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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)
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.