- Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America
The development of the fur trade in North America between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries is fragmentary. It often takes a supporting role in books about other people and events. Given that the fur trade dominated the world’s economy in this period, such oversight is remarkable.
Eric Jay Dolin attempts a corrective with his sweeping narrative that moves, as Euro-American settlement did, across the continent during two hundred years of social and cultural conflict and compromise between Europeans and Americans, on one hand, and Native Americans, on the other. Dolin’s work mostly achieves his goal of tying together the various eras spanned by the fur trade. But he unfortunately de-emphasizes the social history of the fur trade—the ways in which every trapper and trader found themselves intertwined. Both the positive and negative effects on his story are achieved by constructing his narrative in a general reader’s vocabulary largely void of academic theory or syntax. For some, that will be a blessing. Others will find Dolin’s lack of academic rigor detrimental to the story he works to tell.
Dolin organizes his story in three sections. The first recounts the ways in which early European explorers and settlers came to realize the abundance of fur-bearing creatures in North America and how they began the resulting lust for profits that fueled Europeans’ and, later, Americans’ desires for conquest of animals and people. He refers to the historian James Truslow Adams’s observation that “the Bible and the beaver” sustained Plymouth colony right from its beginning (p. xv). The early Separatists knew of furs’ value in Europe. And they came to know the local natives quickly because their voyage to America had been poorly provisioned. But, Dolin argues, Henry Hudson and other early explorers had set the market for furs some years before, having traded and fought Indians for the valuable commodity. Indeed, furs had come, by Hudson’s time, to create “a symbolic divide between [End Page 699] nobility and commoner” (p. 6). Dolin argues that Hudson’s voyage in 1609 cemented the Dutch resolve to colonize the Hudson River valley where the Dutch could trade goods they considered trifles for the valuable pelts of animals ranging from beaver to squirrel.
But, Dolin correctly emphasizes the beaver in the early years of the fur trade, noting its ubiquity in eastern North America. The French had beaten the Dutch and the English to the fur trade, and had established relationships with natives along the St. Lawrence River. And the competition for pelts came just at the moment that the beaver hat became the vogue all across Europe. Indeed, the beaver would be “the most sought-after commodity of the fur trade” for more than two hundred years—the exact extent of Dolin’s reach (p. 13). And the Dutch, in Dolin’s hands, eventually dominated the trade. The Netherlands formed the New Netherland Company, providing it with a monopoly in the Hudson valley, and later the Dutch West India Company designed to make war on Spain and fund the effort with furs from North America.
Dolin’s second section recognizes the seventeenth century’s imperial confrontations—both international and internecine—precipitated by the value of furs. He charts the first efforts to take the trade inland to include more animals and more natives, usually crediting the Dutch with early successes along the Connecticut River while making colonists in early Swedish settlements central to the trade’s development. He recognizes the rise of credit that leads to early dispossession of natives’ lands when natives were accused of defaulting on their loans. The Dutch dominance, Dolin argues, came to an end as the Dutch colony of New Netherlands was conquered by the English in 1664, providing the English an entrée to the trade they had not enjoyed previously.
Enter the French. Dolin characterizes the early French efforts as...