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Fur, Fortune, and Empire

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Eric Jay Dolin’s fifth book, Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America, chronicles in workmanlike fashion the story of the American fur trade from the first beavers taken in New England in the early 1600s to the near extermination of sea otters in the Pacific Northwest and buffalo on the Great Plains more than 250 years later. The book concludes at the dawn of the 20th century, when the mass mayhem is largely over. Target animals have been hunted to the point where large-scale harvesting is no longer economically viable, and states across America have begun to enact regulations against furbearers. While this effort was better late than never, the damage was largely done. In the 1850s, as many as 60 million buffalo roamed North America; by 1889, barely 1,000 remained.

This grand extermination was fairly predictable: Local extirpation of species began within decades of the arrival of European Colonists. The bad luck for New England’s Castor canadensis (the beaver) in the early to mid-1600s was that felt hats fashioned from its pelts were all the rage in Europe, where the locals were running out of their own beavers. The species had been extinct in England for a century prior to the Pilgrims’ landing. Dolin writes that by the mid- to late 1600s, “Ironically New England, where the English fur trade had begun, was no longer a factor in the growing competition for furs in eastern North America.”

While mountain men out West would do some of the fur trapping, and the unimaginable slaughter of the buffalo was done almost exclusively by American hunters, a great deal of the fur trapping described in the book was done by native Americans, who grew fond of what pelts could bring them – guns, metal implements, cloth, wampum, and liquor. And the trading was more or less fair while it lasted. But the sad fact was that once the animals were gone from a region, in order to keep acquiring European trade goods, tribes resorted to selling off their lands, making them increasingly less independent and self-sufficient.

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