Saturday, August 21, 2010

Fur, Fortune and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America, by Eric Jay Dolin

The problem is, I interpreted the title wrong. I thought it was an epic history of the fur trade in America. Yes, I know it says that. But I thought it meant North America. Or at least that it meant the fur trade in parts of North America that later became the United States of America But it really was an epic history of the fur trade in the United States of America with occasional asides about the rest of the fur trade in North America, including parts that later became the United States of America. And, unfortunately, that means that the most fun part of the history of the fur trade in North America was off stage for most of this book.

I knew I was in trouble when it began with the Pilgrims. And while I understand that he was trying to show how the fur trade was an important part of the history of Plymouth Colony, the plain fact of the matter is that Plymouth Colony's fur trade failed fairly quickly (relatively speaking). In fact, most of this book is about the failed history of the American fur trade – at least until old John Jacob Astor decided to buy the entire trade and wipe out the animal population of the west. Which, if you think about it from an environmental perspective, is also a failure.

If you are looking for a thorough history of how the United States and its territorial expansion was affected by the fur trade this is a good place to start. If you are looking for a good history of the North American fur trade, reading this is like wanting to learn about Jazz and starting with a history of Jazz in France. Of necessity a little of the overall history has to be thrown in, but the picture is skewed.

And what is really odd is that the actual mechanics of the trade itself – with the Indians – seem glossed over. I was actually a bit excited that he spent some time talking about the evolution of New Amsterdam because I don’t know as much about New Amsterdam and the Albany trade as I’d like. But then I was disappointed that there wasn’t really much about actual Dutch people trading with actual Indians in it. Just a lot about Dutch people and English and Swedish people fighting over boundaries. The story of the Dutch as they actually traded and their relations with the Five Nations must have been more interesting than as portrayed in this book. Unlike the English in New England, the Dutch were relatively successful in their trade. But they failed as a colony. Reading this book reminded me that history is written by the victors.

And I know the French story was far more interesting than he portrayed it. And although the period I focus on is predominantly the 18th century and not the 19th century, I know that the story of the men involved in John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company was much more interesting than he made it. David Lavender’s biography of Ramsay Crooks, The Fist in the Wilderness, made them come alive for me. I highly recommend that book to anyone who really wants a picture of the trade in the 19th century to see if they are interested in learning more.

The truth is that he tried to put so much into this book that he ended up making it rather dry. The details seem accurate but it tends to plod along. And looking at the footnotes and the bibliography he seems to have relied quite a bit on secondary sources rather than primary sources, which is understandable given the breadth of the topic. But this lacks the spark that quotations from primary sources give.

On the other hand if you need a reference book on the fur trade that goes into a lot of really great detail about the animals being hunted, I think this is an excellent book.