claim to this uncharted continent, teeming with untapped natural resources. The result was the creation of an American fur trade, which fostered economic rivalries and fueled wars among the European powers, and later between the United States and Great Britain, as North America became a battleground for colonization and imperial aspirations. In Fur, Fortune, and Empire, best-selling author Eric Jay Dolin chronicles the rise and fall of the fur trade of old, when the rallying cry was "get the furs while they last." Beavers, sea otters, and buffalos were slaughtered, used for their precious pelts that were tailored into extravagant hats, coats, and sleigh blankets. To read Fur, Fortune, and Empire then is to understand how North America was explored, exploited, and settled, while its native Indians were alternately enriched and exploited by the trade. As Dolin demonstrates, fur, both an economic elixir and an agent of destruction, became inextricably linked to many key events in American history, including the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812, as well as to the relentless pull of Manifest Destiny and the opening of the West. This work provides an international cast beyond the scope of any Hollywood epic, including Thomas Morton, the rabble-rouser who infuriated the Pilgrims by trading guns with the Indians; British explorer Captain James Cook, whose discovery in the Pacific Northwest helped launch America's China trade; Thomas Jefferson who dreamed of expanding the fur trade beyond the Mississippi; America's first multimillionaire John Jacob Astor, who built a fortune on a foundation of fur; and intrepid mountain men such as Kit Carson and Jedediah Smith, who sliced their way through an awe inspiring and unforgiving landscape, leaving behind a mythic legacy still resonates today. Concluding with the virtual extinction of the buffalo in the late 1800s, Fur, Fortune, and Empire is an epic history that brings to vivid life three hundred years of the American experience, conclusively demonstrating that the fur trade played a seminal role in creating the nation we are today.

 
Details
  • ISBN-13: 9780393067101
  • ISBN-10: 0393067106
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • Publish Date: July 2010
  • Page Count: 442


Related Categories

Books > History > United States - General
Books > Business & Economics > Economic History

 
Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2010-05-24
  • Reviewer: Staff

Who'd think you could write a history of the U.S. centered on three centuries of the trade in furs? Dolin has done so in this spirited tale, although you won't find presidents, treaties, and wars. Instead, the main characters are the Indians, Dutch, French, British, Russians, and Americans who sought wealth and a living in the pelts of fur-bearing animals--beavers especially, but also sea otters, fur seals, and buffalo. Beneath this absorbing story lies the relentless drive (a "lethal wave" in Dolin's words) across the continent. In Dolin's telling, westward expansion wasn't fueled by "manifest destiny" or the thirst for empire but by the chase after animals. People as varied as Peter Stuyvesant, John Jacob Astor, Kit Carson, and the roughhewn "mountain men" play their parts over lands as dispersed as New England and Oregon. By the time animals are driven to near-extinction in the late 19th century, the U.S. is filled in. Neither would have happened without the other. Dolin, author of the acclaimed Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, offers another good history well told. 16 pages of color and 16 pages of b&w illus.; map. (July)

 
BookPage Reviews

Empire built on beaver pelts

 Benjamin Franklin famously mused that the turkey might be a good symbol for the United States; we opted for the eagle instead. But a compelling case could be made for the beaver. In a sense, we owe the European settlement of the North American continent to that intrepid engineer of the animal world.

Or, viewed from another angle, we owe it to the beaver hat. Spurred by the hat’s rise in popularity, beaver fur traders and trappers forged ever westward from the Atlantic seaboard, always the vanguard of European penetration. The trade had to keep moving because it wiped out the beaver population of each successive region.

Eric Jay Dolin, who explored the history of whaling in Leviathan, brings together all the exhilarating and tragic aspects of that trade through the 19th century in Fur, Fortune, and Empire. While he concentrates on the beaver, he includes strong chapters on the similarly intense quests for sea otter and buffalo. The dramatic heart of the book is its chapter on the founding of Astoria, John Jacob Astor’s trading post in what is now Oregon. Astor was the Bill Gates of his day, a dominant force in his industry. But everything went tragically wrong with his Astoria dream.

The pattern of the fur trade was often grim. The animals were hunted to near-extinction; Native American tribes that initially prospered by providing furs were severely damaged by the alcohol sold to them by contemptuous traders. Still, we might not have had an American Revolution if traders hadn’t fueled anger at the British ban on western settlement. They were the pioneers of the China Trade and the Oregon and Santa Fe trails. And the litany of American cities that started as fur trading posts is astonishing—New York, Pittsburgh, Detroit and St. Louis are just a few. Dolin pulls together all those strands, positive and negative, for an absorbing and comprehensive ride through the trade’s history.

 
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