Ideas: The history of the fur trade in America

First aired on Ideas (24/8/12)

Nowadays, wearing fur seems somewhat politically incorrect. But the trade in pelts and hides from beavers, raccoons, buffalo and other animals helped shape the European settlement of North America. Eric Jay Dolin, author of Fur, Fortune and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America, spoke with Ideas host Paul Kennedy about the fur trade's impact and how it took different forms in Canada and the United States.

In Canada, the history of the fur trade is taught in school, and many of us have grown up with stories of the French explorers and the coureurs de bois, the French Canadian woodsmen who travelled through New France and into the interior of North America along with the people of the First Nations who were the backbone of this trade. Dolin believes the fur trade had an enormous impact on America's history too, but most Americans aren't familiar with it. So Dolin, who is based in Boston, set out to look at the history of fur trade from an American angle.


He devotes a whole chapter of Fur, Fortune and Empire to that most iconic of creatures, the beaver. Even apart from their reputation as "nature's engineer," for their skill in building dams and lodges, they're a creature that has been mythologized. "People have been writing about beavers for thousands of years, and there have been misconceptions and fascinating observations," Dolin said.

But it was their pelt that made them so attractive to trappers. "Beavers are aquatic rodents, they need to keep themselves warm when they're submerged under the water or living in their lodges during the long, cold winters, especially in the north," Dolin explained. "As a result, they've developed this incredibly rich and dense fur coat that comes in two different layers, the outer guard hairs that are stiff, and underneath, there's a soft, woolly undercoat." The soft, downy underfur was in demand for use in making beaver hats that were all the rage in Europe.

In the course of his research, Dolin said he learned a number of things about beavers that surprised him. "Their range extends throughout the entire length and breadth of North America, with the exception of some of the farthest northern territories and the southern parts of Florida and some of the southern areas of Arizona and the Baja Peninsula and down into Mexico," he said. When European settlers pushed into the desert southwest of Arizona and New Mexico, they found beavers -- their fur was lighter, but it was the same species.

What was the difference between the fur trade in Canada and the U.S.? According to Dolin, the the main interest of the American colonists was the colonization of land to the west, and they used the fur trade to finance it. In Canada, at least until the Hudson's Bay Company was established, in 1670, the fur trade was an end in itself. "In America, it was one of the primary forces that helped us transform ourselves from a small group of 13 colonies hugging the Eastern seaboard into a transcontinental nation," Dolin said.

There's a general notion that European traders took advantage of the Indians who provided the furs. Dolin said though there's some truth in that, both parties saw value in the goods that the other had. Moreover, Dolin pointed out that for the first couple of hundred years, the Europeans "depended so heavily on the Indians to act sort of as the proletariat of the forest, and go out there and bring in the furs, that there was a natural tendency to try not to treat them horrifically." But that situation of mutual advantage broke down over time, and the Indians became more dependent on their trading partners for survival.

However, in looking at the treatment of the First Nations peoples, Dolin pointed out that the fur traders "were not the ones who killed the Indians outright, who broke treaties with them, who took their land, who forced them to resettle on reservations." He named "the government, the military, the ranchers, the miners" as being higher on the list of offenders.

"So much of history is follow the money," Dolin added. "A lot of the currents and streams of history tend to be built on the backs of people who were trying to expand their horizons in a way that would enable them to make more money by extracting resources or finding new people to plunder, perhaps."

Dolin notes that there's tremendous interest in the U.S. about the history of whaling, even though it's not as significant as the fur trade in terms of colonization and development. He attributes that to the fact that Moby-Dick is a classic of American literature and has been read widely. It has served as an introduction to the whaling industry, and has created an interest in finding out more about it.

"If there was a Moby-Dick, or a Moby-Beaver, I don't know what you would call it, for the fur trade in America, we would be having a very different conversation, because I don't think the fur trade would be as neglected as it currently is."