Eric Jay Dolin, the author of Fur, Fortune and Empire, the Epic History of the Fur Trade in America, sat down with the Frontier Traveler to discuss the impact of the fur trade on the history of America.
FT: After writing Leviathan, did you see a similarity between the plight of the whale and the plight of the beaver?
EJD: Yes, it’s fundamentally the same issue, that of humans seeking to profit from nature, and what happens when there are no restraints whatsoever on human activity. Whale and beaver populations plummeted because there was money to be made, and the way to make it was by killing the animals and rendering from them useful products – useful to humans, that is.
Making money, of course, is a great goal, but the point is that when that is the only goal, and there are many people competing for the same resource with nothing to check or regulate their activities, then almost inevitably the “Tragedy of the Commons” ensues. The good news is that the populations of beaver and many whale species have come back from their historic lows, and are doing fairly well, and in some areas, exceptionally well.
FT: How did you get interested in the fur trade?
EJD: I know the exact moment the idea for this book occurred. It was in the spring of 2007, while I was reading a book about the Founding of New England. The author wrote that “The Bible and the beaver were the two mainstays of” the Plymouth Colony in its early years. I understood the reference to the Bible, but I had no idea why beavers were thrown into the mix.
Intrigued, I read more, and soon the reference to beavers made sense. For more than a decade after their arrival in America, the Pilgrims’ main source of income had come from the sale of beaver pelts. Thus, the beaver was critical to the colony’s survival. This discovery was a surprise to me. What else, I wondered, didn’t I know about the American fur trade?
My curiosity piqued, I went to my local library and started reading about the fur trade. And within a couple of days, I realized that I could use the history of the fur trade to tell the broader and equally fascinating story of how America evolved into a transcontinental nation. I was hooked.
FT: What period in American History relative to the fur trade was the most fascinating?
EJD: Of course, the era of the Mountain Men is the one that most people think about, and it is the one that the most has been written about. It is also an absolutely fascinating period, full of larger than life characters.
Still, the era that fascinated me most was the period before the American Revolution. That is when the fur trade played its most important role in the formation and evolution of the country. And there are plenty of great stories from that era, about people, imperial clashes, and animals. There is a good argument to be made that if it weren’t for the early fur trade in particular, there might not have been a United States, or at least it wouldn’t look anything like the country we have today.
FT: The Frontier Traveler has been to the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska, as well as Ft.Union, North Dakota, Ft. Laramie, Wyoming, and Bents Fort, Colorado. Did you travel to any of these places during your research. If so, what did you think of the places that played a major role in the fur trade in the 19th century?
EJD: I went on a five-week book tour out West that included 6,500 miles of driving, and another 1,500 miles flying. Hit 10 states, from Washington to South Dakota to New Mexico. Gave nearly 30 talks, and visited all the places you mentioned, plus many others (the only exception on your list is Fort Union – I didn’t make it to the Fort, but did give a talk nearby, which was sponsored by the Fort).
Out West people are much more in touch with the history of the fur trade than in the East and it shows in the great variety of historic sites and museums in the region, all of which are great time capsules of American history. The people who run and work at these sites are doing a great service to the nation by keeping our history alive. The West is beautiful, and I hope to visit many times in the future.
FT: Is there one fur trade story that particularly stands out for you?
EJD: Perhaps it is a bit of a cop-out, but no. What I loved the most are the characters. And here is a tantalizing glimpse (at least I hope it is) of some of the more interesting characters you will encounter in the book, and many of the ones that most intrigued me. The following paragraphs are from the introduction to an earlier draft of my book, and they didn’t make it into the final version.
“The story of the American fur trade includes an incredibly diverse and memorable cast of characters, including English explorer Henry Hudson, whose discoveries of fur in the New World led the Dutch to found New Amsterdam; Johann “Big Belly” Printz, the governor of the Swedish fur-trading colony on the Delaware River who couldn’t hold his ground; and “Peg Leg” Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch leader who gave “Big Belly” the heave-ho, but failed to beat back the English.
There is Thomas Morton, the hedonist rabble-rouser, whose free-market and licentious ways gave the Puritans fits; Samuel de Champlain, who fought to ensure New France’s access to furs; Miami Indian chief, “Old Briton,” whose alliance with English fur traders got him killed and eaten by his enemies; and the French coureurs de bois and voyageurs who travelled far and wide in search of pelts.
The wayward and star-crossed American traveler, John Ledyard plays an intriguing role in the story, as does Captain John Smith, Pokanoket sachem Massasoit, Patuxet Indian Squanto, Pilgrim protector Miles Standish, naval hero John Paul Jones, British explorer Captain James Cook, Ottawa chief Pontiac, and various political luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and George Washington, and most important of all, Thomas Jefferson, who dreamed of expanding opportunities for the fur trade, and sent forth Meriwether Lewis and William Clark with their Corps of Discovery, in part, to do just that.
Other notable characters include Robert Gray, whose ship the Columbia became the first American vessel to circumnavigate the globe; the “Boston Men” who followed in Gray’s wake and initiated the incredibly lucrative fur trade between the Pacific Northwest and China; the promyshleniki, vicious Russian hunters who unmercifully drove the Aleuts of Alaska to kill as many sea otters as they could; and John Jewitt, an English lad who signed on to an American fur trading cruise only to survive a bloody massacre off Vancouver Island, become a prisoner in a Yuquot Indian village, and escape with the help of a daring bit of duplicity.
John Jacob Astor, America’s first multimillionaire, owed much of his financial success to the sale of furs, and his failed, disastrous, and blood-drenched effort to establish a fur-trading empire on the banks of the Columbia River became the basis for Astoria, one of Washington Irving’s most popular books.
There are the men of Britain’s Northwest Company and Hudson’s Bay Company, who operated out of Canada and competed with the Americans in the race for furs, and the Taos trappers who helped inaugurate the Santa Fe Trail and roamed throughout the desert southwest hunting for beaver.
The fur trade also gave birth to a generation of mountain men, such as Jedediah Smith, Kit Carson, Joseph Reddeford Walker, and Hugh Glass who sliced their way through the wilderness of the Rockies and beyond, leaving behind a mythic legacy that still resonates today.
Then there are the artists John James Audubon and George Catlin who sadly predicted that the buffalo were being hunted to extinction; the army men, including General William Tecumseh Sherman, who saw the extermination of the buffalo as one means of resolving the “Indian Problem”; and the Plains Indians who contributed to and suffered because of the buffalo’s near demise. And perhaps the most memorable characters of all are the animals that made the fur trade possible, especially the beaver, the sea otter, and the buffalo.
FT: What do you hope readers will come away with after reading your book?
EJD: A big part of the reason I wrote this book is that I am convinced that most people have little idea how important the fur trade was in making the United States what it is today. And it was VERY important. I will admit that a lot of people do know about the Mountain Men, but they were only a relatively small part of the entire story, and I think it is critical for people to understand the entire story.
I believe that if you don’t know the history of the fur trade, you cannot truly understand the history of the United States. I hope that after reading the book, people appreciate the role that the fur trade played, and also that they are a bit shocked and surprised, pleasantly so, by the story the book tells. And, of course, I hope they find the book a great read – it is a popular narrative history, not an academic tome, and my goal was to make it both a fun and informative book.
For more information, visit Eric Jay Dolin’s website. His next book, which has a fur-trade component, will tell the dramatic, exciting, and important story of America’s trade with China from the end of the American Revolution to the end of the Civil War (the so-called Old China Trade), when American ships sailed around Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope on their way to the mysterious Celestial Empire, with cargoes of ginseng, Spanish silver, sandalwood, furs (especially sea otter and seal skins), beche de mer (sea cucumbers), opium, shark fins, cotton fabrics, and many other items, which were traded for silks, porcelain or “China,” nankeens, lacquered boxes, furniture, pearl buttons, silver bowls, various trinkets and works of art, and most importantly, roughly 100,000 tons of tea—the “brew of the immortals.”