Our Furbearers

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

American history has been looked at every which way, and the questions we ask about our past will no doubt continue to change as our sensibilities do.  Eric Jay Dolin has written a highly engaging chronology of European incursion through these parts in Fur, Fortune, and Empire–focusing on yes, the fur trade.

MEH: You’ve told the story of America from the Puritans through Lewis & Clark and John Jacob Astor-through the lens of the fur trade.  What instigated your project?

EJD: I know the exact moment the idea for this book occurred. It was in the spring of 2007, while I was reading a book about the Founding of New England. The author wrote that “The Bible and the beaver were the two mainstays” of the Plymouth Colony in its early years. I understood the reference to the Bible, but I had no idea why beavers were thrown into the mix. Intrigued, I read more, and soon the reference to beavers made sense. For more than a decade after their arrival in America, the Pilgrims’ main source of income had come from the sale of beaver pelts. Thus, the beaver was critical to the colony’s survival. This discovery was a surprise to me. What else, I wondered, didn’t I know about the American fur trade?

My curiosity piqued, I went to my local library and started reading about the fur trade. And within a couple of days, I realized that I could use the history of the fur trade to tell the broader and equally fascinating story of how America evolved into a transcontinental nation. I was hooked.

MEH: It would seem that fur, beaver fur in particular, was the oil of its day, the natural resource most directly firing the engines of commerce.  Isn’t it amazing that fur dominated the economic scene for centuries?  We’ve been using oil for a fraction of that time.

EJD: There are strong parallels. Although beavers, and other furs didn’t provide energy, they did help to fuel the economy. In that sense they were also similar to whales, and the use of whale oil, a topic that I cover in my last book, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America. The fundamental force that drives all of these industries is that of humans seeking to profit from nature.

I wouldn’t, however, say that furs were the natural resource “most directly firing the engines of commerce.” Furs were one of the natural resources that did so, but far from the only one, and not the most dominant one either, at least in terms of money. Whaling and fishing, for example, were much larger industries in terms of generating income and wealth. But you would be hard pressed to find an industry that had a greater impact on the founding, growth, and evolution of the United States than the fur trade. That is why I think it is so important for people to understand the history of the fur trade, for if you don’t, you really can’t truly understand the history of the country.

MEH: From our contemporary perspective, it is mind-boggling that in the avid pursuit of beaver, trappers and explorers never once seem to have noticed what these animals were doing on the land and waterways.  As you point out, after Homo sapiens beaver are the organism that most directly alters habitat, changing the life trajectory of multiple other species.  Their dams and lodges can be huge.   Lewis & Clark, for example, seem never to note the context in which beaver were doing their thing.  Am I wrong?

EJD: You are correct, for the most part. Very few trappers and traders marveled at the wonderful work of beavers, for example, or considered the role of these animals in the larger ecosystem–not that they even knew what an ecosystem was at the time. Still, some traders and trappers did express wonder about the animals themselves (I am not aware of Lewis and Clark doing so, however). And as my chapter on “The Precious Beaver” shows, many natural historians and others, going back hundreds and even thousands of years, expressed deep wonder, and even reverence for beavers in particular, and their amazing lodges.

I want to answer your question more broadly, or perhaps answer a different question entirely—namely, were fur traders and trappers, or the society in general concerned about what they were doing to the animals, and that their activities were devastating entire populations? In responding to this, the key thing to keep in mind is your phrase, “from our contemporary perspective.” The things we think about today, and how we evaluate what they did so long ago, are very different from what the fur trappers and traders, or even the rest of society thought about at the time. In Leviathan, I included the following comment in the introduction:

“Whaling today is a highly controversial and emotionally explosive issue. The debate between those who favor commercial whaling and those who think it is barbaric and must be eliminated is played out, often daily, in the news. And even though America has an important and vocal role in that debate, it is not a subject that is covered here. Instead Leviathan seeks to re-create what whaling was, not to address what it is or should be now. Similarly this book does not pass judgment on American whalemen by applying the moral, ethical, and cultural sensitivities of modern times to the actions of those who operated and existed in a bygone era—one that ended during the early days of the American conservation movement and well before anyone had heard of environmentalism. While it is true that a few whalemen worried about driving whales to extinction, their concern revolved more around the viability of their industry than the need to protect another species. To the whalemen whales were swimming profit centers to be taken advantage of, not preserved.”

I would say much the same thing about the fur trade. Hardly anybody at the time was worried about the animals being killed. And when they did worry about that, and the dwindling numbers of animals, it was only because they were concerned they would no longer be able to turn a profit. Only a few natural historians expressed any concern about possible extinction of the animals; that is until the rise of the conservation movement, which I discuss towards the end of the book. To understand history you have to understand the context in which it occurred. And while it’s perfectly fine, and understandable, to have your own opinion about how people acted in the distant past, it is not fair to history, and it makes little sense to expect those people to have viewed their situation and actions the way that you view them today, in light of the context and concerns of the modern world.

From an even broader perspective, the plight beavers and the whales is what happens when there are no restraints whatsoever on human activity. Whale and beaver populations plummeted because there was money to be made, and the way to make it was by killing the animals and rendering from them useful products – useful to humans, that is. Making money, of course, is a great goal, but the point is that when that is the only goal, and there are many people competing for the same resource with nothing to check or regulate their activities, then almost inevitably the “Tragedy of the Commons” ensues. The good news is that the populations of beaver and many whale species have come back from their historic lows, and are doing fairly well, and in some areas, exceptionally well.

MEH: As beaver fur was used for what seems like a trivial purpose, to make hats, so much of the thirst for whale was in service of fashion.  At the same time there is an unmistakable macho to both the fur and whaling trades – men out staking wilderness, and testing themselves against the great beast in the great ocean.  As a historian, how do you view these addictions to frivolity and posturing?  Are we any better now?

EJD: Again, as someone who loves history and tries to understand it, I view whaling and the fur trade in the context in which they occurred. I can assure you that most whalemen and the fur trappers did not view themselves as “macho,” or being involved in epic battles against mighty beasts or the unforgiving wilderness, which tested their manliness and virility. Instead, for many of them, it was simply a job, and in many cases a miserable, difficult, low-paying job at that, especially when you were the one doing the work. Whalemen and fur trappers were definitely not “addicted to frivolity and posturing,” rather they wanted to make some money, or in some cases just get away from civilization.

Still, there is no doubt that the whaling industry, and to a much lesser extent, the fur trade was romanticized by contemporary writers, witness Moby-Dick, and Washington Irving’s Astoria: or, Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains. But what is interesting to note, is that in most cases those writers were not whalemen or fur trappers (Melville, of course, was a whalemen for a short time). While it is true that whalemen and trappers wrote books, they were much more sober and honest about the difficulties of the job than was the case for writers looking from the outside in, who wanted to portray these industries in romantic, heroic terms. Then as now, a good, dramatic story sells books. It is also important to remember that there were contemporary books written about these industries by outsiders that painted an unromantic, unflattering image of what it meant to be a whalemen or a fur trapper. Still, there is no doubt that many people today, looking back on whaling or fur trapping, do view it in a romantic light, and that’s partly because there are so many larger-than-life stories, and dramatic stories that are alien to our current experiences.

Finally, although you might view fur hats and coats, or baleen stays as “frivolous,” the people of the day didn’t. For example, millions of people wore beaver hats and corsets. But I understand what you are saying. In my view, so much of today’s fashion is indeed frivolous and wasteful. In fact, so much of what people consume today is frivolous and wasteful. As for posturing, all you have to do is look at modern advertisements, and look at what many people view as important today, and it seems that so much of modern life if about posturing.

MEH: You’re probably working on another book-any tantalizing details?

EJD: My next book will tell the dramatic, exciting, and important story of America’s trade with China from the end of the American Revolution to the end of the Civil War (the so-called Old China Trade), when American ships sailed around Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope on their way to the mysterious Celestial Empire or Middle Kingdom, with cargoes of ginseng, Spanish silver, sandalwood, furs (especially sea otter and seal skins), beche de mer (sea cucumbers), opium, shark fins, cotton fabrics, and many other items, which were traded for silks, porcelain or “China,” nankeens, lacquered boxes, furniture, pearl buttons, silver bowls, various trinkets and works of art, and most importantly, roughly 100,000 tons of tea—the “brew of the immortals.” I am writing the book now. It’s a great story.

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