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How fur trade created America's biggest fortune

How fur trade created America's biggest fortune

"Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America" (W.W. Norton & Co., $29.95), by Eric Jay Dolin. Beavers are big rodents, some over 39 inches (1 meter) long, with floppy tails, teeth like chisels to gnaw wood and a reputation for hard work. They build rough dams to create ponds that protect the homes they can enter from below the water's surface.
A huge rise in demand for the soft, woolly underlayer of beaver fur founded the fortune of John Jacob Astor, the richest man of the American 1800s.
Fur had been an emblem of prosperity for centuries and a widespread taste for beaver hats arose in Europe about 1500. It takes fewer pelts to make a hat than to make a robe or a cloak, so hats became more affordable symbols of distinction.
Hunters in Europe exploited that continent's beavers to near-extinction. Almost untouched areas of North America were an obvious new source. It was only about President Abraham Lincoln's time, the mid-1800s, that silk replaced beaver as the favorite material for the kind of stovepipe hat he favored and was said to have used for carrying important letters.
The almost total extinction of the bison, due largely to the market in pelts robes to keep Americans warm, was achieved little more than a half-century later.
Eric Jay Dolin, who already has done a history of American whaling, opens "Fur, Fortune, and Empire" with a quotation from historian Arthur H. Buffinton: "The history of North American expansion might almost be written in terms of the fur trade."
Dolin has not tried to do quite that. Except for a five-page "Epilogue" on the conservation efforts of President Theodore Roosevelt and his friends, he has little to say about the 20th century. That spares him from having to get into fierce controversies over animal rights and anti-fur campaigns.
He does go into meticulous and fascinating detail about earlier clashes between fur traders and Indians. Conflicts over trading rights were just as fierce, if less bloody, among Dutch, French, British, Canadian, Spanish, Mexican, American and even Swedish officials.
He gives a rarely told account of how, for more than 17 years, Sweden had a colony along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It was governed almost all that time by Johan Printz, who weighed over 400 pounds and was known to the local Indians as "Big Belly." The book's generous illustrations include a portrait of him done nearly 300 years later. Dutch colonists under Peter Stuyvesant drove out the Swedes, only to surrender themselves to Britain less than a decade later, when New Netherland became New York.
The fur trade moved west as the Indians' appetite for European products led to their intensive slaughter of fur-bearing animals for trading with the colonists. The tribes' need for manufactured goods might decline as they acquired all the pots, knives and guns they could use. Alcohol became one of the most popular trading items used by Astor and others, despite efforts by governments to limit it.
Today a monument to the Astor family's wealth and luxury survives in New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel. The first half of its name recalls the German town of Walldorf near the edge of the Black Forest. That is where the Astors, a family with modest success in the butcher business, gave birth to Johan Jakob in 1763. He died a multimillionaire in 1848 but the fortune is still the subject of legal disputes.
The second half of the hotel's name comes from his fortified trading post, Astoria, at the westernmost reach of his fur-trading empire. It is now a town of 10,000 on the Pacific Ocean, near the mouth of the Columbia River.
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Online:
http://www.ericjaydolin.com/


Updated : 2020-12-06 10:33 GMT+08:00