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Fur, Fortune & American Empire

We hear the remarkable history of how fur shaped a nation.

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

For almost three hundred years, America ran on the insatiable demand for fur. From Pilgrim days, to mountain men, trappers, and buffalo hunters, it was an all-out grab for beaver, sea otter, bison.

Today, fur is out of fashion. It’s out, for many, even of moral acceptability. But back then, fur built fortunes, empires, nations.

We look at fur and the origins of North American empire.

-Tom Ashbrook

Note: This show was first broadcast July 19, 2010.


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.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    This was an excellent show. Great choice for re-broadcast.

  • http://OnPoint Deirdre Weber

    Regarding your program on the fur trade: My family came to the upper Midwest to trap, from France via Quebec. We have been here for about 250 years. All of our family trapped, up until this century, with my uncle a loyal subscriber to “Fur, Fin and Feather” right up to his death! When I was a small child, I remember my father and brother trapping muskrat, and my father once told me that he’d trapped since he was a 10 year old, making enough money in the time after the lower Mississippi floods of 1927 to be able to afford ice skates for his siblings. I cannot wear fur–I know how it is obtained. But I do work at and highly recommend the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa if you are interested in learning about the fur trade. Also, the Wisconsin State Historical Society’s Villa Louis in Prairie du Chien, WI is an excellent example of what the fur trade wealth produced.

  • Pancake

    My comment is awaiting moderation? C’mon, who’s in charge there, Doris Duke’s secretary?

  • Winifred Grace

    There’s a wonderful small museum in Peace River Alberta Canada that covers the trading opportunities of Alexander MacKensie finding the northwest passage.
    I’m from Middletown Springs, VT. Of course Lake Champlain played a large part part in opening up the travel through the great lakes through Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River. Was interesting visiting our daughter in Peace River this summer in Alberta and see the connection between her part of the country with ours here.

  • Pancake in McAdenville, NC

    I explained why I think fur fashion is fascist, but someone there thought underwriters and sustainers would be offended, so you ear-ons out there are not allowed to read it. Curious? Email me at Redlair6@yahoo.com and I’ll send it to you. And this brings us to the issue of moderator timidity. How ’bout an hour on that?

  • http://onanov.com Donald Baxter, Iowa City, IA

    Canadian historian John Ralson Saul notes that marrying an aboriginal was considered to be marrying “up”. These were the people who actually knew how to survive the country.

  • Winifred Grace

    Is there a way to send photos? I have one taken trying on a buffalo robe at a museum in Dunvegan

  • Pancake

    Did you say photos? I have one of me “skinning the cat” on the monkey bars.

  • Bush’s fault

    Holiday reruns and forums are great, especially when we don’t have to put up with Fruitcake.

  • Amanda from Miami

    Great topic which should’t be taboo. Wearing fur nowadays should be taboo, I agree, but its important to know how the earliest settlers of this country started. there is much to learn from the pillaging of our forefathers. People just don’t know this information as its not as obvious or immediately painful because it doesn’t involve human suffering or charismatic megafauna as do the other horror stories of the building of this country such as slavery, whaling, cod fishing, etc.

  • shasta swanson

    I live in Alaska, having moved here 2.5 years ago. Before moving here I thought wearing fur was a poor choice but now that I’m here, I really like my fur coat. There are some things that down can’t do…

    For a personal account of trapping I recommend the book, Tough Trip Through Paradise. It is an autobiographical account that starts at the end of Custer’s adventures and covers a year of the life of one of his soldiers who was a young man at the time. He wrote it all down as an old man. It is amazing history, told first hand, painting a picture of life in a small part of Montana involving a couple tribes, the young man and other trappers.

    Also, Crow Killer, a biography of Jeremiah Johnson. It was a rough and unattractive lifestyle.

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    All Things Considered had a story tonight about a new fashion trend in fur, nutria pelts. Models like to wear them, and in Louisiana the nutria are varmints who ruin the buffering bayous that protect the coasts (I forget which part, fauna or flora, but the state is paying $5 a tail to trappers to help whittle the population).
    I’d like to point out that lions eat meat. They kill their prey with their teeth and claws. And somehow we don’t proclaim them evil. (Or do we?) Likewise bears. Likewise wolves. What else…
    And our ancestors, if you go far enough back, ate meat. Some still do (maybe you do too). Also: about the time we lost our hairy hides, we started wearing the hides of others, whether seals or bears.
    Also, the plastic/petroleum that creates the synthetics we wear instead of fur is surely worse for the environment than wool or fur. Maybe eiderdown and silk and cotton (if picked by union labor?) is okay?
    I had to listen to this show twice. Thanks.

  • Greg Johnson

    I think Dolan is mistaken about the 19th century bison population being “normal.”
    According to Charles Mann’s book, “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” human epidemic disease reached the plains Indians by the 1700s, carried largely by Native Indian traders. Populations of many plains tribes were greatly reduced even before European settlers arrived. The subsequent reduced hunting pressure allowed the bison population to reach colossal numbers by the early 1800s.
    This is not to diminish the mass bison killing of the 19th century; that killing is even more staggering in light of the ahistorically huge numbers of bison on the plains.
    - Maryland

  • chuck vanderpool

    wonderful topic!

  • Chris Brown

    There is a great museum about the history of the fur trade in the Northwest, located at Fort Vancouver, in Vancouver Washington, located across from Portland, Oregon on the Columbia River. The fort was established by the English long before Oregon and Washington were part of the United States. It describes how a great symbiotic and prosperous relationship developed between English merchants and Native Americans through fur trading. Apparently, the English merely wanted to trade for pelts, and were not interested in taking the Native Americans’ land. In exchange for the pelts that they trapped, the Native Americans received much desired European goods. Unfortunately for the Native Americans, however, that relationship apparently changed dramatically when American settlers arrived.

  • Alfred J. Nelson
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