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Fur and Fortune

Author Eric Jay Dolin reveals how we built this city on fur.

American Beaver by John James Audubon

Eric Jay Dolin’s last book, Leviathan, chronicled the whaling industry in America as the forerunner of today’s energy industry. This is becoming Dolin’s niche: following the money to overlooked parts of American history and showing how animals and markets shape one another. His most recent work, Fur, Fortune, and Empire, reveals how the trade in beaver pelts and buffalo robes drove the New World, from the Pilgrims’ landing to the settling of the frontier, with frequent stops in St. Louis. He spoke to SLM by phone from his home in Marblehead, Mass.

St. Louis comes up again and again in Fur, Fortune, and Empire. Even when the beavers have been hunted out of its vicinity, it’s still where much of the profit from the fur trade ends up.

Absolutely, it’s the fulcrum of the fur trade for much of its history, starting in the 1700s with the Spanish and the French before the United States was the United States, and certainly after the American Revolution, when St. Louis became an increasingly important part of the fur trade. Alongside New York it was the center of fur trading activity in the United States. St. Louis had a booming economy for many of those years, and a large percentage of that was financed by fur trading activities—not just bringing the furs back there to be sent off to other locations, but there were people and companies there like the Missouri Fur Company and the American Fur Company and a host of other companies that were established to allow the fur trade to proceed. There were blacksmiths that made the beaver traps, warehouses to store the furs, people that provided the provisions that fur traders and trappers started out their voyages with. The main characters always have a supporting cast of people.

So St. Louis is really built on the fur trade. Why do you think so few people seem to know much about it now?

I can’t speak directly to what modern St. Louisans think, but there is absolutely no doubt that in many if not most of the locations—cities, towns, whatever—in the United States where the fur trade played an important or formative role, many of them have either forgotten about that history, are unaware of it, don’t think it’s important even if they do know about it, or, even if they do know about it, it’s only in the most cursory fashion. That actually gets to the heart of why I wrote the book. As with the fur trade book, the whaling book, and this China book [Dolin’s current project is a history of U.S. trade with China from the end of the American Revolution to the Civil War], they’re very important topics in their own right and they played a significant role in the formation of the country, yet many people who are alive today know very little about these as industries…

After giving a number of talks, a lot of the people I’ve met who are in their 60s have told me that when they were in school they learned a fair amount about the fur trade and today I don’t get the impression that kids learn anything at all about it. I had a fairly good education and I didn’t learn about it… Canada is much more proud of its fur trading past and the kids learn a lot about it… I do think there’s an element of shame [here], and even more than that, because of the current controversy about the use of fur.

There’s a subtle irony in this book when so much of the country seems to be built on trading beads and alcohol to Indians for pelts that are sent to Europe to be made into fancy hats.

And some of them were not even necessarily fancy… It’s a fashion statement. Beaver hats were the ones that people wanted for the same reason that people want certain clothes and brands of shoes today—it just became something that was very desirable. You can see advertisements in old colonial newspapers where people say ‘Somebody stole my beaver hat, two shillings for its return,’ or they’re bequeathing a beaver hat to their heirs. It was the same thing with coats: the reason the sea otter was decimated was because a group of wealthy people in China saw their fur as valuable. When I started reading, especially about the beaver hats and the extent to which they drove imperial decisions early on, I looked at pictures of beaver hats and they didn’t excite me that much. So I was absolutely amazed at how this one gnawing rodent’s under-fur could have spawned and sustained such a widespread industry and employed such a wide number of people.

We don’t seem to think of Lewis & Clark’s expedition as a commercial voyage today, but one of Jefferson’s motives in sending them out was to wrest control of the fur trade from the British, is that right?

Not just to get the fur trade from the British—they were concerned about that, but I would say one of the primary motivations, if not the primary motivation, was to evaluate the potential of taking advantage of the fur trade out west, and also establishing an all-water route to the Pacific in large part because of the hope of expanding the trade with China, and sea otters were a big part of that. If you read a number of documents at the time, Jefferson’s confidential message to Congress and other things, there’s no way you can come to another conclusion. The fur trade was a major object of this expedition. Congress wouldn’t have gone for it and it wouldn’t have been supported if it was solely a fact-finding mission related to science.

Part of the thing about history is that to really understand it sometimes, it’s a little complicated. That’s why the best books about the founding fathers are the ones that have shown them to be all too human and not always too clear about why they were doing things. I don’t agree with the world being black-and-white. I think the world’s very gray.

When Lewis and Clark return, to St. Louis, the news of their trip has one effect nationally and another locally and informally. Tell me about that.

When Lewis and Clark departed, this was big news, but when they returned it was a national celebration—this was like Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic. But information didn’t travel fast. This was a phenomenal event, and people were curious to find out what they had learned, and they didn’t save everything for the official communications. And it wasn’t just Lewis and Clark—remember, they had a whole expedition with them, so you didn’t have to rely just on what Lewis and Clark wanted to tell you. There are these mini-celebrities back in St. Louis and they have a great story to tell. They do what human beings love to do—you love to tell people what you saw—and it would have seemed so amazing and so exciting to get some first-hand information about these Rocky Mountains and these animals out there—the encounters with grizzly bears. It was like someone coming back from the moon, but even more exciting because there was a lot more information. It must have been just a great and exciting and eye-opening moment in history, when the people of St. Louis must have felt they were part of a much larger and more important story than just what was happening in St. Louis.

The fur trade in the New World begins the first time a European trades a piece of cloth for a pelt. How does it end?

I wanted to look at the era when the cry was ‘Get the furs while they last.’ I think there’s a natural break-point with the rise of the conservation movement. It didn’t end the fur trade, but the late 1800s, the early 1900s, see the rise of the fur farms. America started to become on average more an importer than an exporter of furs. The fur trade is still very big in other parts of the world.

And somehow the beaver survives this slaughter, albeit in lesser numbers—by some conservative estimates, from a high of more than 60 million when Europeans came to North America to around 10 million today. Despite our best efforts, we didn’t eradicate it, or the buffalo or the sea otter.

We came pretty darn close. When you only have 1,091 buffalo left and you had 30 million, that’s a close shave. With beaver we did virtually exterminate them as we swept east to west. Now they’re making a comeback. The beavers, of all the animals, are the ones that are actually doing the best as far reestablishing themselves. They all came very close. Sea otters are still doing very poorly on the west coast, and bison, it’s interesting, how do you evaluate whether that’s a success? There are about a half million in North America now but the vast majority of them are on farms where they’re raised to be eaten.

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