Fur, Fortune and Empire

Peter Coates on a new look at fur history

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Reviewed by: Peter Coates
Author: Eric Jay Dolin
Publisher: WW Norton
Price (RRP): £22.99

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Step off the subway at Manhattan’s Astor Place and observe the ceramic plaques. Perched on a stump, a beaver is gnawing at a trunk.

These handsome tiles were included in the station’s original design (1904) as a tribute to a local tycoon John Jacob Astor, America’s richest man, who made his fortune selling beaver pelts. Astor’s rise is just one of many topics in this scrupulously researched popular history of the North American fur trade.

This book’s value does not reside in its insights. The main thesis – the control of colonial North America and the western frontier’s penetration – has been advanced numerous times.

Dolin’s book’s worth lies in the accumulation of unprecedented detail, which piles up like a heap of bison robes at a trading post (though the bison chapter is the weakest, repeating tired clichés about Indians wasting not a single body part and sidestepping the profligacy of the bison ‘jump’ hunting method).

This is resolutely old-fashioned history of the sort academic historians no longer write, larded with tales of adventure.

Though Dolin observes that the beaver, sea otter and bison themselves are “perhaps the most memorable characters,” the reader quickly realises that the motley human crew, including French and Russian fur traders and the ‘mountain men’ of the Rockies, are the wild creatures that really fire his imagination.

He cannot resist a grisly digression. So we are treated to stories of Captain Cook’s demise at the hands of Hawaiians and explorer John Colter’s death-defying escape from Blackfeet Indians.

If you know nothing about the ‘skinning of America’ and want to know almost everything (coverage ends in the late 1800s with wildlife conservation’s advent), this book is for you.

But for eloquence and intimacy with the trade’s epic events and intrepid characters, there’s no substitute for classic 19th-century accounts by Francis Parkman and Washington Irving. 

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Peter Coates is professor of American and environmental history at Bristol University