Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America

Overview

A Seattle Times selection for one of Best Non-Fiction Books of 2010
Winner of the New England Historial Association's 2010 James P. Hanlan Award Winner of the Outdoor Writers Association of America 2011 Excellence in Craft Award, Book Division, First Place

"A compelling and well-annotated tale of greed, slaughter and geopolitics." —Los Angeles Times

From the best-selling ...

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Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America

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Overview

A Seattle Times selection for one of Best Non-Fiction Books of 2010
Winner of the New England Historial Association's 2010 James P. Hanlan Award Winner of the Outdoor Writers Association of America 2011 Excellence in Craft Award, Book Division, First Place

"A compelling and well-annotated tale of greed, slaughter and geopolitics." —Los Angeles Times

From the best-selling author of Leviathan comes this sweeping narrative of one of America's most historically rich industries.

As Henry Hudson sailed up the broad river that would one day bear his name, he grew concerned that his Dutch patrons would be disappointed in his failure to find the fabled route to the Orient. What became immediately apparent, however, from the Indians clad in deer skins and "good furs" was that Hudson had discovered something just as tantalizing.

The news of Hudson's 1609 voyage to America ignited a fierce competition to lay claim to this uncharted continent, teeming with untapped natural resources. The result was the creation of an American fur trade, which fostered economic rivalries and fueled wars among the European powers, and later between the United States and Great Britain, as North America became a battleground for colonization and imperial aspirations.

In Fur, Fortune, and Empire, best-selling author Eric Jay Dolin chronicles the rise and fall of the fur trade of old, when the rallying cry was "get the furs while they last." Beavers, sea otters, and buffalos were slaughtered, used for their precious pelts that were tailored into extravagant hats, coats, and sleigh blankets. To read Fur, Fortune, and Empire then is to understand how North America was explored, exploited, and settled, while its native Indians were alternately enriched and exploited by the trade. As Dolin demonstrates, fur, both an economic elixir and an agent of destruction, became inextricably linked to many key events in American history, including the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812, as well as to the relentless pull of Manifest Destiny and the opening of the West.

This work provides an international cast beyond the scope of any Hollywood epic, including Thomas Morton, the rabble-rouser who infuriated the Pilgrims by trading guns with the Indians; British explorer Captain James Cook, whose discovery in the Pacific Northwest helped launch America's China trade; Thomas Jefferson who dreamed of expanding the fur trade beyond the Mississippi; America's first multimillionaire John Jacob Astor, who built a fortune on a foundation of fur; and intrepid mountain men such as Kit Carson and Jedediah Smith, who sliced their way through an awe inspiring and unforgiving landscape, leaving behind a mythic legacy still resonates today.

Concluding with the virtual extinction of the buffalo in the late 1800s, Fur, Fortune, and Empire is an epic history that brings to vivid life three hundred years of the American experience, conclusively demonstrating that the fur trade played a seminal role in creating the nation we are today.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Who'd think you could write a history of the U.S. centered on three centuries of the trade in furs? Dolin has done so in this spirited tale, although you won't find presidents, treaties, and wars. Instead, the main characters are the Indians, Dutch, French, British, Russians, and Americans who sought wealth and a living in the pelts of fur-bearing animals--beavers especially, but also sea otters, fur seals, and buffalo. Beneath this absorbing story lies the relentless drive (a "lethal wave" in Dolin's words) across the continent. In Dolin's telling, westward expansion wasn't fueled by "manifest destiny" or the thirst for empire but by the chase after animals. People as varied as Peter Stuyvesant, John Jacob Astor, Kit Carson, and the roughhewn "mountain men" play their parts over lands as dispersed as New England and Oregon. By the time animals are driven to near-extinction in the late 19th century, the U.S. is filled in. Neither would have happened without the other. Dolin, author of the acclaimed Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, offers another good history well told. 16 pages of color and 16 pages of b&w illus.; map. (July)
Dallas Morning News
Dolin ranks among the historian elite. . . . It's impossible not to be drawn in by the cinematic sweep with which Dolin presents his story, with even the tiniest details accorded entertaining scrutiny. The nature of wampum, the teeth of beavers, the unfortunate introduction of guns and alcohol as barter items, the petty bickering between competing trading camps that all too often escalates into violence - there's wonder in every paragraph. Dolin clearly loves the material he's presenting, and he's excited to share it.— Jeff Guinn
Audubon Magazine
In his previous book, Leviathan, Dolin traced the evolution of American whalers from shoreside hunters to global sailors, as each generation was forced to travel farther and farther from Nantucket to find whales. His latest saga follows a similar drain-the-resource arc: When trappers wiped out the beaver in one region, they simply pushed west and exhausted the next. But Fur, Fortune, and Empire is no melancholy affair. The book bursts with colorful characters, venal corporations, and violent confrontations, all presented with sharp-eyed clarity in a narrative that clips right along.— Bruce Barcott
The Oregonian
The great virtue of the book is in its sweep. . . . [Dolin's] ambition to tell the whole story of the American fur trade brings a depth of understanding to the economic driver the fur trade was that few other authors put forth. . . . Ultimately, Fur, Fortune, and Empire is at once a sad and thrilling tale of the inevitable destruction of resources and cultures in the name of social evolution.— Peter Sleeth
Seattle Times
This is the story of the skinning of a continent. . . . [Dolin] explains how the fur trade shaped the exploration, settlement and development of North America. . . . interesting, well-researched book.— Steve Raymond
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
[A] comprehensive study . . . One of the biggest services Dolin provides in Fur, Fortune, and Empire is giving the fur trade its proper due, establishing how important it was to the nation as a whole and to the gateway to the West in particular.— Dale Springer
Wall Street Journal
Eric Jay Dolin—whose previous book, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, was a deft blend of history, business and zoology—has produced a superb one-volume examination of an era when American ingenuity and its competitive spirit began to flourish.... Dolin describes in marvelous detail...colorful figures of the American fur trades' western expansion.... at last, we now have a book that properly accounts for America's rise as a fur-trade power.— Michael Taube
Los Angeles Times
“Though guns, germs and steel certainly played their parts, Dolin's Fur, Fortune, and Empire leaves little doubt that the trade in pelts 'was a powerful force in shaping the course of American history from the early 1600s through the late 1800s, playing a major role in the settlement and evolution of the colonies, and in the growth of the United States.' Dolin puts forth a compelling and well-annotated tale of greed, slaughter and geopolitics as the Dutch, English, French, Spanish, Swedes, Russians and the American colonists fought for a slice of the profit.”
Boston Globe
Eric Jay Dolin, author of Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, now turns his keen eye on another fabled extractive enterprise in Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. With impressive erudition and lively wit, Dolin charts the astonishing development and impact of this fashion-driven trade from its inception in the early 17th century to the late 1880s, by which time it had created legends and fortunes, fueled imperial expansion, irrevocably altered Native American existence and devastated entire species.— Anna Mundow
BookPage
Benjamin Franklin famously mused that the turkey might be a good symbol for the United States; we opted for the eagle instead. But a compelling case could be made for the beaver. In a sense, we owe the European settlement of the North American continent to that intrepid engineer of the animal world. . . . [Dolin] brings together all the exhilarating and tragic aspects of the [fur] trade through the 19th century . . . an absorbing and comprehensive ride through the trade's history.— Anne Bartlett
Washington Post
In Fur, Fortune, and Empire, Eric Jay Dolin ranges far and wide over land and sea, searching for the beating heart of a gargantuan industry touched by almost every aspect of human society and human nature: war, power, money, faith, desire and ambition. . . . As in Leviathan, his highly praised book on U.S. whaling, he restores what most of us regard as an American institution to its rightful place on the international stage. The result is easily the finest tale of the trade in recent memory, a crisply written tale unburdened by excessive detail or homespun provincialism.— Kirk David Swinehart
New West
A beaver might be a more fitting national symbol for America than a bald eagle, given the way the quest for that rodent's fur shaped this country's history, from its earliest colonial days to its Manifest Destiny westward drive and beyond. . . . Packed with intriguing tidbits . . . Fur, Fortune and Empire serves as a fur-focused refresher course on American history that will have readers reconsidering the powerful role the fur trade played in swaying in our nations history. The narrative of Fur, Fortune and Empire suggests that if you're proud to be an American, you can thank the beaver.— Jenny Shank
The Internet Review of Books
Adventurers, charlatans, schemers, and activists abound . . . The true stories Dolin spins rival anything Hollywood has come up with on the topic. . . . entertaining and informative. . . . Fur, Fortune, and Empire gives what it promises. It is an illuminating analysis of how the beaver and its fur-bearing colleagues became the true 'founding fathers' of North America.— Dennis Rizzo
Los Angeles Times
Though guns, germs and steel certainly played their parts, Dolin's Fur, Fortune, and Empire leaves little doubt that the trade in pelts 'was a powerful force in shaping the course of American history from the early 1600s through the late 1800s, playing a major role in the settlement and evolution of the colonies, and in the growth of the United States.' Dolin puts forth a compelling and well-annotated tale of greed, slaughter and geopolitics as the Dutch, English, French, Spanish, Swedes, Russians and the American colonists fought for a slice of the profit.
Associated Press Staff
[M]eticulous and fascinating.
Christian Science Monitor
[A] comprehensive, well-researched, and chronological account.... a compelling historical case study.
Kirkus Reviews
The fascinating story of the fur trade, full of heroism, greed, violence and political conflict. Historian Dolin (Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, 2007, etc.) begins with a mild surprise: The pilgrims yearned for religious freedom but financed their voyage by agreeing to work for seven years to pay back, mostly in pelts, their English sponsors. "The Bible and the beaver were the two mainstays of the young colony," wrote historian James Truslow Adams in The Founding of New England. Later, as settlers moved west, they entered lands well explored by preceding trappers, and America's first multimillionaire, John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), made his fortune by sweeping up much of the fur trade from coast to coast. The first California rush was not for gold in 1848 but sea otters after 1800, quickly followed by fur seals. Although the American bison provided meat, it was the market for their coats that drove the massive slaughter. Dolin ends his riveting narrative with the last documented hunt for buffalo skins in 1887. While rising conservation movements stimulated the first legal limits on hunting, the author points out that their aim was to preserve the dwindling animals so that the fur trade could continue. Nevertheless, the laws worked, transforming America from a net exporter to an importer of furs. A delightful history, reminding readers that while noble ideals led to the settling of the United States, the fur trade paid the bills. Author tour to Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Denver, Seattle, Portland, Ore. Regional tours in New England and the Midwest. Agent: Russell Galen/Scovil Chichak Galen Literary Agency
Kirk Davis Swinehart
As in Leviathan, his highly praised book on U.S. whaling, [Dolin] restores what most of us regard as an American institution to its rightful place on the international stage. The result is easily the finest tale of the trade in recent memory, a crisply written tale unburdened by excessive detail or homespun provincialism.
—The Washington Post
Christian Science Monitor
“[A] comprehensive, well-researched, and chronological account.... a compelling historical case study.”
Associated Press Staff
“[M]eticulous and fascinating.”
Michael Taube - Wall Street Journal
“Eric Jay Dolin—whose previous book, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, was a deft blend of history, business and zoology—has produced a superb one-volume examination of an era when American ingenuity and its competitive spirit began to flourish.... Dolin describes in marvelous detail...colorful figures of the American fur trades' western expansion.... at last, we now have a book that properly accounts for America's rise as a fur-trade power.”
Anna Mundow - Boston Globe
“Eric Jay Dolin, author of Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, now turns his keen eye on another fabled extractive enterprise in Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. With impressive erudition and lively wit, Dolin charts the astonishing development and impact of this fashion-driven trade from its inception in the early 17th century to the late 1880s, by which time it had created legends and fortunes, fueled imperial expansion, irrevocably altered Native American existence and devastated entire species.”
Anne Bartlett - BookPage
“Benjamin Franklin famously mused that the turkey might be a good symbol for the United States; we opted for the eagle instead. But a compelling case could be made for the beaver. In a sense, we owe the European settlement of the North American continent to that intrepid engineer of the animal world. . . . [Dolin] brings together all the exhilarating and tragic aspects of the [fur] trade through the 19th century . . . an absorbing and comprehensive ride through the trade's history.”
Jeff Guinn - Dallas Morning News
“Dolin ranks among the historian elite. . . . It's impossible not to be drawn in by the cinematic sweep with which Dolin presents his story, with even the tiniest details accorded entertaining scrutiny. The nature of wampum, the teeth of beavers, the unfortunate introduction of guns and alcohol as barter items, the petty bickering between competing trading camps that all too often escalates into violence - there's wonder in every paragraph. Dolin clearly loves the material he's presenting, and he's excited to share it.”
Kirk David Swinehart - Washington Post
“In Fur, Fortune, and Empire, Eric Jay Dolin ranges far and wide over land and sea, searching for the beating heart of a gargantuan industry touched by almost every aspect of human society and human nature: war, power, money, faith, desire and ambition. . . . As in Leviathan, his highly praised book on U.S. whaling, he restores what most of us regard as an American institution to its rightful place on the international stage. The result is easily the finest tale of the trade in recent memory, a crisply written tale unburdened by excessive detail or homespun provincialism.”
Bruce Barcott - Audubon Magazine
“In his previous book, Leviathan, Dolin traced the evolution of American whalers from shoreside hunters to global sailors, as each generation was forced to travel farther and farther from Nantucket to find whales. His latest saga follows a similar drain-the-resource arc: When trappers wiped out the beaver in one region, they simply pushed west and exhausted the next. But Fur, Fortune, and Empire is no melancholy affair. The book bursts with colorful characters, venal corporations, and violent confrontations, all presented with sharp-eyed clarity in a narrative that clips right along.”
Peter Sleeth - The Oregonian
“The great virtue of the book is in its sweep. . . . [Dolin's] ambition to tell the whole story of the American fur trade brings a depth of understanding to the economic driver the fur trade was that few other authors put forth. . . . Ultimately, Fur, Fortune, and Empire is at once a sad and thrilling tale of the inevitable destruction of resources and cultures in the name of social evolution.”
Steve Raymond - Seattle Times
“This is the story of the skinning of a continent. . . . [Dolin] explains how the fur trade shaped the exploration, settlement and development of North America. . . . interesting, well-researched book.”
Dale Springer - St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“[A] comprehensive study . . . One of the biggest services Dolin provides in Fur, Fortune, and Empire is giving the fur trade its proper due, establishing how important it was to the nation as a whole and to the gateway to the West in particular.”
Jenny Shank - New West
“A beaver might be a more fitting national symbol for America than a bald eagle, given the way the quest for that rodent's fur shaped this country's history, from its earliest colonial days to its Manifest Destiny westward drive and beyond. . . . Packed with intriguing tidbits . . . Fur, Fortune and Empire serves as a fur-focused refresher course on American history that will have readers reconsidering the powerful role the fur trade played in swaying in our nations history. The narrative of Fur, Fortune and Empire suggests that if you're proud to be an American, you can thank the beaver.”
Douglas Brinkley
“Nobody writes about the link between American history and natural history with the scholarly grace of Eric Jay Dolin. Fur, Fortune, and Empire is a landmark study filled with a cast of eccentric Western-type characters….Not since the days of Francis Parkman has a historian analyzed the fur trade industry with such brilliance. Highly recommended!”
Ric Burns
“Eric Jay Dolin has crafted a stunning companion to his recent history of the American whaling industry, one that situates the sprawling pageant of American history—from the founding of Plymouth Colony to the conquest of the Pacific Northwest and the Great Plains—squarely within the saga of the North American fur trade. Focusing on the three-century chase for wealth in fur, this lively, balanced, and carefully researched account evokes an epic clash of empires from one end of the continent to the other. The book charts the rise and expansion of the American republic on the back of fur-bearing mammals and chronicles, along the way, a rogues’ gallery of astonishingly vivid characters, from Henry Hudson himself and John Jacob Astor, down through Jedediah Smith, Joseph Walker, and Kit Carson. A wonderful and timely rendering of a heedless and bloody minded age.”
James A. Hanson Ph.D.
“Eric Jay Dolin's brilliant account of our nation’s fur trade is the best popular history ever written about one of America’s most fascinating businesses. This engrossing and masterfully told story marches across a transcontinental stage populated by a host of history’s most intriguing characters. Here is the pageant of America writ large!”
Peter Drummey
“Great story telling that weaves the commercial, environmental, and political threads of the history of the American fur trade into a wonderfully readable narrative. . . History writing of the highest order. . . It restores the central role of the American fur trade in understanding the development of the United States.”
Robert M. Utley
“Fur, Fortune, and Empire is a comprehensive, intensively researched, and eminently readable history of the North American fur trade, a crucial episode in explaining how the United States became a continental nation.”
Dennis Rizzo - The Internet Review of Books
“Adventurers, charlatans, schemers, and activists abound . . . The true stories Dolin spins rival anything Hollywood has come up with on the topic. . . . entertaining and informative. . . . Fur, Fortune, and Empire gives what it promises. It is an illuminating analysis of how the beaver and its fur-bearing colleagues became the true 'founding fathers' of North America.”
The Barnes & Noble Review

Historian Eric Jay Dolin brilliantly argues that the trade in animal skins turned colonial America into a tumultuous frontier where global powers battled for control. From the seventeenth century right on up to the Gilded Age, the developed world's appetite for fur and its unique qualities made the new continent, with its wealth of fur-bearing wildlife, a seemingly inexhaustible resource. The result, as laid out in Dolin's new book Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America, was a major boost in the evolution of the colonies into a powerful new player on the world stage.

Modern-day Manhattan, for example, owes its existence to Dutch eagerness to establish dominance in the trade: New Amsterdam was first settled in the early seventeenth century as a fur trading post where they could exchange European metal goods for beaver pelts brought in by Native Americans. The Dutch wielded military power to oust rival Sweden from the colonial fur trade, yet the popularity of their wares proved their undoing. The intense competition from English colonies and from French fur traders came with its own armed backing, and the English Navy would ultimately oust the Dutch from New Amsterdam in 1664.

Dolin sheds insight on the ways the fur trade created international tensions -- in New England, the Great Lakes, and in the expanding West. As traders clamored for access to land controlled by Native Americans, tribes were pushed off their lands, then given guns and liquor, wreaking havoc on their traditional lifestyles. The fur trade also triggered exploration more generally; fur traders were often the first white men to map major rivers, forests, and mountains. The trade and the broader economy that followed in its wake pulled people west, including Lewis and Clark and Kit Carson, culminating in the monopoly of the nineteenth-century fur trader, and celebrated philanthropist John Jacob Astor, whose American Fur Company would open up new trading posts across America (and whose fortune would endow the library that would become a national icon). For all of fur's contentious position in American culture today, Dolin has skillfully illuminated its centrality in our nation's ever-surprising history.

--Chuck Leddy

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393067101
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/12/2010
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 704,103
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

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; and Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. He is also the author of When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail. A graduate of Brown, Yale, and MIT, where he received his Ph.D. in environmental policy, he lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts, with his wife and two children.

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Table of Contents

Introduction xv

Part I Furs Settle the New World

1 "As Fine a River as Can Be Found" 3

2 The Precious Beaver 13

3 New Amsterdam Rising 24

4 "The Bible and the Beaver" 37

Part II Clash of Empires

5 Competition, Conflict, and Chicanery 61

6 "Many Hounds Are the Hare's Death" 74

7 Adieu to the French 94

8 Americans Oust the British 117

Part III America Heads West

9 "A Perfect Golden Round of Profits" 133

10 Up the Missouri 166

11 Astoria 189

12 Mountain Men 223

13 Taos Trappers and Astor's Empire 255

14 Fall of the Beaver 279

15 The Last Robe 294

Epilogue: End of an Era 310

Notes 317

Select Bibliography 409

Acknowledgments 413

Illustration Credits 417

Index 421

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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2011

    Fantastic!

    A stunning insight into an overlooked force that shaped the foundation and settlement of our country. Fur... who knew it was that essential? Compelling research and attention to detail. Delightfully written and well-documented. A must for anyone interested in history or with a penchant for the forgotten realities of American history.

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  • Posted January 17, 2011

    A great read!

    This is an exxcellent book for anyone---Indian/White man---who needs to know just what makes us tick as human beings in often unmapped, wild, and unspeakably beautiful continent. The beaver, the sea otter, and the American bison surrendered their lives (unwillingly) by the millions to support foreign fashions and by default toprepare the lznd itself for later settlement. I'd recommend this excellent book to any truly interested student of America.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2010

    A Wonderful Book about an Unjustly Overlooked Historical Issue

    The American historian James Truslow Adams, in answering what motivated Europeans to colonize American, writes: "The Bible and the beaver were the two mainstays of the young colony. The former saved its morale, and the latter paid its bills, and the rodent's share was a large one." How large, then, was the rodent's share? This is a question that our 2003 book Beaver-Nature History of a Wetland Engineer was unable to answer. Although we left a chronicle sketch about fur trade by focusing on the wax and wane of the mighty Hudson Bay Company (Ch. 17: Here before Christ), the significance of fur trading in the making of North America (the U.S. and Canada) has remained largely unknown to the American public.

    Fortunately, Eric Jay Dolin's recent book, Fur, Fortune, and Empire, brings the unjustly overlooked issue to the fore. Greatly detailed and beautifully written with images aplenty, the book enlivens an interwoven natural, social, economic, and political history of colonial North America, especially during the period between the early seventeenth century and the mid nineteenth century. Even after years of research on beavers, I still find a substantial amount of new information in Dolin's book, especially about the intricate and often belligerent relationships among the Dutch, the English, the French, and Native Americans whose lives were orbiting around beaver furs.
    From my own writing experience, historical nonfiction books are in general difficult to handle because they can easily bore and overwhelm readers with a large number of names, locations, and times. But with an enviable knack of eloquence and elegance, Dolin has succeeded in engaging readers with a sustaining narrative, which makes Fur, Fortune, and Empire both enjoyable and informative. I am thankful to Dolin for bringing out a wonderful book and congratulate him for accomplishing such a major undertaking. I am pretty sure that neither "buffs" nor experts of American history will find the book disappointing.

    (One minor suggestion: The author may consider adding a chronicle summary for major events at the end of the book. This can be handily done when the paperback version is published.)

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  • Posted November 5, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    This book is a must read for the History Buff!

    I have always been interested in the fur trade to the point that I have dedicated every summer retracing the steps of our leather clad heroes at the annual Mountain Man Rendezvous. Needless to say this book sparked my curiosity considering I have devoured countless books about the subject, and I must say that I was intrigued from the first page to the last. Dolin does an amazing job of retracing the fur trade from the shores of Plymouth in the 17 Century until the last rendezvous in 1841. What impressed me was how the fur trade shaped the direction of our young nation and we still see the remnants of this empire through the names of towns, cities, mountains and rivers across the country. If you enjoy American history this is a must read.

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  • Posted November 1, 2010

    Great book. Thoroughly entertaining

    This book has the best of all worlds. It's a great read and you learn a lot. The period covered is very broad but the book covers it with a good pace. You realize the history of the fur trade is really the history of our country from Jamestown to the final settlement of the American West. There are some amazing stories built within the book including John Colter's amazing escape from the Indians during the Mountain Man era. Also, the early turf wars between the English and pretty much all other European nations. I highly recommend this book.

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