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Essay
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Essay
Fur, Love, and Money
How fashion spurred the American empire westward—and drove beavers, sea otters, and bison to the brink of extinction.

Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America
By Eric Jay Dolin (W.W. Norton & Company, 442 pages, $29.95)

It’s hard to pinpoint when animal skins shifted from crude garments to status items, but high-fashion fur existed at least as early as 1337, when England’s King Edward III decreed that only “Prelates, Earls, Barons, Knights and Ladies” could wear the sumptuous hair of dead mammals. It remained in such high demand through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that Europe’s supply of fur-bearing animals was nearly exhausted by the early 1600s.

Then came news from America.

In 1609 the explorer Henry Hudson obtained precious furs from local Indians in exchange for a few cheap beads, knives, and hatchets. Word of Hudson’s good luck sparked the American fur trade, which, historian Eric Jay Dolin writes, “determined the course of empire.”

That’s an ambitious claim, but Dolin backs it up in his new book Fur, Fortune, and Empire, which posits that the fur business was one of the main drivers of American expansion, from the Plymouth Colony to the settling of the American West. It was a factor in the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the American claim on the Pacific Northwest. Fur profits were so central to the Dutch who bought Manhattan that they made the beaver the symbol of the New Netherland region. By establishing travel routes and trading posts in the American West, fur trappers acted as scouts for the settlers who would follow them.

Along the way there were winners (fur magnate John Jacob Astor) and losers (beaver, sea otters, and buffalo). It decimated “a whole host of North American species, as the trade swept like a lethal wave over the land,” writes Dolin. “Although the traffic in furs never caused the extinction of a species, in a few cases it came mighty close.”

In his previous book, Leviathan, Dolin traced the evolution of American whalers from shoreside hunters to global sailors, as each generation was forced to travel farther and farther from Nantucket to find whales. His latest saga follows a similar drain-the-resource arc: When trappers wiped out the beaver in one region, they simply pushed west and exhausted the next. But Fur, Fortune, and Empire is no melancholy affair. The book bursts with colorful characters, venal corporations, and violent confrontations, all presented with sharp-eyed clarity in a narrative that clips right along.

Today’s market (what’s left of it, anyway) is largely driven by mink, fox, and sable sewn into extravagant coats. But for most of American history it was all about beaver and hats. Manufacturers paid top dollar for beaver fur because the animal’s fine hairs were barbed, which made them interlock and form an especially strong and waterproof felt for hats. Beaver-based felt formed the basis of colonial tricorners, top hats, Napoleonic chapeaus—whatever the style of the day dictated.

The earnings produced by the trade were incredible. One early Massachusetts Bay Colony settler sowed 6 shillings’ worth of corn and swapped the resultant crop to local Indians for £327 of beaver—a profit of nearly 1,000 percent. Fur money kept the Pilgrims afloat. “The Bible and the beaver were the two mainstays of the young colony,” historian James Truslow Adams once noted. “The former saved its morale, and the latter paid its bills.” Not that Miles Standish or other pilgrims actually caught any beaver themselves. From the 1620s to the 1820s trapping was left to the Indians, who were eager to exchange pelts for metal pots, utensils, guns, and alcohol. White settlers, hapless at beaver hunting, prospered as pelt brokers.

One of the great pleasures of Eric Jay Dolin’s work in both Leviathan and Fur, Fortune, and Empire comes in discovering centuries-old antecedents of the economic and natural resource issues that we struggle with today. So here we see Charles I, in 1638, passing a consumer protection law requiring beaver hats to be 100 percent beaver, with no inferior rabbit fur allowed—a sort of Stuart Era version of organic certification. And we see the unintended consequence: Demand for beaver, a slow reproducer, spiked, while the market for rabbit, the very icon of fecundity, plummeted.

The robust fur trade quickly ran through its supply of local raw material. So it migrated ever westward, into the Great Lakes region in the late 1700s and across the Rocky Mountains in the 1820s. When the Plains Indians declined to hunt beaver, deeming it beneath their dignity, it opened up career opportunities for mountain men, non-Indian trappers who roamed the West and sold their wares to the likes of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. A pioneer in rapacious capitalism, Astor used monopolistic practices to squeeze every last penny out of the trappers, who were often killed on the job. Wringing costs out of its supply chain worked as well for American Fur as it does today for Wal-Mart. In 1848 Astor died the richest man in America, with a fortune estimated at $20 million to $30 million—well over half a billion dollars today.

A near-simultaneous collapse of supply and demand ended the beaver trade’s golden age. In the 1830s hatters began using silk as a cheap substitute for beaver. Sadly, the switch came too late for most beaver populations. By 1840, the year of the last big Rocky Mountain fur rendezvous, mountain men were muttering about empty traps and the nearly vanished staple. Within a few years the trade routes they had established would become widely used by westward emigrants, who knew them as the Oregon and Santa Fe trails.

Fur, Fortune, and Empire isn’t limited to beaver. Sea otters and buffalo were also devastated by the fur trade, and at blinding speed. Dolin could have included the plumage trade—those damned hats!—but feathers aren’t fur. While the beaver and buffalo are rebounding—it’s the lack of habitat, not fur trappers, that limit them today—the sea otter remains one of the endangered species list’s long-standing residents.

Dolin chooses to end his book at the dawn of the 20th century, when the fur trade moved from economic engine to secondary enterprise, from wild natural resource to farmed product, and from admired symbol of wealth to morally questionable bling. I wish he hadn’t. There might have been a satisfying full-circle ending in seeing fur move from its status as a base natural resource, mined like gold or coal, to its place today as a product that forces us to confront hard questions about the moral rights of animals.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of insights—as well as much reading pleasure—to be had here. One, unfortunately, is the inherent difficulty of stopping or slowing commerce in a high-demand product. You can’t read this book without thinking of contemporary versions of the fur trade—oil exploration, coal mining, illegal drugs. In the absence of any conservation laws, the out-of-control beaver hunt might have been contained had a cheaper, better, and more sustainable raw material been available to hatmakers. For the beaver, silk was the ultimate answer.

The most hopeful insight Dolin offers is this: With hard work and patience, some species can come back. Prodded by the nascent conservation movement, many states began curbing trapping around 1900, and beaver populations have now recovered to healthier levels. Dolin closes Fur, Fortune, and Empire, in fact, with a remarkable sighting: A beaver swimming in the Bronx River in 2007, the first seen in New York City in 200 years. It looked “curiously out of place,” he writes. But as more urban rivers return to health—thanks to the efforts of groups like the Bronx River Alliance—it may one day seem right at home.

Bruce Barcott’s last article for Audubon, “Coast Guard,” ran in the July-August issue.

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EDITORS’ CHOICE

The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Earth
By Charles Wohlforth
Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 417 pages, $25.99

In a sense, the solution is simple: “Put less bad stuff into the ocean, take less good stuff out,” writes Charles Wohlforth. But what would it actually take for us to heed this advice? And is it even in our nature to do so? In his ambitious book, the lifelong Alaskan addresses these questions through stirring stories from his homeland, “a microcosm of the world ecosystem and the people who will decide its fate.” He introduces native communities that once chose potlucks over pillage, and just enough over excess, naturally embodying concepts of conservation centuries before the term was coined. He also details the growth of a contrasting modern American culture where “competition ruled out long-term considerations.” From subjects as far-reaching as political history and philosophy to psychology and animal behavior, Wohlforth offers evidence that humankind still has what it takes to put an end to the “ceaseless repetition of the same fight” and rediscover our cooperative impulses. Forests and fisheries can be preserved; oil spills avoided. While no single person can be blamed for environmental disasters such as the Exxon Valdez, he writes (with insights eerily paralleling recent events in the Gulf of Mexico), healing our relationship with nature must start with individuals. Values can then spread through families and friends, and eventually change a nation. “If you want to save the oceans,” he says, “teach children”—and “organize a potluck dinner.”—Lynne Peeples
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Bottled & Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession With Bottled Water
By Peter H. Gleick
Island Press, 232 pages, $26.95

Mounds of empty plastic bottles—once water-filled, most of which will never degrade—litter our trash cans, their presence typifying our haphazard, lackadaisical attitude toward waste. It’s not our fault, argues Pacific Institute president Peter Gleick, in his new book, Bottled & Sold. Overflowing landfills are a by-product of the war waged by large corporations against tap water, he says. With water sommeliers offering 30 high-end varieties, who wouldn’t surrender to bottled water’s charm? There’s actually more to the story, Gleick argues. For example, bottled water’s energy cost. In 2007 its global production required the equivalent of up to 160 million barrels of oil, and it takes 1,000 times more energy to create than it does to procure, process, treat, and deliver tap water. Gleick makes it clear he’s less than optimistic about our ability to quit this addiction willingly. “It’s possible that we will look back in a few decades at a short-lived bottled water craze and wonder what we were thinking,” he writes. But “we could just as easily look back wistfully at the era of safe, cheap, and reliable tap water as a golden age.”—Michele Wilson
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NATURE BOOKS FOR KIDS

Here There Be Monsters: The Legendary Kraken and the Giant Squid
By HP Newquist, Houghton Mifflin, 80 pages $18 (Ages 9 and up)

Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow meets a harrowing fate when he’s swallowed by the kraken, a polydactyl marine beast in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Though the scene is a whale of a Hollywood tale, the creature has roots in fact. Here There Be Monsters is an enthralling account of two bona fide behemoths that awed mariners (and storytellers) long before the 2006 blockbuster: the giant and colossal squids. Beginning with 15th-century maps that depicted chimeras leaping from the seas, HP Newquist’s enchanting narrative—packed with illustrations, literary excerpts, and photographs—chronicles how the kraken (based on the German word for octopus) evolved in people’s imaginations from the stuff of salty sailors’ nightmares to a mysterious benthic organism sought by curious researchers. Gleaning from carcasses and bits of recovered giant squid, scientists pieced together a picture of an eight-armed, two-tentacled, several-hundred-pound mollusk equipped with a parrotlike beak and suckers on its arms. Its cousin, the colossal squid, is more aggressive and even bigger, its foot-wide eyes the largest in the animal kingdom. Though recent photographs of both squids have enhanced research, Newquist emphasizes that there’s still much to discover about these and other deep-sea dwellers.—Julie Leibach
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