The Power of the Pelt

“Fur, Fortune, and Empire“
Painting by Karl Bodmer, Corbis Images The Power of the Pelt
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Behold the beaver! Beady-​eyed, snubnosed and bucktoothed, it is hardly a thing of beauty, yet the pursuit of this oversized rodent across North America launched more ships (and keelboats, rafts and canoes) than the lovely Helen of Troy, for all her charms.

Desire for the legendary queen may have prompted the decade-​long Trojan War, but lust for the beaver’s pelt — essential to European fashion — endured for more than 200 years, igniting the French & Indian War and factoring in both the American Revolution and War of 1812.

Furthermore, it drove the westward expansion of the United States and created the original trading settlement at the forks of the Ohio that would eventually become Pittsburgh. Along the way, it set the stage for adventures and characters as memorable as any found in ancient lore, spawning the prototype of the rugged individualist that persists as an American ideal. But most significantly, the trade in beaver furs generated tremendous wealth for almost any man with a head for business and a stomach for slaughter, thereby demonstrating that passion is fine as far as it goes, but for real inspiration nothing beats the profit motive.

Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America” examines not only the significance of that particular industry in the economic and cultural development of the United States, but underscores the notion that, for all the talk of moral purpose and manifest destiny, the real story of our nation has always been about the bottom line, with no risk too high and no tactic too low when there’s a killing to be made. Historian Eric Jay Dolin’s interpretation provides a useful context for comprehending modern catastrophes, in which oil spills and coal mine casualties are mere variations of the environmental devastation and recklessness that have characterized American commercial enterprise from the very beginning.

Readers are reminded that in the days before “extreme vacations” and “journeys of personal discovery,” explorations throughout history (and outside of literature) were of a decidedly practical nature, launched by “expectant capitalists” in search of resources to exploit. In the early days of American exploration — before the discovery of gold or the advent of steam and rail to facilitate the distribution of coal and timber — resources meant fur, and fur by and large meant beaver.

Eurasian beavers (Castor fiber) were hunted for centuries, long before the discovery of the New World; not so much for their fur as for castoreum from their scent glands, which was used as a treatment for a variety of human ailments, from epilepsy to fleas. (Not to be confused with castor oil, which is extracted from a bean, castoreum is still promoted by some homeopaths as an aphrodisiac and a treatment for hysteria.) By the early 1600s, when it was discovered that compressed beaver pelts made a dense, pliable and waterproof felt perfect for hats, the Old World creatures were all but extinct. The discovery of a fresh and seemingly limitless supply in North America (Castor canadensis) was therefore greeted with great eagerness, and merchants from France, England, Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain and Russia all vied for a piece of the action, backed by fighting forces to defend their claims.

Even the pilgrims of Plymouth Colony were drawn into the fur trade, swapping corn and trinkets with the local Native Americans in exchange for beaver pelts that were then sold in London. For many years this system provided the main source of income for purchasing supplies and repaying the colonists’ debt to the merchant adventurers who bankrolled their religious experiment. As historian James Truslow Adams noted, “The Bible and the beaver were the two mainstays of the colony. The former saved its morale and the latter paid its bill.”

Inevitably, the residents of Plymouth saw their profits undercut by traders in other settlements who were not constrained by the Puritans’ sense of business ethics and who blithely dispensed liquor and firearms to the natives in exchange for the finest pelts, regardless of the damaging effect on the Native American population or potential danger to other communities. Thereafter, the tension between compunction and free-​market competition formed a recurring theme, particularly with respect to the Indians, who — like the beavers — were shamelessly used, with no consideration for their ultimate fate.

In the 1790s, President George Washington advocated regulation of the fur trade to inhibit the destructive influence of traders who cheated and mistreated the Indians, “selling them short and plying them with alcohol.” At his behest, Congress established government-​run posts at which trading would be conducted “without fraud, without extortion and… without profit”; one of the “earliest examples of federal welfare legislation in the U.S.”

This system did little to deter the efforts of enterprising traders, who found a way around the freedom-​hatin’ bureaucrats by going rogue; engaging the services of freelance hunters and trappers to penetrate the interior of the continent and trade directly with the Indians. These so-​called mountain men, successors to the coureurs de bois employed by the French in their trading heyday, lived “free and rough,” setting their own course and “answering to nobody. ” Tales of their exploits inspired painters, writers and innumerable dreamers who in time became settlers on the frontier in the second half of the nineteenth century, when silk had replaced beaver felt as the fashion in hats, and buffalo had become the fur of choice.

At a trim 300 pages, “Fur, Fortune, and Empire” might be more accurately described as an overview than an “epic history,” but the breadth of the drama is evidenced in the narrative, and its depth is addressed in extensive endnotes referencing longer works. Allusions to Pittsburgh are disappointingly few, but flattering. The author works hard to present his information in a fair and balanced way; never taking sides in the struggle between the regulating reformers and hell-​for-​leather capitalists, and avoiding sensationalism in his descriptions of mammalian massacre. His portraits of individuals, however, reveal a personal admiration for derring-​do.

He celebrates in equal measure the fortitude of trapper John Colter, who hiked naked for seven days and 250 miles to safety after escaping from hostile natives; the “rascality” of Manuel Lisa, a St. Louis trader whose business model combined innovation, incentive and plain old dirty pool; and the determination and business savvy of plutocrat John Jacob Astor, who arrived in the brand-​new United States as a teenaged immigrant apprenticed to a butcher and attained riches beyond his wildest dreams.

Equally worthy of approbation is the beaver itself, the central character in the saga, whose recent reappearance in the waters surrounding Manhattan was heralded in media across the country it helped to create. If nothing else, the achievement of “Fur, Fortune, and Empire” is in shining a bright new light on a little critter that cast a very long shadow in the history of the United States.

Sandra Levis

Sandra is the literary editor of Pittsburgh Quarterly. Before entering magazine work, she was employed as an architectural historian for the Los Angeles Conservancy and a photographic historian for the Smithsonian Institution. She reads and writes at her home in Point Breeze.

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