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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 5-stars for effort, 3 for writing
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,...
Published on August 21, 2010 by Enjolras

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Good Primer
Eric Dolan is a very good writer who tends to focus on one of my favorite themes: The economics behind the exploration of North America. If you are new to the story of the early Canadian and American fur trade you will find this a quite exceptional starter for further study of this amazing driver of the exploration of the North American continent. Even if you know quite a...
Published on March 18, 2011 by Michael E. Fitzgerald


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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 5-stars for effort, 3 for writing, August 21, 2010
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This review is from: Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America (Hardcover)
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, Fur, Fortune, and Empire is worth reading.

Now the bad. At times when reading Fur, Fortune, and Empire, I felt almost like I was reading a World Bank report. It is brimming with the traditional elements of history: "names, dates, and places," dryly recited. However, there's no exciting characters, little analysis, and at times just becomes just a forgettable collection of anecdotes. I've read many, many academic history books, many much longer than this book's 300 photos, but the best books have one central theme or argument and stick with it. By contrast, Fur, Fortune, and Empire could really have benefitted from an timeline and/or a conclusion that outline the key points of the fur trade (such as when and why certain developments took place). Much of this is in the book, but it's hidden in between all of the anecdotes. Some other way of highlighting important developments would have given Dolin's work more of an impact - a memorable takeaway because, let's face it, I don't have a photographic memory and probably won't remember most of the anecdotes in the book a year from now.

Overall, Fur, Fortune, and Empire will probably be a difficult read, but is packed with anecdotes. If you frequently read histories of early America, this would be a worthwhile addition to your list (or, if you liked Leviathan, you'll probably love this book). But I wouldn't recommend the book to general audiences - the narrative is simply too dry, too much a collection of trivia to excite most readers. I suspect the book's greatest appeal will be for professional historians who focus on early America or natural resource consumption. For general audiences, I'd give the book 3.75 stars.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Soft Gold, July 19, 2010
This review is from: Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America (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. For the history buff, there are about 980 footnotes, fascinatingly amplifying interesting points and/or putting them into context with other contemporary events. Bottom line: read this book to know more about an under-appreciated part of American history. Recalling the saying: the business of America is business, the fur trade was a primary early American business (making John Jacob Astor America's first milionaire).
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16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Bible and the Beaver, July 6, 2010
By 
Gerard D. Launay (Berkeley, California) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America (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 America...eg. 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. Thomas Jefferson's desire to push his country westward was ignited by the hope of making the country rich off the lucrative fur trade and to beat the French, the English, and the Spanish to control all the land west of the Mississippi. To that end, he compromised his own constitutional scruples in order to acquire the "Louisiana Purchase." (It certainly was not tobacco - after all - that he expected from the new territories). Jefferson engaged Lewis and Clark to study the lands for scientific AND commercial reasons and to mislead the Indians to believe that the United States had only "innocent" objectives in going through the native lands. The story continues. Canada and America raced to own the rich furs of the West. Obviously, the United States beat them to the punch. John Jacob Astor formed the lucrative American Fur Company and later Mountain Men continued shooting animals, even zealously killing the bears that they encountered. Southwestern trappers invaded the Mexican territories; lands that once belonged to Spain ultimately became part of the growing West.

The book ends on a note of qualified optimism. Some of the magnificent fur animals are returning, but only as a wisp of their former strength. New York City saw its first beaver in two hundred years. In conclusion, I would recommend the book highly to everyone interested in ecology, economic history of the United States, American Myth, and the interplay of all these factors.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Good Primer, March 18, 2011
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This review is from: Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America (Hardcover)
Eric Dolan is a very good writer who tends to focus on one of my favorite themes: The economics behind the exploration of North America. If you are new to the story of the early Canadian and American fur trade you will find this a quite exceptional starter for further study of this amazing driver of the exploration of the North American continent. Even if you know quite a bit about the fur trade during the early days of our country, there are nuggets here, like fur trading along the eastern seaboard by the Dutch and Puritans or the later sea otter trade in the Pacific Northwest from the 1780 - 1810 by the Boston merchants, that really shine. Dolan has really done his homework on these segments.

Overall, however, if you are already well versed, and the literature is quite encyclopedic, generically speaking there is not much here that is new. But Dolan really does provide a very good jumping off point if you are new to this fascinating subject and his literary style is excellent.

This is a very enjoyable read.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoroughly enjoyable window into America's past, that leaves you wanting more., August 2, 2010
This review is from: Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America (Hardcover)
Fur, Fortune, and Empire is rich in fascinating detail, broad in scope, and very well written. I read the book quickly, because I wanted to find out what happened next, get to know another amazing person, and learn American history through a new perspective. I think what makes Dolin's history writing engaging is the compelling diverse narrative about places, people, events, markets, geography, and ecology. I look forward to reading it again in the future!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Story, Well-Written, October 14, 2013
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I've read three of Eric Jay Dolin's books, and I've enjoyed each one, but this one, for some reason, is my favorite. I suppose that I am predisposed to enjoy books like this, as I especially like reading and learning more about the earlier days of our economy, and the people who were a part of it. I've always been somewhat interested in the fur trade, and my appetite was already whetted by reading a biography of John Jacob Astor when I picked up this book. It grabbed my interest right away and I had a great time reading it. He does an excellent job of laying out the mechanics and personalities of the fur trade without making it boring, in fact I would say that this book is highly readable. I enjoyed this book from beginning to end, and even learned a few things in the process.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A sweeping work of history that showcases the vital role the fur trade played in the colonization and expansion of the United St, September 17, 2011
Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America is a sweeping work of history that showcases the vital role the fur trade played in the colonization and expansion of the United States. Most of us think of Canada or perhaps the north woods of Maine or Minnesota when we think of furs. Few realize that the fur trade was a key factor in the survival of the Pilgrims and Puritans of Massachusetts, the Dutch in New York, and of the early settlers of the Mid-Atlantic States. The Puritans in particular were so assiduous in their pursuance of the fur trade that for a time all Europeans were referred to as "Boston Men" by their Native American trading partners.

Eric Jay Dolin relates many of the familiar horrors and injustices of our relations with the native inhabitants, including the introduction of diseases, firearms, and alcohol. But he also sheds light on many little known facts that give a far more nuanced picture of the intercourse between two vastly different cultures. It's now taken as an article of faith that European settlers cheated the Indians out of vast wealth by trading trinkets for valuable furs. But iron fishhooks, pots, and tools were of immense value to members of a Stone Age culture, especially when all they needed to provide in exchange were pelts from a seemingly limitless supply. As for wampum and beads, they were a medium of exchange for the Indians of no less intrinsic value as gold was to the settlers, and therefore seemingly a bargain when traded for surplus pelts.

This book demonstrates how the Native American culture grew to be dependent on European trading goods, and was transformed accordingly. The common perception of Indians living in harmony with nature before the advent of the white man was perhaps true. But it's also true that the near extermination of many North American fur bearing animals, with the exception of the buffalo, was accomplished primarily by Indians in pursuit of trade goods. The slaughter was initiated at the behest of the settlers to be sure, but it was perpetrated primarily by Indians. It wasn't until the widespread use of the leg hold trap allowed western mountain men the option of easily killing their own prey that this equation started to substantially change.

The author recounts an anecdote that illustrates just how destructive alcohol was to the Native American culture. Indian women learned from experience to hide all weapons of any kind from their men on the eve of a trading conference with the settlers. If the men received alcohol as compensation for furs, they would often drink until fighting broke out. This would frequently prove serious or fatal if weapons were at hand. Perhaps there is a history lesson here as our society debates "open carry" legislation allowing firearms into bars and restaurants.

The early exploration of the west was primarily driven by the quest for furs. Gold, silver, and farmland were later factors that attracted succeeding waves of settlers to the west. But it was the beaver's misfortune that their pelts were perfect for the making of felt hats, then in high fashion in Europe, and they are what attracted the earliest inhabitants. The eastern beaver was nearly extirpated by now, so after the Louisiana Purchase the western beaver drew the mountain men who in turn discovered the passes and trails that enabled subsequent settlers to reach the coast. And it was the fabulous wealth to be gained by trading the sea otter and seal pelts to Asia that enticed many of the early sailors to the Pacific Coast. They charted the coastline and out competed the British, Spanish, and Russians for control of the fur trade, nearly wiping the sea otter off the face of the earth in the process.

The final depressing chapter of the monumental environmental disaster known as the North American fur trade involved the near extinction of millions of buffalo for their fur, for sport, and as a means to deny sustenance to the remaining Indians still at war with the white man. The size of the herds and the animals themselves, the numbers of so many wanton participants, and the vast wastage of so much potential food left to rot on the prairie, all contribute to a bleak commentary on human nature and our seeming inability to control our quest for wealth.

The fur trade illustrates the folly of unregulated market capitalism operating in the realm of renewable resources. The rallying cry of the American fur trade during the "Age of Extermination" was "Get the furs while they last." This led to fabulous wealth for a few, like John Jacob Astor, and limited wealth for a limited time for relatively few more. In the end it led to extinction of the animals and therefore the trade. A properly managed fur trade that harvested a percentage of animals each year would have insured a steady livelihood and limited wealth in perpetuity, and protected the many species that were threatened or extinguished. This principle was demonstrated by Canadian fur trappers during the same time frame. The Canadians would trap a stream for a season and then move on to a different stream for two years before coming back. This insured a constant renewal of animal population and consequently a never ending source of revenue. It now appears that humanity is on the brink of repeating our fur trade disasters with ocean overfishing. The earlier decimation of whales, the recent collapse of our cod fisheries, and the impending Bluefin tuna crisis seem to indicate that we are forever condemned to repeat the mistakes of history. Farmed shrimp and salmon will play the same role that farmed mink play in the modern fur industry due to the fact that they will have almost disappeared from the wild.

Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America is a fascinating, informative, and well written history. It should be read by anyone interested in exploration, colonialism, the history of New England, the expansion of the west, capitalism, environmentalism, or American History in general. If you are like me you will learn a lot about a topic you may have thought you already knew. And you will be entertained while you are informed, which doesn't get much better for the general reader.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Return of the Beaver, June 20, 2011
Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America
Fur, Fortune and Empire
Ţ By Eric Jay Dolin

Recently, conservation workers in the New York City borough of The Bronx discovered a beaver dam under construction, and snapped photos of the beaver. This was the first documented sighting of a beaver in New York City in 200 years. Once prevalent in the Hudson River Valley, and later only in rural parts of Westchester County, the beaver all but disappeared in the 19th Century. It was hunted nearly to extinction because of demand for its warm, thick fur and other by- products used in the manufacture of perfume and medicine. A natural engineer, the beaver uses its constantly growing and self-sharpening teeth to harvest timber for dam building. From the security of his lodge, the beaver and his family can survey his handiwork.

The beaver is one of several fascinating, fur-bearing mammals featured in Eric Jay Dolin¡¦s ¡§Fur, Fortune and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America.¡¨ As Dolin points out, man is among the least-hirsute of mammals, and since prehistoric times has dressed himself in the fur and hide of other animals.
Although he was educated in environmental policy and holds a PhD, Dolin hasn¡¦t written a moralistic tract against harvesting animals. It is a thorough study of how the fur trade shaped North America through wars among the French, British, Dutch, Swedes, Russians and others.

As the nation expanded westward, other sources of meat and hide appeared in the form of the buffalo. The Transcontinental Railroad split the buffalo into two herds. Professional hunters and "sportsmen" who fired at the animals from moving trains further depleted the species, until by the end of the 19th century it was virtually extinct.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars FOLLOW THE MONEY, March 16, 2011
This review is from: Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America (Hardcover)
This recently published history does exactly that. In 1830 at the peak of the fur trade, pimarily beaver, the trade amounted to two percent of U.S. exports but do not underestimate the impact that beaver pelts had on settling the continent. As the Hudson Bay Company was aware, wherever trappers went settlers followed. This work is full of rich detail beginning in 1600 and encompasses New Amsterdam on the Hudson River, the Hudson Bay Company, Jamestown, Plymouth, the French and Indian War, War of 1812, Lewis and Clark, Jedediah Smith and one or two thousand other mountain men, the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, and most famously John Jacob Astor, the first ultra rich American. Astor had the wisdom to exit the trade in 1844 and concentrate on real estate investments. His ultimate regret was that he did not buy the entire island of Manhattan.

Five Stars to Eric Dolin's bottom up history.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fur, Fortune & Empire, October 21, 2010
This review is from: Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America (Hardcover)
Eric Jay Dolin shines a bright spotlight on a topic that heretofore was either overlooked or politically shunned by history teachers and professors regarding the fur trade and the significant role it played in the development of early America. Dolin grabs the reader by the hand and takes him/her for a deeply detailed look at the role of the pilgrims and their motivation for making a rather perilous crossing to come to a new land of which they knew little or nothing. Though that motivation was often to escape religious persecution, it certainly wasn't the only reason.
In what Dolin describes as "land patents," which is really nothing more than land offered by the colonizing countries in exchange for goods, the author's exhaustive research shows that pilgrims were seeking commercial rewards just as much as they were trying to escape religious intolerance, and a major proportion of those goods were furs. Dolin dug deep into revelatory details and offers historical accounts of how the fur trade eventually shaped and defined what was to become the the United States of America.
Dolin's book is not a "nice-to-read," but rather a "need-to-read" for anyone interested in an accurate accounting of early American history and how the fur trade was "the most highly developed enterprise in New England" by the pilgrims.
Fur, Fortune & Empire is a "must" read for history buffs and anyone interested in how our natural resources helped shape this nation.
Robert Brunisholz, columnist for the New Jersey Sportsmen's Federation newspaper and contributor to the outdoor section of the Reading Eagle (Pennsylvania) newspaper.
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Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America
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