Two authors team up for an exhaustive survey of the North American fur trade that focuses on how European explorers and entrepreneurs depended on Native Americans.
For three centuries, the fur trade dominated the New World’s economy as Europeans penetrated the remote corners of North America in search of pelts. But according to the authors, most historical works about this vital industry have portrayed Native Americans as a “hindrance to be managed, overcome and exploited” by Europeans. In this exhaustively researched book, the authors instead show that the fur trade actually “rested in the cradle of Indian culture”; the trade prospered only as it adapted to the lifestyles and traditions of aboriginals. With chapters devoted to different fur-trading regions across the continent, the book describes how white men borrowed freely from the natives, such as using their birch-bark canoes to navigate waterways. In present-day Wyoming, it was Crow Indians who told explorers Jedediah Smith and John H. Weber of “a country with streams so rich in beaver a man did not require traps to take them.” The book vividly documents white men’s interactions with such memorable characters as Chief Kwah of the Carrier tribe in British Columbia, who once held a knife to the throat of a British official who had hanged a Native American murderer. (Kwah’s wife successfully begged for the official’s life.) However, the book could have benefited from a more streamlined narrative, since the level of detail tends to obscure the authors’ theme. Some chapters take the European viewpoint the authors were trying to avoid. More importantly, the book largely overlooks how the fur trade affected Native Americans. The trade opened up North America to the white man but at a terrible price to its indigenous inhabitants. The authors describe how one trader bribed some Indians “with a barrel of whiskey made into two hundred gallons of Blackfoot rum,” but diseases, such as smallpox, that the white men brought with them are only briefly mentioned.
Vividly describes the activities of fur traders but largely overlooks the effect on Native Americans.