Woe be unto the American marketplace. Its raw commodities are exhausted, its markets sullied; it is a land of bad deals, betrayed customers, and unscrupulous operators. . . .
A description of Wall Street? Big Oil? Bad Pharma? No, the fabulous invalid in this case is the humble pelt—the fur of muskrat, otter, buffalo, and other animals that were our nation’s first exports, the mother of all commodities. Starting with the Pilgrims, the Bible and the beaver were the mainstays of our land: the former provided the moral and spiritual underpinnings, the latter commercial opportunity. In the end, fur is the holy grail upon which Americans relied through three centuries of North American expansion.
Eric Jay Dolin’s latest history of American commerce, Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America, takes us from the deck of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon in 1609 to the banks of the Bronx River in 2007, along the way reminding us that little has changed in the business ecosystem.
When man smells an opportunity let all in his way beware. Fur fever ran rampant as soon as the first seventeenth-century settlers stepped onto American shores, and Dolin relates the breaches, ambuscades, and flashing blades drawn over who would control the trade. Native Americans were the primary pelt suppliers; the early English, French, Dutch, and Swedish traders their purveyors of guns and liquor to help dominate and stabilize the market. But it would never happen. Each country instead confronted its chief rival with demands, then warships, cannons, and soldiers. Such was the ferocity of the competition.
Yet the market followed the classic patterns of the commodity chain: from the difficult process of procuring raw material (think wilderness, rivers, and beaver traps), manufacturing coats and hats from the fur (mainly in England at first), to distributing the final product throughout Europe and North America.
As the fur business continued to evolve, regulation made its way into the fray. By 1793, President Washington, tired of fur traders’ tactics with Indians, created government-run posts at which business would be conducted “without fraud, without extortion”—the earliest example of Federal social welfare legislation.
Familiar characters from our national cast list appear in Fur: John Smith, Miles Standish, Thomas Jefferson, Jim Bridger, Teddy Roosevelt, and others. The central hero, however, is the unassuming beaver—industrious, indefatigable, nature’s water engineer. When explorers first entered the continent, it was likely the most widespread mammal on the continent. Hunters and businessmen changed that, killing millions upon millions of the animals, demonstrating once again the human paradox of extinction for profit.
But there is redemption. New laws in the early twentieth century sought to redress the balance, creating the National Wildlife Refuge System, setting aside the first national forests, and passing state and federal laws designed to protect game animals.
The result? Dolin tells us that as recently as three years ago, swimming in one of New York City’s tributaries was a large brown furry animal seemingly out of place. Promptly christened “José,” the intrepid beaver calmly gathered wood to build its lodge—just another urban developer trying to find his way.
Dolin, whose previous book, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, dealt with the sea’s biggest (in every way) commodity, owes much to the 1902 classic by Hiram Chittendon, The American Fur Trade of the Far West. As a historian, he enters an arena full of writers gifted in both research and narrative—the McCulloughs and Kearns Goodwins of the world—who have helped create a golden age of historical writing. Though scrupulous in his presentation, Dolin sometimes forces readers to connect the dots themselves and seek out the meta-drama that our best and most accessible historians provide.
Also, he occasionally relegates the fur trade to a tab in recitations of already-familiar periods in our history such as the American Revolution and the Lewis & Clark expedition. And though the great baron of pelts, John Jacob Astor, gets his due, the reader would be wise to seek out one of several decent biographies of our first business magnate. Nevertheless, Dolin wisely ends his history with the birth of American conservation, leaving the rest of century and the animal rights movement to others.
A good addition to the library of any student of business, Fur, Fortune, and Empire should be required reading for today’s new trappers of energy, genomes, and new media. Such swashbucklers, their pulses racing at the thought of opportunity and profit, need to take a historical chill-pill. Because whether it is yesterday’s buffalo hides or today’s electrons, the cycle of commodities and markets remains constant.