Saturday, August 21, 2010

Eric Jay Dolin's "Fur, Fortune, and Empire"

Eric Jay Dolin is the author of Leviathan: The History of Whaling In America, which was chosen as one of the best nonfiction books of 2007 by the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe, and also won the 2007 John Lyman Award for U. S. Maritime History. A graduate of Brown, Yale, and MIT, where he received his Ph.D. in environmental policy, he lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America, and reported the following:
Fur, Fortune, and Empire is a story about how America was transformed from a loose collection of colonies into a transcontinental nation. A major part of that story revolves around the clashes between various empires—French, Dutch, English, Russian, Swedish, and Spanish—seeking to control the North American fur trade, and by extension, the continent itself. Page 99, although not one of the more stirring passages in the book, offers a glimpse of the revival of the French fur trade after many years of struggle.

France was the first imperial power to establish fur trading posts on the eastern edge of the continent, in the late 1500s. The French colony, New France, recorded its best trading year ever in 1646, shipping out more than 33,000 pounds of pelts, predominantly beaver. But growing violence in the wilderness overshadowed this success. The Iroquois were viciously attacking New France’s Indian allies, including its main trading partner, the Huron. The attacks were part of the Beaver Wars, so named because historians originally believed that they were motivated primarily by the Iroquois’ need to find new sources of beaver to trade with the Dutch, and the Iroquois thought that the best way to find those sources was to attack other Indians and take their furs and land. In more recent scholarship, however, the Beaver Wars are seen in the context of mourning wars, which were a traditional means of rebuilding a tribe’s strength after many of its members had been killed or died—in this case as a result of a series of smallpox epidemics that had devastated the Iroquois.

Whatever the cause, the results of the Beaver Wars were the same. The Iroquois virtually destroyed the Hurons, and in the process brought New France’s fur trade to its knees. In subsequent years the range of the Beaver Wars expanded as the Iroquois attacked other Indians, further crippling the French-Indian trade. As a result, by the early 1660s, New France’s fur trade was for all intents and purposes “dead”—although only temporarily.

And to pick up the story, here is an excerpt from page 99:
New France’s fur trade emerged with restored vigor between the mid-1660s and the late 1680s. Part of the reason for this resurgence, ironically, can be traced to the Beaver Wars, which were slowly coming to an end. As the Indians displaced by the Iroquois traveled west, north, and south to the shores of Lakes Michigan and Superior, they met tribes unfamiliar with the fur trade, including the Sioux, Miami, Cree, Fox, and Illinois. These tribes were enamored of the European wares owned by the displaced Indians, and a new trade was born. The Ottawa, whose name literally translates as ‘traders,’ exchanged their worn knives, kettles, and cloth for fine beaver robes and pelts provided by the distant tribes, and then took those furs to Montreal, where they were exchanged for European goods, which were in turn used to obtain more furs. Thus the Ottawa became middlemen in a thriving trade, and as the historian Harold A. Innis put it, ‘the Miamis and the Sioux ceased roasting the beaver for food, and began a search for skins.’

Exploration was another reason for the revival of New France’s fur trade. Frenchmen whose names now dot America’s landscape ventured west and south to claim new lands, establish trading ties with local Indians, and find a water route to the western ocean. Among the first to set out were the Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette and the fur trader Louis Joliet. Lured by tales of a great river—which the Indians called the Meschacebe, or the ‘Father of Waters’—to the south of the Great Lakes, Marquette and Joliet launched an expedition in the spring of 1673 to see if the tales were true, and to discover into which body of water this great river emptied. With five Indian guides they journeyed in birchbark canoes to Green Bay, ascended the Fox river, portaged to the Wisconsin, and proceeded to its terminus, where they found the Father of Waters, which would later be called the Mississippi.
Read an excerpt from Fur, Fortune, and Empire, and learn more about he book and author at Eric Jay Dolin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue