The fascinating story of the fur trade, full of heroism, greed, violence and political conflict.
Historian Dolin (Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, 2007, etc.) begins with a mild surprise: The pilgrims yearned for religious freedom but financed their voyage by agreeing to work for seven years to pay back, mostly in pelts, their English sponsors. “The Bible and the beaver were the two mainstays of the young colony,” wrote historian James Truslow Adams in The Founding of New England. Later, as settlers moved west, they entered lands well explored by preceding trappers, and America’s first multimillionaire, John Jacob Astor (1763–1848), made his fortune by sweeping up much of the fur trade from coast to coast. The first California rush was not for gold in 1848 but sea otters after 1800, quickly followed by fur seals. Although the American bison provided meat, it was the market for their coats that drove the massive slaughter. Dolin ends his riveting narrative with the last documented hunt for buffalo skins in 1887. While rising conservation movements stimulated the first legal limits on hunting, the author points out that their aim was to preserve the dwindling animals so that the fur trade could continue. Nevertheless, the laws worked, transforming America from a net exporter to an importer of furs.
A delightful history, reminding readers that while noble ideals led to the settling of the United States, the fur trade paid the bills.