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Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America Hardcover – Deckle Edge, July 12, 2010
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You may have noticed that some of our books are identified as "deckle edge" in the title. Deckle edge books are bound with pages that are made to resemble handmade paper by applying a frayed texture to the edges. Deckle edge is an ornamental feature designed to set certain titles apart from books with machine-cut pages. See a larger image.
Top Customer Reviews
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.
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).