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Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America Paperback – July 5, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Who'd think you could write a history of the U.S. centered on three centuries of the trade in furs? Dolin has done so in this spirited tale, although you won't find presidents, treaties, and wars. Instead, the main characters are the Indians, Dutch, French, British, Russians, and Americans who sought wealth and a living in the pelts of fur-bearing animals--beavers especially, but also sea otters, fur seals, and buffalo. Beneath this absorbing story lies the relentless drive (a "lethal wave" in Dolin's words) across the continent. In Dolin's telling, westward expansion wasn't fueled by "manifest destiny" or the thirst for empire but by the chase after animals. People as varied as Peter Stuyvesant, John Jacob Astor, Kit Carson, and the roughhewn "mountain men" play their parts over lands as dispersed as New England and Oregon. By the time animals are driven to near-extinction in the late 19th century, the U.S. is filled in. Neither would have happened without the other. Dolin, author of the acclaimed Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, offers another good history well told. 16 pages of color and 16 pages of b&w illus.; map.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

A hirsute history of American westward expansion, Dolin’s capacious narrative of hunting and marketing furs partakes of the subject’s vivid adventure and tragedy. Replete with mountain men, middlemen, and Indian tribes, the author’s chronology extends from the Pilgrims’ economic salvation on the back of the beaver to the near extermination of the bison in the late 1800s. As Dolin’s introduction suggests, movielike characters populate frontier history and make its fur-hunting aspect a popular dramatic subject. But strictly dealing with the historical, Dolin synthesizes its abounding bibliography into an engaging and perceptive survey that accents men who plunged into the woods with rifle, trap, and wampum. Their relations with Indian tribes are central here, as exchanges of pelts for guns, alcohol, and more became the cultural interface between the indigenous peoples and the Dutch, English, French, and Americans. Including many incidents of amicable and hostile encounters, Dolin underlines the economic drivers that propelled the trade from the Atlantic to the Pacific. A hearty style of history, Dolin’s work is a great gateway into American history. --Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (July 5, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780393340020
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393340020
  • ASIN: 0393340023
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #453,241 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I grew up near the coasts of New York and Connecticut, and since an early age I was fascinated by the natural world, especially the ocean. I spent many days wandering the beaches on the edge of Long Island Sound and the Atlantic, collecting seashells and exploring tidepools. Throughout my career, which included jobs as an environmental consultant and an environmental policy analyst, one thing remained constant--I enjoyed writing and telling stories, many of which have a connection to the natural world. And that's why I started writing books--to share the stories that I find most intriguing.

My most recent book, WHEN AMERICA FIRST MET CHINA: AN EXOTIC TALE OF TEA, DRUGS, AND MONEY IN THE AGE OF SAIL (Liveright, 2012), was the winner for history, in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards; received a Gold Medal, History, in the Independent Publisher Book Awards; and was chosen as a Highly Recommended Book by the Boston Authors Club, and as a finalist for the New England Society Book Award. My last book, FUR, FORTUNE, AND EMPIRE: THE EPIC HISTORY OF THE FUR TRADE IN AMERICA (W. W. Norton, 2010), a national bestseller, was chosen by New West, The Seattle Times, and The Rocky Mountain Land Library as one of the top non-fiction books of 2010. It also won the 2011 James P. Hanlan Book Award, given by the New England Historical Association, and was awarded first place in the Outdoor Writers Association of America, Excellence in Craft Contest. The book before that, LEVIATHAN: THE HISTORY OF WHALING IN AMERICA (W. W. Norton, 2007), was selected as one of the best nonfiction books of 2007 by The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and The Providence Journal. LEVIATHAN was also chosen by's editors as one of the 10 best history books of 2007. LEVIATHAN garnered the the 23rd annual (2007) L. Byrne Waterman Award, given by the New Bedford Whaling Museum, for outstanding contributions to whaling research and history. LEVIATHAN also received the 2007 John Lyman Award for U. S. Maritime History, given by the North American Society for Oceanic History, was named an Honors Book in nonfiction for the 8th annual Massachusetts Book Awards (2008-2009), and was awarded a silver medal for history in the Independent Publisher Book Awards (2008).

My next book, coming out in April 2016, is BRILLIANT BEACONS: A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN LIGHTHOUSE.

If you want to learn more about my books, please visit my website,, or my author facebook page at Eric Jay Dolin. Thanks for reading.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Enjolras TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 21, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Eric Jay Dolin, author of Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, now explores the history of the American fur trade in Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. I'll be honest, I wasn't crazy about Leviathan - it had an amazing amount of detail, but I felt it was more a collection of anecdotes than a historical analysis. Fur, Fortune, and Empire suffers from similar defects, but also has a more focused narrative. I felt like the book was a typical freshman college report - an A for the amount of effort and research, but a B for the depth of analysis and writing.

First, the book: Fur, Fortune, and Empire follows some of the pivotal events of the American fur trade. While the book claims to cover the period from 1550-1900, in reality it focuses on the early 1600s and early 1800s. Dolin argues that the fur trade was integral to American history, leading to the founding of cities like Springfield, MA (my dad's hometown) and encouraging British settlers to expand into Dutch and French territory. I think Dolin is right about this and makes a good case for the importance of the fur trade in U.S. history. For that alone,
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By E. B. Belason on July 19, 2010
Format: Hardcover
SOFT GOLD. Today furs are often regarded as politically incorrect, and the only mention of beavers is the occasional local newspaper article re the nuisance of a dam to someone's property. However for over 250 years in North America, from the late 1500s to circa 1840, the beaver was a valuable commodity (main market: top hats for European gentlemen), often referred to as "soft gold". Dolin's aptly-titled book persuasively traces the driving force of acquisition of beaver and other furs on U.S. history, from the huge influence on the first colonies of the French (indeed, the fur trade was the primary motivation); British (beaver fur was the Pilgrims' first cash crop); and Dutch. But the influence didn't cease with the colonies. The fur trade also was a major factor in the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812 (and vice-versa--i.e. laws etc. were passed because of the fur trade), and in general drove westward transcontinental expansion.

But there were many other influences. One was that the fur trade was probably the largest factor in defining the final U.S.-Canadian border. Two examples: The border through the middle of 4 of the Great Lakes preserved the (canoe) transport route of furs from the interior of Canada to Montreal; the wagon trains led to the Oregon Territory by the (ex) mountain men swung the balance of power in this co-occupied(U.S. and British)region to the U.S., bringing to the U.S. the land west of the continental divide, north of the Columbia river, and below the 49th parallel (the current state of Washington, the Idaho panhandle, and western Montana).

Dolin has scoured hundreds of sources, summarizing key information in a compelling succinct narrative for the general reader.
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18 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Gerard D. Launay on July 6, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This book simply had to be written...and it is a surprise that it took so long. Different authors have attempted to write about the influence of a commercial product in the making of rum, but the argument in favor of the beaver, the otter, and later the Buffalo really makes sense. The author tracks the story from early European penetration of the New World to the end of the 19th century when the herds of buffalo were nearly all killed off and the animal rights movement was born. My title for this review comes from the story of the Pilgrims who were almost as interested in the "beaver" for making a living as they were in the "Bible" for choosing how to make life meaningful. But, as the author explains, New England exhausted its fur trade even before the end of the 1600's by excessive trapping. This caused the Native Americans to trade what they had left...their land. A sorry experience for native peoples.

I was pleased with the author's selection of pictures to illustrate the book. The picture that inflamed my humanity was a Harper's Weekly drawing of 1874 which depicted a lone buffalo giving up its skin to a hunter, saying - "Don't shoot, my good fellow! Here, take my 'robe', save your ammunition, and let me go in peace."

The French and Indian Wars (which pre-dated the American Revolution and generated the need for the British Empire to tax the colonists) was fought primarily to control the fur trade. To stir up revolutionary passions, Benjamin Franklin argued to the colonists that this was a conflict between the British and the French, not a conflict involving the Americans.
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