“The fur trade was a powerful force in shaping the course of American history from the early 1600s through the late 1800s,” Eric Jay Dolin writes in his new comprehensive history Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. “Millions of animals were killed for their pelts, which were used according to the dictates of fashion — and human vanity,” Dolin writes. “This relentless pursuit of furs left in its wake a dramatic, often tragic tale of clashing cultures, fluctuating fortunes, and bloody wars.”
The fur trade spurred imperial power struggles that eventually led to the expulsions of the Swedes, the Dutch, and the French from North America. Dolin’s history of the American fur trade is a workmanlike retelling of those struggles that sits well on the shelf beside Hiram Martin Chittenden’s 1902 two-volume classic The American Fur Trade of the Far West, and The Fur Trade in Colonial New York, 1686-1776, the only attempt to tell the story of the fur trade in New York. The latter volume, written by Thomas Elliot Norton, leaves no room for the Dutch period or the early national period which saw the fur trade drive American expansion west.
Dolin’s Fur Fortune, and Empire, is not as academic as last year’s Rethinking the Fur Trade: Cultures of Exchange in an Atlantic World by Susan Sleeper-Smith. It’s readable, and entertaining, ranging from Europe, following the westward march of the fur frontier across America, and beyond to China. Dolin shows how trappers, White and Indian, set the stage for the American colonialism to follow and pushed several species to the brink of extinction. Among the characters in this history are those who were killed in their millions; beaver, mink, otter, and buffalo.
Eric Jay Dolin’s focus, as it was with his last book Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, is the intersection of American history and natural history. Readers interested in the history of the New York fur trade will find this book enlightening for it’s connection of the state’s fur business with the larger world as the first third deals with the period before the American Revolution, when New York fur merchants and traders were still a dominate factor. Yet, like last year’s Sleeper-Smith book, Dolin’s newest volume is simply outlines the wider ground on which the still necessary volume on the fur trade in New York might be built.
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