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America's Frontier Fur Rush

Centuries before PETA campaigned for animal rights, the fur trade built America. We hear the remarkable history of how fur shaped a nation.

Buffalo hides in Dodge City, Kansas. Photograph April 4, 1874. (Kansas Historical Society)

What first built America? The Bible and the beaver, said an earlier historian. 

My guest today is laying out the remarkable history of the American fur trade — how three centuries of trade in beaver pelts, and sea otter and buffalo, opened up mile after wilderness mile of the American continent to European settlement. 

Today, fur draws a complicated reaction. For 300 years, it drew explorers, traders, trappers, mountain men. It drew political lines and battle lines – and built some of the biggest fortunes in American history. 

This Hour, On Point: fur, fortune, and the origins of North American empire.


Eric Jay Dolin, author of “Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America.” He also wrote “Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.” You can read an excerpt. He’s a former program manager at the Environmental Protection Agency, and a former policy analyst at the Marine Fisheries Service.

Mac Burns, executive director of the Clatsop County Historical Society in Astoria, Oregon.

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  • http://AncientLights.org Dr Jack Dempsey

    The rush to command the American fur trade incited the first attempted genocidal war in the American colonies—the Pequot War of 1637. The Pequots controlled the Connecticut River, which connected the Atlantic with the American interior. However, when the colonists’ amateur soldiers tried to surprise-attack the Pequot village of Mystic, CT, they were humiliated and defeated (which can be easily seen if you study the records vs. the actual landscape). So they made up a lie of success—and formed the basis for American military thinking today. They didn’t know their enemy’s land, or language, or ways of war—and you can see this in MYSTIC FIASCO: HOW THE INDIANS WON THE PEQUOT WAR by David Wagner & Jack Dempsey (Digital Scanning, MA: Rev. Ed. 2010).

  • Ellen Dibble

    I was trying to follow up Dempsey’s post with a referral to C. Keith Wilbur, who during the 1990s did many rather unique books, illustrated by him and oriented towards children, about the Pequots, and found the link above. It seems there are a fair number of writers who devote themselves to this subject. I see James Willard Schultz, Blackfeet and Buffalo. OnPoint interviewed Paul Schneider, author of The Enduring Shore, about coastal New England when white people came. And there’s Cod by Kurlansky, as I recall, about even earlier settlers??? I have eclectic books I value regardless of disparate quality and exactness, serendipitous findings from used book stores, by everyone from Louisa May Alcott to Indians and half Indians…

  • Mar

    Forgive me, Tom – but hell no. I won’t be tuning into this show.

    I can’t think of anything I’m less interested in hearing about. Even that picture makes my heart ache. Oh the horrible selfishness of man. So much useless slaughter. Makes me ill. Makes me sad.

  • cory

    American exceptionalism + manifest destiny + religious fundamentalism + capitalism = God put these critters here for us to use however we like, so what’s the problem?!

  • Brian Berg

    Please comment on fur trapping today as a wildlife management issue-balancing a small trading economy today with wildlife and ecosystem health.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Seen on TV last night. Fox I believe. A huge Alaskan bear that had been shot. It was a lesson on retrieving usable fur. They showed that in spring the bear would have split ends (what we call it now), whereas at the start of winter, the fur is much more valuable. No split ends. The fur before hibernation is not getting ready to be shed.
    I’m thinking fur traders might be getting the Indian cast-offs, the ones from spring, the ones with split ends.

  • Dave Eger

    I find it pretty easy to imaging the value of furs in a world that didn’t yet have petroleum to make polyester, microfiber, or other plastic products from. Staying warm is important, and that’s without getting into the social implications of being fashionable.

  • Amy Kipp

    “Get a feel for fur: Slam your fingers in a car door.” ~Anonymous, on the use of steel traps to capture fur-bearing animals, cited in Audubon, November 1990

  • Ellen Dibble

    I tried to post last night an overview combining books I know of about precolonial history, and it was deleted. Fur trading we all know about from elementary school history, the French and Indian War and so on.
    But if you Google Pequot, for instance, the tribe referenced at the top of this thread, from the coast of Connecticut, where as I understand it Europeans (from northern Spain, for instance) set up outposts for use in cod-gathering expeditions, there is a wealth of available reading. You’ll get to wonderful websites showing native Indian resources on their history, among other things. There is quite a lot written and available, of all sorts, not in very large popular quantities; sometimes family traditions being brought together, that sort of thing.

  • Ellen

    There’s a wonderful small museum about the fur trade in Lachine, Quebec province. Lachine is just outside of Montreal. Our family cycled to Lachine along the St. Lawrence seaway canal and enjoyed the displays very much.

  • Diane Carr

    As with other animal industries, the public isn’t aware of the huge amount of fur imports come from China, where animals are not especially culturally valued or treated humanely.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Were the buffalo slaughtered for pelts, or food? I found a reference to a book Blackfeet and Buffalo by author Schultz, and I’m not hearing Dolin talk about that. It seems the buffalo disappeared about the time the Indians went into reservations. That would be a lot of fur.
    I have no problem using leather and fur if you’re going to use the meat. By the way.
    And as late as about 1984 I saw that fur was the stylish and common commodity in Communist Prague. Just about everybody had a massive fur coat. They paraded their coats. And remained warm.

  • Ron Hamlin

    Another great series of readings on this topic is from Bernard DeVoto: The Course of Empire, Across the Wide Missouri and Year of Decision – 1846. Haven’t read any of Dolin’s works, but this particular books sounds very similar to DeVoto’s extensive works in this area.

  • Jed Stone

    It is beyond any of our comprehensions the magnitude of the fur trade. I have paddled “les canots du nord” (22′) and “les canots du maitre”, les hommes du norde vs the “pork eaters”, the bourgouis, 6000 miles across Canada, following fur trade routes, including crossing the Rockies in British Columbia following the route described by Alexander MacKenzie (article in Outdoor Canada Magazine, Jul/Aug and Sep/Aug, 1977).
    The hardships, intense competition between Fur Trade companies and free trappers, Indians, RCMP, Metis, and an incredible cast of unbelievable characters. The history of Canada IS the history of the fur trade and the history of the building of the railroad. UNBELIEVABLE history!

  • Ellen Dibble

    I have to say I can’t imagine living with furs in the days when lice and ticks would be living in your clothes. It’s like you’re transferring the animal’s parasites onto yourself. Imagine a teepee padded with fur. After a few weeks of living, even with a vacuum cleaner, it would get pretty interesting. My view.

  • Holly Pearson

    Unlike humans, beavers are a gift to the natural world. When beavers create a pond, they provide fresh water habitat, not only for themselves but for many other species. The plants give out oxygen which keep the animals who live in the pond alive.

    Humans unabashedly destroy the natural world, beavers enhance it.

  • Alan Demb

    I would be interested to know Mr. Dolin’s assessment of H.A. Innis’ ‘The Fur Trade of Canada’ published in 1927. Innis is regarded as the dean of Canadian economic historians [he also wrote the standard work on the cod fisheries]. I was especially taken by the efficiency of North America’s river ‘highway’ transportation system.

  • http://ncpr.org stillin

    Live and grew up on the St.Lawrence River, a lot of history up here with fur trading, French and Indian War…personally, I have a problem with fur anything. My father was a pharmacist back when they individually created medicine and knew all the ingredients personally…and he trapped. One leg in the new world, one in the old. My childhood memories are of many, many maligned animals my brother would bring back alive, from the “trapline”. His job was to do the traps. These animals would be missing a leg, they would chew them off to escape the trap. I felt soosoo bad I wanted to heal every one of them. We even had an old bathtub in the basement with water, logs and mushrats that were living. A huge bear trap is firmly planted in my visual memory…so terrifying. Is it any wonder I have 3 strays here and 4 other animals I love them all. I go out in the woods daily and see a lot of wildlife, and I paint it when I get home. I love the natural world and all it’s creatures. In a true example of karma, my father lost his wife and both his sons, I will always believe it is karmic balance for taking so much fur. That’s just my belief and it is secure.

  • jeffe

    Beavers are fascinating creatures. I was staying at a house in Vermont that had a beaver pond out in the backyard. They make trails. They are creatures of habit always using the same trails. I use to spend hours trying to watch them. You have be very quite as they spoke easily. It is simply amazing how large a tree they can cut down. Sometimes you would see the ones they gave up on and they were 2 to 3 feet wide.

  • jay purcell

    My relatives lived in the east and indiana.

    Tobacco was also a form of “cash” exchange as much or for Furs

    I went to a fort near Vincennes where our friend of relatives a professor doing doctoral work as curator I believe explained how powerfull it was circa 1800

    Those forts used Tobacco.

  • Eva

    Sickening subject. The amount of suffering we inflict on animals, then and now, fills me with shame. And the guys on the show were talking about it with barely a mention of the immoral aspect that issue.

    I once killed a baby mouse and still can’t forgive myself. It was stupid and needless; better to catch it and release it.

    I can’t believe that anyone with a heart can engage in trapping (and there was a caller who did that as a youngster,and still wonders about doing it now).

    300 fur farms in the US? Still?

    I wish cancer and all kinds of misery on those who cause animal suffering. The world would be better off with fewer humans who engage in murdering animals.

  • Ann

    What a sad topic.

  • Dana Franchitto

    Cory ,I hope in fact, I sense, you’re joking. right?

  • rascalofcowtown

    If you want to read about this topic read:

    Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World: A New History

  • joshua

    Matt Ridley on TED talks about how progress is about the meeting and mating of ideas–if America is traditionally a creative society, and I think it has been, one reason is America is a nation of immigrants and mixing cultures–the meeting and mating of ideas. One more reason to support immigration and re-think illegal immigration, and steer away from conservative fascist republicans who want to turn everybody into brown-shirt drones.

    The caller who talks about a cold war is way out of touch. The comments about China are absolutely true. Talking to them is like banging your head against the wall and you can see the non-creativity in their society everywhere–mind-numbing incompetence. 5000 years of totalitarianism. That’s what corporations want.

  • Malcom

    In this particular show, two excellent country songs were played. One was about “Mountain Men” & the other was, I think, by Bruce Springsteen. Does anyone know the titles or artists?

  • Bert

    I believe the “Mountain Man” song was by bluegrass group Mountain Heart.

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