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Fur, Fortune, and Empire

The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America

Eric Jay Dolin (Author)

Overview | Formats

A Seattle Times selection for one of Best Non-Fiction Books of 2010
Winner of the New England Historial Association's 2010 James P. Hanlan Award
Winner of the Outdoor Writers Association of America 2011 Excellence in Craft Award, Book Division, First Place

"A compelling and well-annotated tale of greed, slaughter and geopolitics." —Los Angeles Times

From the best-selling author of Leviathan comes this sweeping narrative of one of America's most historically rich industries.

As Henry Hudson sailed up the broad river that would one day bear his name, he grew concerned that his Dutch patrons would be disappointed in his failure to find the fabled route to the Orient. What became immediately apparent, however, from the Indians clad in deer skins and "good furs" was that Hudson had discovered something just as tantalizing.

The news of Hudson's 1609 voyage to America ignited a fierce competition to lay claim to this uncharted continent, teeming with untapped natural resources.  The result was the creation of an American fur trade, which fostered economic rivalries and fueled wars among the European powers, and later between the United States and Great Britain, as North America became a battleground for colonization and imperial aspirations.

In Fur, Fortune, and Empire, best-selling author Eric Jay Dolin chronicles the rise and fall of the fur trade of old, when the rallying cry was "get the furs while they last." Beavers, sea otters, and buffalos were slaughtered, used for their precious pelts that were tailored into extravagant hats, coats, and sleigh blankets. To read Fur, Fortune, and Empire then is to understand how North America was explored, exploited, and settled, while its native Indians were alternately enriched and exploited by the trade.  As Dolin demonstrates, fur, both an economic elixir and an agent of destruction, became inextricably linked to many key events in American history, including the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812, as well as to the relentless pull of Manifest Destiny and the opening of the West.

This work provides an international cast beyond the scope of any Hollywood epic, including Thomas Morton, the rabble-rouser who infuriated the Pilgrims by trading guns with the Indians; British explorer Captain James Cook, whose discovery in the Pacific Northwest helped launch America's China trade; Thomas Jefferson who dreamed of expanding the fur trade beyond the Mississippi; America's first multimillionaire John Jacob Astor, who built a fortune on a foundation of fur; and intrepid mountain men such as Kit Carson and Jedediah Smith, who sliced their way through an awe inspiring and unforgiving landscape, leaving behind a mythic legacy still resonates today.

Concluding with the virtual extinction of the buffalo in the late 1800s, Fur, Fortune, and Empire is an epic history that brings to vivid life three hundred years of the American experience, conclusively demonstrating that the fur trade played a seminal role in creating the nation we are today.

Book Details

  • Hardcover
  • July 2010
  • ISBN 978-0-393-06710-1
  • 6.7 × 9.6 in / 442 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide

Other Formats

  1. Book CoverFur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America


Endorsements & Reviews

“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...Dolin, author of the acclaimed Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, offers another good history well told.” — Publishers Weekly

“Starred Review. The fascinating story of the fur trade, full of heroism, greed, violence and political conflict. . . . riveting narrative . . . A delightful history, reminding readers that while noble ideals led to the settling of the United States, the fur trade paid the bills.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Eric Jay Dolin—whose previous book, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, was a deft blend of history, business and zoology—has produced a superb one-volume examination of an era when American ingenuity and its competitive spirit began to flourish.... Dolin describes in marvelous detail...colorful figures of the American fur trades' western expansion.... at last, we now have a book that properly accounts for America's rise as a fur-trade power.” — Michael Taube, Wall Street Journal

“Though guns, germs and steel certainly played their parts, Dolin's Fur, Fortune, and Empire leaves little doubt that the trade in pelts 'was a powerful force in shaping the course of American history from the early 1600s through the late 1800s, playing a major role in the settlement and evolution of the colonies, and in the growth of the United States.' Dolin puts forth a compelling and well-annotated tale of greed, slaughter and geopolitics as the Dutch, English, French, Spanish, Swedes, Russians and the American colonists fought for a slice of the profit.” — Los Angeles Times

“Eric Jay Dolin, author of Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, now turns his keen eye on another fabled extractive enterprise in Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. With impressive erudition and lively wit, Dolin charts the astonishing development and impact of this fashion-driven trade from its inception in the early 17th century to the late 1880s, by which time it had created legends and fortunes, fueled imperial expansion, irrevocably altered Native American existence and devastated entire species.” — Anna Mundow, Boston Globe

“Benjamin Franklin famously mused that the turkey might be a good symbol for the United States; we opted for the eagle instead. But a compelling case could be made for the beaver. In a sense, we owe the European settlement of the North American continent to that intrepid engineer of the animal world. . . . [Dolin] brings together all the exhilarating and tragic aspects of the [fur] trade through the 19th century . . . an absorbing and comprehensive ride through the trade's history.” — Anne Bartlett, BookPage

“Dolin ranks among the historian elite. . . . It's impossible not to be drawn in by the cinematic sweep with which Dolin presents his story, with even the tiniest details accorded entertaining scrutiny. The nature of wampum, the teeth of beavers, the unfortunate introduction of guns and alcohol as barter items, the petty bickering between competing trading camps that all too often escalates into violence - there's wonder in every paragraph. Dolin clearly loves the material he's presenting, and he's excited to share it.” — Jeff Guinn, Dallas Morning News

“In Fur, Fortune, and Empire, Eric Jay Dolin ranges far and wide over land and sea, searching for the beating heart of a gargantuan industry touched by almost every aspect of human society and human nature: war, power, money, faith, desire and ambition. . . . As in Leviathan, his highly praised book on U.S. whaling, he restores what most of us regard as an American institution to its rightful place on the international stage. The result is easily the finest tale of the trade in recent memory, a crisply written tale unburdened by excessive detail or homespun provincialism.” — Kirk David Swinehart, Washington Post

“[A] comprehensive, well-researched, and chronological account.... a compelling historical case study.” — Christian Science Monitor

“[M]eticulous and fascinating.” — Associated Press

“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.” — Bruce Barcott, Audubon Magazine

“The great virtue of the book is in its sweep. . . . [Dolin's] ambition to tell the whole story of the American fur trade brings a depth of understanding to the economic driver the fur trade was that few other authors put forth. . . . Ultimately, Fur, Fortune, and Empire is at once a sad and thrilling tale of the inevitable destruction of resources and cultures in the name of social evolution.” — Peter Sleeth, The Oregonian

“This is the story of the skinning of a continent. . . . [Dolin] explains how the fur trade shaped the exploration, settlement and development of North America. . . . interesting, well-researched book.” — Steve Raymond, Seattle Times

“[A] comprehensive study . . . One of the biggest services Dolin provides in Fur, Fortune, and Empire is giving the fur trade its proper due, establishing how important it was to the nation as a whole and to the gateway to the West in particular.” — Dale Springer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“A beaver might be a more fitting national symbol for America than a bald eagle, given the way the quest for that rodent's fur shaped this country's history, from its earliest colonial days to its Manifest Destiny westward drive and beyond. . . . Packed with intriguing tidbits . . . Fur, Fortune and Empire serves as a fur-focused refresher course on American history that will have readers reconsidering the powerful role the fur trade played in swaying in our nations history. The narrative of Fur, Fortune and Empire suggests that if you're proud to be an American, you can thank the beaver.” — Jenny Shank, New West

“Nobody writes about the link between American history and natural history with the scholarly grace of Eric Jay Dolin. Fur, Fortune, and Empire is a landmark study filled with a cast of eccentric Western-type characters….Not since the days of Francis Parkman has a historian analyzed the fur trade industry with such brilliance. Highly recommended!” — Douglas Brinkley, Professor of History at Rice University, author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America

“Eric Jay Dolin has crafted a stunning companion to his recent history of the American whaling industry, one that situates the sprawling pageant of American history—from the founding of Plymouth Colony to the conquest of the Pacific Northwest and the Great Plains—squarely within the saga of the North American fur trade. Focusing on the three-century chase for wealth in fur, this lively, balanced, and carefully researched account evokes an epic clash of empires from one end of the continent to the other. The book charts the rise and expansion of the American republic on the back of fur-bearing mammals and chronicles, along the way, a rogues’ gallery of astonishingly vivid characters, from Henry Hudson himself and John Jacob Astor, down through Jedediah Smith, Joseph Walker, and Kit Carson. A wonderful and timely rendering of a heedless and bloody minded age.” — Ric Burns, documentary filmmaker

“Eric Jay Dolin's brilliant account of our nation’s fur trade is the best popular history ever written about one of America’s most fascinating businesses. This engrossing and masterfully told story marches across a transcontinental stage populated by a host of history’s most intriguing characters. Here is the pageant of America writ large!” — James A. Hanson Ph.D., chief historian, Museum of the Fur Trade

“Great story telling that weaves the commercial, environmental, and political threads of the history of the American fur trade into a wonderfully readable narrative. . . History writing of the highest order. . . It restores the central role of the American fur trade in understanding the development of the United States.” — Peter Drummey, Stephen T. Riley Librarian, Massachusetts Historical Society

Fur, Fortune, and Empire is a comprehensive, intensively researched, and eminently readable history of the North American fur trade, a crucial episode in explaining how the United States became a continental nation.” — Robert M. Utley, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service

“Adventurers, charlatans, schemers, and activists abound . . . The true stories Dolin spins rival anything Hollywood has come up with on the topic. . . . entertaining and informative. . . . Fur, Fortune, and Empire gives what it promises. It is an illuminating analysis of how the beaver and its fur-bearing colleagues became the true 'founding fathers' of North America.” — Dennis Rizzo, The Internet Review of Books

Also by Eric Jay Dolin All

  1. Book CoverLeviathan: The History of Whaling in America


  2. Book CoverWhen America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail


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