July 2010

Empire built on beaver pelts

By Eric Jay Dolin
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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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