Book Review: Eric Jay Dolin
In his new book, Fur, Fortune, and Empire, Eric Jay Dolin explores how fashion spurred the American empire westward—and drove beavers, sea otters, and bison to the brink of extinction. Bruce Barcott reviews the book in his essay “Fur, Love, and Money” in the latest issue of Audubon.
It’s hard to pinpoint when animal skins shifted from crude garments to status items, but high-fashion fur existed at least as early as 1337, when England’s King Edward III decreed that only “Prelates, Earls, Barons, Knights and Ladies” could wear the sumptuous hair of dead mammals. It remained in such high demand through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that Europe’s supply of fur-bearing animals was nearly exhausted by the early 1600s.
Then came news from America.
In 1609 the explorer Henry Hudson obtained precious furs from local Indians in exchange for a few cheap beads, knives, and hatchets. Word of Hudson’s good luck sparked the American fur trade, which, historian Eric Jay Dolin writes, “determined the course of empire.”
That’s an ambitious claim, but Dolin backs it up in his new book Fur, Fortune, and Empire, which posits that the fur business was one of the main drivers of American expansion, from the Plymouth Colony to the settling of the American West. It was a factor in the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the American claim on the Pacific Northwest. Fur profits were so central to the Dutch who bought Manhattan that they made the beaver the symbol of the New Netherland region. By establishing travel routes and trading posts in the American West, fur trappers acted as scouts for the settlers who would follow them.
Along the way there were winners (fur magnate John Jacob Astor) and losers (beaver, sea otters, and buffalo). It decimated “a whole host of North American species, as the trade swept like a lethal wave over the land,” writes Dolin. “Although the traffic in furs never caused the extinction of a species, in a few cases it came mighty close.”
In his previous book, Leviathan, Dolin traced the evolution of American whalers from shoreside hunters to global sailors, as each generation was forced to travel farther and farther from Nantucket to find whales. His latest saga follows a similar drain-the-resource arc: When trappers wiped out the beaver in one region, they simply pushed west and exhausted the next. But 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.
Today’s market (what’s left of it, anyway) is largely driven by mink, fox, and sable sewn into extravagant coats. But for most of American history it was all about beaver and hats. Manufacturers paid top dollar for beaver fur because the animal’s fine hairs were barbed, which made them interlock and form an especially strong and waterproof felt for hats. Beaver-based felt formed the basis of colonial tricorners, top hats, Napoleonic chapeaus—whatever the style of the day dictated.
The earnings produced by the trade were incredible. One early Massachusetts Bay Colony settler sowed 6 shillings’ worth of corn and swapped the resultant crop to local Indians for £327 of beaver—a profit of nearly 1,000 percent. Fur money kept the Pilgrims afloat. “The Bible and the beaver were the two mainstays of the young colony,” historian James Truslow Adams once noted. “The former saved its morale, and the latter paid its bills.” Not that Miles Standish or other pilgrims actually caught any beaver themselves. From the 1620s to the 1820s trapping was left to the Indians, who were eager to exchange pelts for metal pots, utensils, guns, and alcohol. White settlers, hapless at beaver hunting, prospered as pelt brokers.
One of the great pleasures of Eric Jay Dolin’s 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. So here we see Charles I, in 1638, passing a consumer protection law requiring beaver hats to be 100 percent beaver, with no inferior rabbit fur allowed—a sort of Stuart Era version of organic certification. And we see the unintended consequence: Demand for beaver, a slow reproducer, spiked, while the market for rabbit, the very icon of fecundity, plummeted.
The robust fur trade quickly ran through its supply of local raw material. So it migrated ever westward, into the Great Lakes region in the late 1700s and across the Rocky Mountains in the 1820s. When the Plains Indians declined to hunt beaver, deeming it beneath their dignity, it opened up career opportunities for mountain men, non-Indian trappers who roamed the West and sold their wares to the likes of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. A pioneer in rapacious capitalism, Astor used monopolistic practices to squeeze every last penny out of the trappers, who were often killed on the job. Wringing costs out of its supply chain worked as well for American Fur as it does today for Wal-Mart. In 1848 Astor died the richest man in America, with a fortune estimated at $20 million to $30 million—well over half a billion dollars today.
A near-simultaneous collapse of supply and demand ended the beaver trade’s golden age. In the 1830s hatters began using silk as a cheap substitute for beaver. Sadly, the switch came too late for most beaver populations. By 1840, the year of the last big Rocky Mountain fur rendezvous, mountain men were muttering about empty traps and the nearly vanished staple. Within a few years the trade routes they had established would become widely used by westward emigrants, who knew them as the Oregon and Santa Fe trails.
Fur, Fortune, and Empire isn’t limited to beaver. Sea otters and buffalo were also devastated by the fur trade, and at blinding speed. Dolin could have included the plumage trade—those damned hats!—but feathers aren’t fur. While the beaver and buffalo are rebounding—it’s the lack of habitat, not fur trappers, that limit them today—the sea otter remains one of the endangered species list’s long-standing residents.