Fur, Fortune, and Empire

Images from
Fur, Fortune, and Empire

(Click for larger view)

“American Beaver,” by John James Audubon. Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson. “Rendezvous near Green River,” by Alfred Jacob Miller, 1867. “Trapping Beaver,” by Alfred Jacob Miller, 1858-60. Image from W. E. Webb, Buffalo Land, 1872, showing the various ways in which the buffalo were decimated. “Winter Morning in the Country,” by Currier & Ives, 1873. The people in the sleigh are kept warm by two thick buffalo robes across their laps. Sealer with skinned seal carcasses, Pribilof Islands, Alaska, 1892. Woman in fur coat and plumed hat, circa 1906. British fur trading scene, eastern North America, from 1777. Meriwether Lewis & William Clark holding a council with the Indians. Beaver hat, circa 1840. Algonquian wampum belt, eighteenth century. “Sea Otter,” by J. W. Audubon. Aleut in Baidarka, off St. Paul, Pribiloff Islands, Alaska. Early 1800s painting by an unknown artist, showing two Ottawa chiefs, adorned in fur trade goods, including silver brooches and armbands. Mountain man James P. Beckwourth.

Fur, Fortune, and Empire


The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America

By Eric Jay Dolin

(W. W. Norton, 464 pp., 90 illus., ISBN: 978-0-393-06710-1 , $29.95 )

Overview | Awards | Reviews | Excerpt

From the best-selling author of Leviathan comes this sweeping narrative of one of America's most historically rich industries. Beginning his epic history in the early 1600s, Eric Jay Dolin traces the dramatic rise and fall of the American fur industry, from the first Dutch encounters with the Indians to the rise of the conservation movement in the late nineteenth century. Dolin shows how the fur trade, driven by the demands of fashion, sparked controversy, fostered economic competition, and fueled wars among the European powers, as North America became a battleground for colonization and imperial aspirations. The trade in beaver, buffalo, sea otter, and other animal skins spurred the exploration and the settlement of the vast American continent, while it alternately enriched and gravely damaged the lives of America's native peoples. Populated by a larger-than-life cast-including Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant; President Thomas Jefferson; America's first multimillionaire, John Jacob Astor; and mountain man Kit Carson-Fur, Fortune, and Empire is the most comprehensive and compelling history of the American fur trade ever written.

Winner 2011 James P. Hanlan Book Award, given by the New England Historical Association.

One of the best books of 2010 by The Seattle Times.

Winner 2011 Outdoor Writers Association of America, Excellence in Craft contest, book division, first place.

One of the top ten books of 2010 by the Rocky Mountain Land Library.

Bronze medal in the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards.

Finalist, Reading the West Book Award, 2011, sponsored by the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association.

"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. . . . 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. . . . Dolin, the author of the acclaimed Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, offers another good history, well told."

Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

"The fascinating story of the fur trade, full of heroism, greed, violence and political conflict. . . . riveting narrative . . . A delightful history, reminding readers that while noble ideals led to the settling of the United States, the fur trade paid the bills."

Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review

"Nobody writes about the link between American history and natural history with the scholarly grace of Eric Jay Dolin. Fur, Fortune, and Empire is a landmark study filled with a cast of eccentric Western-type characters. Dolin's research is prodigious. Not since the days of Francis Parkman has a historian analyzed the fur trade industry with such brilliance. Highly recommended!"

Douglas Brinkley
Author, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America

"Eric Jay Dolin has crafted a stunning companion to his recent history of the American whaling industry. . . . Focusing on the three-century chase for wealth in fur, this lively, balanced, and carefully researched account evokes an epic clash of empires from one end of the continent to the other. The book charts the rise and expansion of the American republic on the back of fur-bearing mammals and chronicles, along the way, a rogues' gallery of astonishingly vivid characters. . . . A wonderful and timely rendering of a heedless and bloody minded age."

Ric Burns
Documentary filmmaker

"A superb one-volume examination of an era when American ingenuity and its competitive spirit began to flourish. . . Dolin describes in marvelous detail . . . colorful figures of the American fur trades' western expansion. . . . at last, we now have a book that properly accounts for America's rise as a fur-trade power."

Michael Taube
The Wall Street Journal

"Fur, Fortune, and Empire is no melancholy affair. The book bursts with colorful characters, venal corporations, and violent confrontations, all presented with sharp-eyed clarity in a narrative that clips right along. . . . One of the great pleasures of Eric Jay Dolins work in both Leviathan and Fur, Fortune, and Empire comes in discovering centuries-old antecedents of the economic and natural resource issues that we struggle with today. . . . there are plenty of insights as well as much reading pleasure to be had here."

Bruce Barcott
Audubon Magazine

"Fur, Fortune, and Empire is a comprehensive, intensively researched, and eminently readable history of the North American fur trade, a crucial episode in explaining how the United States became a continental nation."

Robert M. Utley
Author and former Chief Historian of the National Park Service

"Eric Jay Dolin's brilliant account of our nation's fur trade is the best popular history ever written about one of America's most fascinating businesses. This engrossing and masterfully told story marches across a transcontinental stage populated by a host of history's most intriguing characters. Here is the pageant of America writ large!"

James A. Hanson
Chief historian, Museum of the Fur Trade

"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. . . . 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 [fur] trade in recent memory, a crisply written tale unburdened by excessive detail or homespun provincialism."

Kirk Davis Swinehart
The Washington Post

"Great story telling that weaves the commercial, environmental, and political threads of the history of the American fur trade into a wonderfully readable narrative. . . . History writing of the highest order. . . . It restores the central role of the American fur trade in understanding the development of the United States."

Peter Drummey
Stephen T. Riley Librarian, Massachusetts Historical Society

"Though guns, germs and steel certainly played their parts, Dolin's "Fur, Fortune, and Empire" leaves little doubt that the trade in pelts "was a powerful force in shaping the course of American history from the early 1600s through the late 1800s, playing a major role in the settlement and evolution of the colonies, and in the growth of the United States." Dolin puts forth a compelling and well-annotated tale of greed, slaughter and geopolitics as the Dutch, English, French, Spanish, Swedes, Russians and the American colonists fought for a slice of the profit."

Art Winslow
Los Angeles Times

"Fur, Fortune, and Empire is a fast tour of 300 years witnessing America's westward expansion and settlement. Dolin has researched the fur trades contribution to exploring the wonders of early America. His storytelling pace is powerful and engaging. Here is a view of history with adventure and excitement never taught in the classroom. It is a must read for all who love the wild."

Douglas H. Grann
President and CEO, Wildlife Forever

"From the Iroquoian 'Beaver Wars' of the mid-1600s to the brutal Russian domination of Alaska native hunters, Dolin successfully shows how America's natural history is a vital part of our collective national history. Highly recommended for readers and researchers of American history and natural resources"

Nathan E. Bender, Laramie, WY
Library Journal

"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. . . . [Dolin] brings together all the exhilarating and tragic aspects of the [fur] trade through the 19th century . . . an absorbing and comprehensive ride through the trades history"

Anne Bartlett
BookPage

""entertaining . . . Readers interested in the history of the New York fur trade will find this book enlightening.""

John Warren
Adirondack Almanack

"A hirsute history of American westward expansion, Dolins capacious narrative of hunting and marketing furs partakes of the subjects vivid adventure and tragedy. Replete with mountain men, middlemen, and Indian tribes, the authors chronology extends from the Pilgrims economic salvation on the back of the beaver to the near extermination of the bison in the late 1800s. As Dolins introduction suggests, movielike characters populate frontier history and make its fur-hunting aspect a popular dramatic subject. But strictly dealing with the historical, Dolin synthesizes its abounding bibliography into an engaging and perceptive survey that accents men who plunged into the woods with rifle, trap, and wampum. Their relations with Indian tribes are central here, as exchanges of pelts for guns, alcohol, and more became the cultural interface between the indigenous peoples and the Dutch, English, French, and Americans. Including many incidents of amicable and hostile encounters, Dolin underlines the economic drivers that propelled the trade from the Atlantic to the Pacific. A hearty style of history, Dolins work is a great gateway into American history."

Gilbert Taylor
Booklist

"Eric Jay Dolin, author of Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, now turns his keen eye on another fabled extractive enterprise in Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. With impressive erudition and lively wit, Dolin charts the astonishing development and impact of this fashion-driven trade from its inception in the early 17th century to the late 1880s, by which time it had created legends and fortunes, fueled imperial expansion, irrevocably altered Native American existence and devastated entire species."

Anna Mundow
The Boston Globe

""Well-researched, informative, just superb . . . A must buy!""

Ken Allen
The Maine Sportsman

"Chosen as a notable book for the July Indie Next & Notables Preview"

American Booksellers Association

"Eric Jay Dolin brilliantly argues that the trade in animal skins turned colonial America into a tumultuous frontier where global powers battled for control. From the seventeenth century right on up to the Gilded Age, the developed world's appetite for fur and its unique qualities made the new continent, with its wealth of fur-bearing wildlife, a seemingly inexhaustible resource. The result, as laid out in Dolin's new book . . . was a major boost in the evolution of the colonies into a powerful new player on the world stage. . . . For all of fur's contentious position in American culture today, Dolin has skillfully illuminated its centrality in our nation's ever-surprising history."

Chuck Leddy
BarnesandNobleReview.com

"A comprehensive, well-researched, and chronological account of its subject matter"

David Holahan
Christian Science Monitor

"Fur, Fortune, and Empire is an undeniably good read and is beautifully illustrated. It provides interesting insight on the lives and activities of men involved in the fur trade."

Ginette Aley
Kansas History

"A beaver might be a more fitting national symbol for America than a bald eagle, given the way the quest for that rodent's fur shaped this country's history, from its earliest colonial days to its Manifest Destiny westward drive and beyond. . . . Packed with intriguing tidbits . . . Fur, Fortune and Empire serves as a fur-focused refresher course on American history that will have readers reconsidering the powerful role the fur trade played in swaying in our nations history. The narrative of Fur, Fortune and Empire suggests that if you're proud to be an American, you can thank the beaver."

Jenny Shank
New West

"comprehensive study . . . One of the biggest services Dolin provides in "Fur, Fortune, and Empire" is giving the fur trade its proper due, establishing how important it was to the nation as a whole and to the gateway to the West in particular."

Dale Springer
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"This is the story of the skinning of a continent. . . . [Dolin] explains how the fur trade shaped the exploration, settlement and development of North America. . . . interesting, well-researched book."

Steve Raymond
The Seattle Times

"The great virtue of the book is in its sweep. . . . [Dolin's] ambition to tell the whole story of the American fur trade brings a depth of understanding to the economic driver the fur trade was that few other authors put forth. . . . Ultimately, "Fur, Fortune, and Empire" is at once a sad and thrilling tale of the inevitable destruction of resources and cultures in the name of social evolution."

Peter Sleeth
The Oregonian

"Informative . . . The fur trade, as Dolin so vividly describes, was "a seminal part of who we are as nation, and how we came to be.""

Judith Chettle
Richmond Times-Dispatch

"Scrupulously researched popular history . . . Dolins books worth lies in the accumulation of unprecedented detail, which piles up like a heap of bison robes at a trading post . . . If you know nothing about the skinning of America and want to know almost everything, . . . this book is for you."

Peter Coates
BBC History Magazine

"Dolin ranks among the historian elite. . . . It's impossible not to be drawn in by the cinematic sweep with which Dolin presents his story, with even the tiniest details accorded entertaining scrutiny. The nature of wampum, the teeth of beavers, the unfortunate introduction of guns and alcohol as barter items, the petty bickering between competing trading camps that all too often escalates into violence - there's wonder in every paragraph. Dolin clearly loves the material he's presenting, and he's excited to share it."

Jeff Guinn
The Dallas Morning News

"Adventurers, charlatans, schemers, and activists abound . . . The true stories Dolin spins rival anything Hollywood has come up with on the topic. . . . entertaining and informative. . . . Fur, Fortune, and Empire gives what it promises. It is an illuminating analysis of how the beaver and its fur-bearing colleagues became the true founding fathers of North America."

Dennis Rizzo
The Internet Review of Books

"A terrific account of our nation's fur trade, and probably the best written on one of America's most fascinating industries. . . . The author provides an outstanding assessment of the effect the fur trade had on the Indians. This is a brilliant analysis that covers three hundred years of the fur trade utilizing a blend of history, economics, and politics."

Claude Ury
San Francisco Review of Books

"We conventionally think of the railroads as the world's first big business. But as author Eric Jay Dolin writes in his riveting new book, the fur trade, which began more than two centuries before the railroads, maybe did as much to transform America, with profound effects on the development of the colonies, settlement of the American West, and its relations with Native Americans."

Steve Goddard
Steve Goddard's History Wire

"In 'Fur, Fortune, and Empire,' Eric Jay Dolin follows his much-praised 'Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America' (2007) with another readable, thoroughly researched study that manages to combine national and natural history. . . . he makes his case  that the beaver, and then the sea otter and buffalo, were key to the growth of the country  passionately and convincingly. . . . he writes intelligently and feelingly of the Indians . . . His is a nuanced discussion supported by meticulous research and close to 100 pages of unobtrusive notes.. . . Dolin writes with verve."

Tony Lewis
The Providence Journal

"Eric Dolin's research and publication represents an excellent study of the American fur trade from its emergence in North America to its conclusion with the near extinction of the buffalo in the late 1800's. Dolin's superb collection of primary sources and previous studies are the backbone of a major contribution to the total picture of the fur trade history in America."

Fred R. Gowans Ph.D
Emeritus Professor of Western American History, Brigham Young University

"Most of all [Dolin] is a scholarly storyteller as fascinating as it is on the economic and political (not to mention the ecological) implications, his is, from first to last, an 'epic history.' [Kerrigan gave Fur, Fortune, and Empire five out of five stars, for a superlative rating]"

Michael Kerrigan
The Scotsman

"Dolin tells a story that needs to be told: how the first great fortunes of the New World were generated and how that feat was coupled with the discovery of the vast uncharted lands of North America by men whose names we barely know. Dolin . . . tackles this huge topic with great story-telling skill and plenty of maps, paintings, drawings and the like that make it possible for readers to picture what kinds of people and what kinds of furs made up this trade."

Melanie Lauwers
Cape Cod Times

"Eric Jay Dolin's Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America was a wonderful book. He has now surpassed it. . . . [Fur, Fortune, and Empire is] a detailed, even-handed, utterly compelling history of the fur trade . . . It's magnificent."

Jonathan Wright
Geographical Magazine (UK) - the magazine of the Royal Geographical Society

"meticulous and fascinating"

Carl Hartman
Associated Press

"Offering a new way to look at American history, Eric Jay Dolin explains how the fur trade helped to create the nation . . . It is a compelling story in which the quest for fur profits, not manifest destiny, pushed hunters, would-be moguls, and foreign governments westward. . . . His clean, crisp prose makes this often horrifying narrative utterly fascinating."

Neal Wyatt
Library Journal

"If you enjoy history, factual surprises and a well told read, you'll enjoy settling down with Fur, Fortune, and Empire."

Terry W. Sheely
The Reel News

"Dolin's book should be read by everyone, especially those who care deeply about our nation's history and its valuable natural resources, and the manner in which those resources played (and continue to play) a distinct part in shaping America. . . . Dolin's book is not a 'nice-to-read,' but rather a 'need-to-read.'"

Bob Brunisholz
NJ Federated Sportsmen News

"Break open Eric Jay Dolin's book and prepare to be transfixed by a transcontinental story of exploration, exploitation, trade and converging interests. . . . does a superb job of tracing the intricacies of the American fur trade--and making it comprehensible to a national audience."

John Goff
Salem Gazette

"Dolin offers an entertaining look at 'a cast of characters beyond the scope of a Hollywood epic' and the critical importance of the fur trade in the evolution of the United States."

Editors
Yale Alumni Magazine

"The fur trade drove and shaped American history in surprising ways, as this lively volume by bestselling author Eric Jay Dolin shows. . . . . Those interested in the history of the Northern Wilds should put this book on their must-read lists."

Shelby Gonzalez
Northern Wilds, The Outdoor Newspaper of the North

"A good addition to the library of any student of business, Fur, Fortune, and Empire should be required reading for todays new trappers of energy, genomes, and new media. Such swashbucklers, their pulses racing at the thought of opportunity and profit, need to take a historical chill-pill. Because whether it is yesterdays buffalo hides or todays electrons, the cycle of commodities and markets remains constant."

Robert Nersesian
New York Journal of Books

"The achievement of Fur, Fortune, and Empire is in shining a bright new light on a little critter [the beaver] that cast a very long shadow in the history of the United States."

Sandra Levis
Pittsburgh Quarterly

"The fur trade, a powerful market force, is a lively and intriguing perspective from which to view our evolution. . . . Fur, Fortune, and Empire is, finally, great storytelling, its dramatic arc spanning coast to coast, from Plymouth and our beginnings to the great promise of the West."

Rae Francoeur
GateHouse News Service, syndicated column

"This fine and comprehensive look at the fur industry points out how the trapping and the continuous search for fur helped expand what would eventually become the United States. . . . a great book, filled with names and places of interest 300-400 years ago, and it details an era well never see again."

Dave Richey
Dave Richey Outdoors

"Fascinating book . . . full of interesting stories"

Jeffrey Folks
American Thinker

"A masterful job of reconstructing the grand sweep of the fur trade across the swath of North America that became the United States. . . . well-researched account . . . Dolin moves the story along briskly."

Lee Giguere
Journal Inquirer (CT)

"Terrific"

Jonathan Wright
The Tablet (UK)

"Probably the best extant general history of the American fur trade . . . Academic historians ought to take note."

Ted Binnema
The New England Quarterly

"Dolin provides an excellent and very readable synopsis of key events in American history, from wars to westward expansion, as influenced by the commercial demands for fur. . . . [Fur, Fortune, and Empire] should appeal to a broad readership and prove to be an enjoyable and educational read for anyone interested in the history of our country."

Clay Landry
Idaho Yesterdays

"Eric Jay Dolin offers an exciting saga of ambition, passion, violence, and greed concerning the role that the fur from the sea otter, bison, and beaver played in the history of America. Much of this story remains relatively unknown to even the better of the most qualified historians, as economic history in general is chronically missing in writings in historical accounts of nations founding periods."

John R. Vallely
Historical Novel Society

Introduction

"The Bible and the beaver were the two mainstays of" the Plymouth Colony in its early years. So wrote historian James Truslow Adams in 1921. Given that the Pilgrims were Puritan Separatists who went to America to escape religious persecution, I understood Adams's reference to the Bible. It was central to the Pilgrims' way of life, and its teachings helped them maintain purpose and hope in the face of extremely trying circumstances. But I had no idea why he had thrown beavers into the mix. Intrigued, I read more, and soon the reference to beavers made sense. For more than a decade after their arrival in America, the Pilgrims' main source of income for purchasing supplies and paying off their debts had come from the sale of beaver pelts shipped to London-pelts they obtained by trading with the Indians. Thus, the beaver was critical to the colony's survival. This discovery was a surprise to me. What else didn't I know about the American fur trade? The answer was quite a lot.

The fur trade was a powerful force in shaping the course of American history from the early 1600s through the late 1800s, playing a major role in the settlement and evolution of the colonies, and in the growth of the United States. Millions of animals were killed for their pelts, which were used according to the dictates of fashion-and human vanity. This relentless pursuit of furs left in its wake a dramatic, often tragic tale of clashing cultures, fluctuating fortunes, and bloody wars.

In time, the fur trade determined the course of empire. It spurred the colonization of eastern North America, and the fierce competition to control the region's fur trade pitted European nations against one another, transforming the New World into a battleground and ultimately leading to the expulsion of the Swedes, Dutch, and French from the continent. Disputes over the fur trade were also a factor in causing the American Revolution and the War of 1812, and as the trade spread to the shores of the Pacific, it became a critical force in expanding the United States and establishing its boundaries, especially in the Northwest.

Fur traders and trappers were typically the first white men the Indians had ever seen, and the dynamics of the fur trade dramatically influenced their culture, often for the worse. No less affected was a whole host of North American species, as the trade swept like a lethal wave over the land. Although the traffic in furs never caused the extinction of a species, in a few cases it came mighty close.

Much more than a recounting of economic, military, cultural, and ecological influences, however, the story of the American fur trade boasts a cast beyond the scope of a Hollywood epic (in a sense The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly might be an appropriate title)-at once the honest and the twisted, hedonists and visionaries, Founding Fathers and prodigal sons. And perhaps the most memorable characters of all are the animals that made the fur trade possible, especially the beaver, the sea otter, and the buffalo.

Thousands of books and articles have been written on the American fur trade. In 1902, in his classic 1,029-page The American Fur Trade of the Far West, Hiram Martin Chittenden warned his readers, "In fixing upon a logical order of presenting the subject much embarrassment has been experienced on account of the heterogeneous character of the material to be dealt with. The events have been so diverse, and have borne so little relation to each other, that the task of making a connected narrative has been well-nigh impossible." Whereas Chittenden focused almost exclusively on the Western fur trade in the nineteenth century, the scope of this book is much broader. Nevertheless, I found there to be a clear and compelling narrative. I also discovered that the narrative had a logical ending, for the conservation movement that emerged in the late 1800s and early 1900s coincided with the widespread implementation of the first laws regulating the killing of fur-bearing animals. This book, therefore, does not address the American fur trade as it evolved during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, nor does it cover the current highly charged political and ethical debate over animal rights and the propriety or-many would say-the impropriety of wearing fur. What it does offer is the extraordinary story of the fur trade of old, when the rallying cry was, "Get the furs while they last."

^ top

< back