By Kirk Davis Swinehart
Sunday, September 26, 2010; B07
FUR, FORTUNE, AND EMPIRE
The Epic History of the
Fur Trade in America
By Eric Jay Dolin
Norton. 442 pp. $29.95
Even among historians of colonial America -- who should know and care about such things -- the fur trade tends to elicit groans of boredom. The subject is so blandly ubiquitous that it seems to demand little explanation even as it remains, at heart, a confounding mystery to anyone but the most narrowly focused specialists. Like the transatlantic slave trade, the fur trade exists more as a nebulous concept than as a richly complex industry populated by some of the most colorful and nefarious personalities in world history. And that's because it is rendered unrecognizable by its powerful association with a primitive, far-distant past.
Yet the fur trade remains very much alive: a multi-billion-dollar global business with discernible ties to its earlier incarnation. In "Fur, Fortune, and Empire," Eric Jay 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. Dolin concerns himself primarily with the trade's North American theater between the 17th and late 19th centuries, from European colonization to post-Revolutionary America's colonization of its own Western interior. But he keeps a close eye on the wider world, too. 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 trade in recent memory, a crisply written tale unburdened by excessive detail or homespun provincialism.
One of the great virtues of "Fur, Fortune, and Empire" is its emphasis on continuity. The American trade ebbed and flowed over its first 150 years, often dramatically. But contrary to what historians of the trade's earliest days suggest, the storied American pursuit of fur didn't cease with Britain's disruptive wartime invasion of the rebelling colonies or even with the near extinction of certain fur-bearing animals in the Northeastern colonies. If anything, the trade expanded and flourished as never before in the wake of decolonization -- when American traders were forced to seek pelts well beyond familiar shores. The craze for furs inaugurated by Henry Hudson's abortive search for the Northwest Passage, in 1609, had waned for numerous reasons by the time George Washington assumed office nearly 200 years later. But it came vigorously to life again in the Pacific Northwest, when Americans eventually learned of Capt. James Cook's lucrative trade in sea otter skins.
The colonists were probably too busy fighting Britain in the late 1770s to follow Cook's machinations in the Pacific, much less in Canton, where his sea otter pelts fetched unheard-of sums. Although word of Cook's success in China ultimately "sparked one of the biggest rushes of the American fur trade," the man's place in the history of the American trade is easily overlooked. After all, he wasn't American.
Dolin claims too much when he says, "In time, the fur trade determined the course of empire" and "spurred the colonization of eastern North America." Imperial policy and colonial settlement never hewed to a starkly economic course. What about those elaborate Elizabethan schemes for the transplant of social undesirables, or those starry-eyed French Jesuits angling for martyrdom? Yet there is no disputing the fur trade's deep implication in the clash of empires that embroiled the continent in vicious warfare throughout the colonial period and in the tumultuous wake of independence. The Netherlands, England, France, Sweden and Russia all engaged in the 250-year contest for domination of North America and control of its natural resources. Dolin's cast is suitably polyglot -- a welcome reminder that ethnic discord among traders ran deeper than animosity between Indians and whites.
If any theme dominates, it's violence. As supermodel Naomi Campbell has surely learned from her blood-diamond imbroglio, the Earth's bounty isn't always as unspoiled as it appears. No doubt Campbell would take little consolation in the knowledge that she's hardly the first person to divest a natural wonder of its weight in human misery. But from Dolin's book she might acquire a deeper understanding of why her critics have judged her so harshly.
To be sure, the international legal uproar over blood diamonds owes at least part of its intensity to the 20th-century conservationist movement that grew up in opposition to fur. Like Campbell's lovely stones, America's precious beaver, sea otter and buffalo pelts drew people across the globe into sinister relationships with the natural environment. They, too, enriched and adorned people separated by thousands of miles from a world of hurt.
Kirk Davis Swinehart teaches history at Wesleyan University. He is at work on a book about a family undone by the American Revolution.