tv History Bookshelf CSPAN November 15, 2015 8:00am-8:53am EST
>> next, author eric jay dolin discusses the american fur trade in his book "fur, fortune, and empire." he profiles key players including thomas jefferson and john jacob astor. eric: i remember very clearly the moment at which the idea for this book came to me. it was back in the spring of 2007. i was reading "the founding of
new england." it was written in 1921. james truslow adams had a passage in there saying the "bible and the beaver" were the two mainstays of the plymouth colony in its early years. i had no idea why he had thrown the beaver into the mix. that got me curious. i quickly discovered for the better part of a decade, the main source of income for the pilgrims was trading beaver pelt with local indians and selling them in london. that got me wondering what else i didn't know about the american fur trade. i went down to my local library and started reading books about the fur trade. there was a fascinating history there that could be used to tell
an equally fascinating story about american history, using the fur trade to talk about how america was transformed into a transcontinental nation. now that i have written the book, i am convinced that if you do not understand the basics of the history of the fur trade in america, you cannot really understand american history. it had that big of an impact. what i will do now is give you a whirlwind tour through my book, "fur, fortune, and empire." in prehistoric times, humans wore fur to protect them from the elements. by the late 1500s, the enormous
demand for fur had stripped europe of beavers. there was a new source in america. the first to witness that wealth were the explorers and fishermen who came in the 1500s. in between fishing and exploring, they traded pelts with local indians. by the end of the 1500s, the french had established the first fur trading colonies in in what is now modern-day canada. henry upson, an employee of the dutch, sailed up the river that now has his name to sell and trade fur. they established new netherlands, the heart of which was new amsterdam, what we know as manhattan in the city of new york.
of all the furs the dutch wanted to trade for, none was more coveted than the beaver fur. they traded with the iroquois, the mohawk, and other indian nations. they were not the only ones in the new world looking for pelts. so too were the pilgrims of plymouth colony and the puritans, as well as the french in the north and canada, and surprisingly, the swedes on the delaware river in the 1630's. i had no idea there was a swedish colony. it lasted for 20 years and was founded as a fur trading outpost.
they traded a variety of goods including guns and alcohol, the latter of which had a devastating impact on indian culture. with the colonies of four empires competing for fur, it is not surprising they came to blows. the first to strike was the governor of new netherlands, known as "old pegleg." a cannonball had blown off the lower part of his leg and he had a stub ala ahab. he was not somebody who put up with fools lightly. the indians dubbed him "big belly." new sweden had only 200 individuals, but the reason they were a thorn in their side was
because they were taking furs. he ousted the swedes. stuyvesant would have liked to have dealt with the new englanders to the north, but new england was a mighty assemblage of colonies, whose population dwarfed them. stuyvesant used diplomacy and threats to stave off the enlgish with limited success. the english started expanding in population and swept into the connecticut river valley, into long island, putting the swedes on the dutch. in 1664, the british, the english, they deposed the dutch and transformed new netherlands into new york.
as the english sought to expand their domain, they ran into the french, and a flashpoint between the two empires was always the fur trade. this map shows why the empires were on a collision course. if you look at the green areas on the eastern seaboard, those were claimed by the english. the green area in the center is that land around hudson bay, also claimed by the english. the french claimed the pink and yellow areas. at the frontier is where they met the most violence. a boiling point was reached in 1754 when the ohio valley and fur riches there sparked the french and indian war (also known as the 7 years war). the colonies rallied to drive the french from the continent. the big question now is what would the british do with the land they conquered?
this cartoon is actually the first political cartoon ever made in america, by benjamin franklin, used to rally the colonies to act and defeat the french and indians. many americans looked forward to expanding the fur trade. the american fur trade remained relatively insignificant up to the 1770's. the british wanted to protect the indians and give canadian fur traders operating out of montreal the upper hand. they kept americans out of land they had shed their own blood to achieve. that created a lot of resentment among the americans. that anger helped fuel the american revolution. does anybody know what this engraving is? the boston massacre, by paul revere. they called it the "bloody massacre" at the time.
later it became known more universally as the boston massacre. vanquishing the british did not mean the americans, such as benjamin franklin shown here in his favorite fur hat, would have free reign over the fur trade. the british maintained control of all the fur trading posts around the great lakes and along the mississippi and the ohio valley. they kept the americans out. during the late 1700s and early 1800s, there was a bright spot for the american trade, and it was a long the pacific northwest coast where the sea otters swam in blue-green waters. in 1778, james cook visited the pacific northwest coast. there, his men traded knives, buttons and nails for sea otter
pelts with local indians. those were taken to china, where the men discovered that those pelts were in great demand by the mandarins in china. it sold for as much as $150 for a fine specimen, at a time in america when an average labor er might make only a couple of dollars per day. this precipitated into mutiny on the part of cook's men to go back to the coast and get more pelts. they went on to england. on board the ship was a man named john ledger. after the american revolution, he came back to the united states and returned to connecticut and wrote a book about his adventure with captain cook. it happened to be the first book copyrighted in the united states.
in it, he spent a couple of pages talking about the riches that can be had by those who would enter into the pacific northwest sea otter trade. that got a lot of merchants excited. in 1787, a group of boston merchants financed the voyage of the columbia and the lady washington to the pacific northwest coast. in the processs, the columbia, captained by robert ray, became the first american ship to circumnavigate the globe. when it returned it to boston, it earned its backers a sum of $175,000 by trading in china. robert gray, as many of you probably know, later gained more claim to immortality by coming back and being the first person
to go to the mouth of the columbia river. the american sea otter trade thrived until the 1820's and the americans led the way. the indians refer to the white man as either king george's men or boston men. boston really monopolized the trade. by the 1820's, the rapacious greed of the trappers and traders had caused the near extinction of the local sea otter population. not just here, but the russians
were forcing the aleuts to bring sea otter pelts to them. by the 1820's, the trade came to an end for a while. while that was progressing, the american fur trade branched out to the pacific over st. louis. when the louisiana purchase was announced, it expanded the fur trade. lewis and clark traveled to the mouth of the columbia and back again. the expedition's main goal was to scope out the potential of the western land for the fur trade. they referred to this trade as explorers followed in their
wake. this map was in their book. i worked with an artist in new york. i read a lot of books to write this book. a lot of them had interesting maps. none of the maps tried to capture the spidery network of impact the fur trade had on the mississippi. this shows many of paths that some of the famous not men took and key locations of the fur trade. many trappers went to the upper missouri, where they trapped beavers and traded with local indians. they had competition from john jacob astor, an immigrant from waldorf, germany.
the son of a butcher who finally made it to america in 1784 with a number of flutes and a desire to get involved in the fur trade. he worked with a quaker merchant and used his commercial savvy to wheedle his way into the fur trade. by the 1800s, he was the richest man in america, largely as a result of his acumen in fur trading. astor wanted to monopolize the fur trade west of the mississippi. his dream was to build a series of trading posts over the continental divide down the columbia into the pacific. he planned to open a trading post at the mouth of the columbia. unfortunately, his dreams of a northwestern fur trading empire were dashed. the tonkin made it around the
cape, but by the time by the time he took the tonkin to trade, one of the indian chiefs demanded too much. captain thorn took a rolled up a pelt and slapped him, resulting in a series of actions that resulted in all the men on board being slaughtered. save for five. one of them crawled down to the hull of the ship and lit nine tons of gunpowder, blowing the ship to smithereens and killing 200 indians. that was not a good start for astoria, a fledgling outpost on the columbia. astoria did establish itself. this is a picture of the outpost around 1813. by the end of the war of 1812, the british fur traders took it over from the americans.
after the war of 1812, astor quickly expanded his operations around the great lakes and up the missouri river, hiring a small army of traders, and establishing dozens of posts. in 1825, the fur trade went in a new direction. trappers headed into the rocky mountains, staying there year-round, and meeting each summer at predetermined locations called rendezvous where they would trade bank notes for pelts to get supplies. during the rendezvous, they would gather with old friends, drink, and have a riotous time. they were expectant capitalists.
they wanted to earn a living, but many of them blew their earnings at the rendezvous in a bout of debauchery. they sometimes lasted as long as a month, and more than a thousand would attend. here is a representation of the archetypical mountain men. among them were jim bridger, who is credited as being the first white man to see the great salt lake, jim beckworth, kid carson, who became a mountain man, and jedediah smith. one of the most famous of all mountain men. the era came to an end around 1840, due to the increasing use of silk.
the real downfall toward the end of the 1830's was because the mountain men and their canadian counterparts, the trappers, who had come below the 49th parallel, did their job too well. the rockies were stripped of beaver. the mountain men's time on the national stage was brief, but their impact on american history was significant, especially in the realm of exploration. many of the paths they first walked were important to the settlers who headed west. even though they are credited with being the first white men to discover these paths, they were simply following the paths indians had followed for many centuries.
the mountain men's competition with canada's hudson bay company and the earlier expeditions of lewis and clark, robert gray's discovery of the columbia river mouth, john jacob astor's ill-fated astoria adventure, all helped to strengthen america's claim on the oregon country, leading to its cession in 1846. were it not for a lot of these key factors, we might right now be standing on canadian land. while the rocky mount trade was in full swing, plenty of animals were being trapped and sent to st. louis. the santa fe trail opened for business in 1821 as word about the beaver windfall in new mexico spread. many headed west along the santa fe trail from st. louis, using
small towns in the mountains to the northeast of santa fe as the base of their operations. they were often called taos trappers to distinguish them from the traditional mountain men. while beaver populations in the southwest and upper missouri and rockies dwindled, the american fur trade headed in a new direction. buffalo robes from the west had been a part of the trade, but now they took center stage. they were widely used as blankets, bedcovers, and to line boots. this did not take off after 1812. the relatively small herds east of the mississippi could be found on the coast of the atlantic, but they had been decimated. in the great plains, it was a different story.
there were millions available. the buffalo's path toward extinction took a turn for the worse with the coming of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. during construction, the many men who laid the track needed to eat and buffalo meat was a prime source of protein. the corporation hired hunters, including william cody, or buffalo bill. buffalo bill cody alone single-handedly killed 4,280 buffalo. the number of buffalo killed to feed railroad workers pales in comparison to the number killed by the flood of people who would ride the rails west to hunt for pleasure and profit.
during the early 1870's, shooting buffalo from the cabins of passing trains and leaving them on the plains to rot became a gruesome fad. people touted the pleasures to be had by riding the train and shooting these monarchs of the prairie as you went flying by. along with the tourists and sportsmen, the railroad brought thousands of professionals. market hunters to the planes. many killed the animal only for tongue, salted and put in barrels and sent east and sold as delicacies to restaurants. most white hunters came for the robes and increasingly the hide, which, due to attending procedures, could be used to make leather, which helped turn the wheels of industry. the scope of the slaughter was staggering.
between 1872 and 1874, 3.7 million buffalo were killed. more than 85% were killed by market hunters. in 1889, there were only 1,091 buffalo left. it's an unfathomable number considering at one time, there were many as 30 million. the destruction of the buffalo was a tragedy for the indians. their existence was physically, economically, and even existentially linked to this animal. they were forced to give up their way of life, their land, and their independence.
the american fur trade didn't end with the near extinction of the buffalo. throughout the 20th century and up to the present, there still has been an active fur trade worldwide. in the united states, there are 150,000 part-time fur trappers and about 300 mink farms. the international trade still generates revenues of $10 billion to $15 billion per year. this is not the subject of "for, fortune, and empire." it ends with the rise of the conservation movement in the early 20th century. this was a symptom of a much larger problem facing american society. the 19th-century was called the age of extermination, for good reason. an astounding number of animals were killed for food, fashion,
sport, and as a result of habitat loss. numerous species were reduced in numbers. some were pushed to extinction. a few were wiped off the face of the earth, the most famous being passenger pigeon, the last of which died in the cincinnati zoo in 1907. teddy roosevelt is shown here in yosemite. the conservation movement had a major impact on the fur trade. for the first time, no longer would market forces dictate the course of the fur trade. there were regulations such as closed seasons and bag limits. it is this transition point at which we leave off and another story begins, one which will be written by someone else.
that is the end of my formal presentation. i would be happy to answer any questions you might have about the trade. thank you. [applause] >> did any of the mountain men wind up being at least, well, getting out of the trade was some kind of security, or did they all squander whatever they had and were lost in the mist? eric: i don't have specific statistics. my sense is that the vast majority ended up having what they had when they went in, if not less. some made some money and were smart enough to get out of it. contrary to the popular perception, they were well educated given the standard of the day. not all of them stayed out there
for the full 15 years. a lot of them did dissipate their rent having too much fun in the wilderness. i'm sure some walked away with something. it really was amazing how this cycle repeated itself year after year. >> what happened to astor? eric: he stayed in the fur trade until the 1830's. he was getting old at that point. his health caused him to shift out of the fur trade. he started buying real estate in manhattan. his friends made fun of him for buying the land, but when he sold it for hundreds of thousands of dollars, no one was
laughing. when he died, he said the one thing he would do if he could start all over again was buy more land in new york. he stayed in the trade until the 1830's and exited thinking he would die soon. he labored on and lived until 1846. when he died, he had a fortune of about $20 million, much of which came from the sale of pelts. >> do you have an idea of how many mountain men were in the beaver trade? eric: yes. i look at the journals kept by various companies that went to the rockies. the best estimate is that during the entire era, the 15 year span, there were probably 3000 men who participated in one way or another. >> i have a hard time believing they could have exterminated the beaver.
it's so tough -- they were in streams setting traps. it's not like the buffalo where you had repeating rifles and trains. i have a hard time believing that 3000 people could have done that much to the beaver, which was spread all over the west. eric: you have to look at it a little bit differently. it was 3000 people spread out over a few years. they were aided in this destructive path by many canadian voyageurs and mountain men that came down. to the south, there were many taos trappers. there's a debate over how many beaver there were originally in north america. some estimates are 60 million.
that seems high to me. the one thing i relied on is the first-hand accounts. the mountain men, the naturalists, they were all writing in the 1820's and 1830's that beaver were hard to find. and i find it hard to believe that they would not only be writing that but also leading the trade and in the 1840's abandoning it completely when beaver pelts were still desired in europe. the hudson bay company, which practiced much more conservation, they maintained a very active beaver trade throughout the 1800s. i came to the conclusion, as most other people did, that the main downfall of the beaver trade was the decimation, at least, the commercial decimation.
they were not driven to extinction. but there were so few of them that they were so inaccessible that commercially they were not profitable to be pursued. >> didn't the british in the washington and oregon territory try to trap the beaver to keep americans from coming in to preserve a political hold? eric: absolutely. they were trying to create a "fur desert." the hudson bay company theory was that if trappers came, settlers follow. they wanted to create a desert so there was no economic imperative. the canadians did a very good job. it was a "fur desert." in the end, they did not succeed. the line did not hold.
fur trappers came into those areas up until the bitter end. by virtue of their knowledge of the west, they helped to guide many settlers over the oregon trail and the california trail and ultimately allowed america to put tracks on the ground in other areas. 6000, 7000, 8000 settlers came in, and the british realized their ability to maintain hold of the area was slipping. any other questions? >> i really appreciate the history you lay out about the trapping and hunting contribution. i understand the conservation bookend. my curiosity is specifically with the modern fur farming aspect, did you encounter antecedents of fur farming?
eric: fur farming did start to crop up in the late 1800s. it really took off with the rise of the conservation movement. it was no longer, "get all the furs while they last." one alternative was to raise them yourself. fur farming did come about right as the end of the trade era came to a close. i'm not extremely knowledgeable about fur farming. i stopped the book because i thought it was a natural end. and i did not want to write a 700 page book. i wasn't as interested in the
rise of garment disticts in new york and especially the more recent political debates over the moral ethics and practicality of wearing fur, those hold little interest for me. other people are more passionate and deserve and should write about that. >> thank you. eric: yes? >> as the animals were being decimated across the country, what were the native people doing in response to that? because they had shown where the animals were and traded. then, their whole culture has changed. eric: absolutely. it was fundamentally changed. it's a relatively sad story. what happened is the trade spread from east to west and a number of animals diminished, many tribes who had become accustomed to trading with the whites, once the pelts ran out, they turned to the only other resource the whites wanted, their land.
so a lot of the loss of land in the 1600's and 1700's came from their desire to continue to receive goods, but they did not have the pelts to get them. that was a tragic consequence. as the buffalo was decimated, one of the main forms of sustenance for the indians was destroyed. it was actually part of military and government policy to destroy buffalo. they knew if you took that pillar out, the indians would start to crumble and it would be easy to manipulate them and push them on reservations and do things the government was doing. i want to make one thing clear. there is a long list of people and organizations who have acted absolutely abysmally toward the indians. it is a sad, tragic story. one a lot of people know. i would not put traders and
trappers at the top of the list. in many cases, although some of them were not the most decent people, many treated the indians like clients and customers. they realized they were competitors. the traders and trappers did not want to disposess them of their land. they wanted them to stay on the land to continue to bring in the pelts. many traders and trappers married into indian society. 30% of the mountain men had indian wives. but they are not blameless. they introduced guns and alcohol, which had a devastating impact. but it was not the traders and trappers who forced them onto reservations and took away their land wholesale, who slaughtered them in great numbers, who broke treaties.
so there is a long list of bad acting towards indian culture throughout the entire range of the united states, but i do not believe the fur traders are high on the list. >> i've long felt that the mountain men are virtually the only group of white men in american history who basically accepted the indians. do you agree with that? eric: i cannot say they're the only one. there are parts of american history i'm not as familiar with. looking at them in isolation, there is no doubt that many of the mountain men and voyagers were interacting with the indians on a daily basis. many of them respected their trading partners and married into the culture. they were one of the few
segments of the american population to have an intimate understanding of indian culture. they often viewed them in a very favorable light. i think a good argument can be made that they were one of the groups that was really interacting with the indians in a positive rather than in a degrading way. >> are you familiar with john kliner? you may want to take a trip over there. he's got a museum with some great paintings of this era. eric: it's funny. whenever i write a book, i always want to buy something at the end of the process to remember the book. for my book about whaling, i thought i'd buy some scrimshaw. i did not realize how expensive it was.
i didn't get any scrimshaw at all. when i wrote about the cleanup of the boston harbor, the present i got myself was a map of the sewage system. my wife forced me to take it down. [laughter] eric: this book was harder. i purchased one thing. it was a beaver skull, because i was fascinated with it as an animal. that is why i devoted an entire chapter in the book to the beaver, nature's engineers. i'm sure i couldn't afford one of the paintings. >> he's got quite a collection.
i found the beaver skull once and thought i had a sabertooth tiger. [laughter] eric: they keep growing all the time. they must keep gnawing wood to keep the edge. the outer edge is very hard enamel. the inner edges soft dentine. i saw one picture of a beaver who did not take good care of his teeth and it kept growing and it grew and grew and curled around. he died of starvation. i have heard, although i find it hard to believe, but sometimes the teeth can puncture the skull. you'd have to wait a couple of weeks for it to grow. it is one of the most amazing pieces of anatomy in the animal kingdom. it is amazing. any more questions? >> did you do a lot of research at brown? eric: no. >> they have the biggest
americana collection. eric: i went to undergrad there. most of my research was done, and this is a reflection of the change in society, i went to some key libraries, like the massachusetts historical society, the philips library in salem, and a few others. i also befriended a few people on the east coast who are fur trade aficionados. one friend loaned me 30 or 40 books. i also used the internet to buy used books. i purchased 160 out of print books to have a little library in the basement, or as my kids call it, the cave where i go to write.
the internet also provided -- i will make a pitch for google and google books. they put out-of-print books on your screen. it is a boon to researchers. instead of having to travel to a single library in the midwest that has one of five copies of a book printed in 1796, i can search for it and find the entire digitized version of that book online. that saved me a lot of time. it also created a problem. i had a flood of information. i had to decide what to use. the first book i wrote about 12 years ago, i did not use the internet. i also had more sources. this requires more decisions about which sources to trust and use. i did not use brown's library.
maybe indirectly. >> did you print them off or read them on the screen? eric: on the screen. you can cut and paste the actual text. there were other books that were in print, but i did not touch those. these are books that no one would reprint. >> you've done whaling and fur, what's next? eric: the china trade. i come up with topics -- i bump into things. the whaling book started because i just finished a book on the cleanup of boston harbor called "political waters." i wanted to be jacques cousteau when i grew up.
i was looking at a box my friend had given me painted with a beautiful picture of a whale being harpooned. very dramatic. i read moby dick, didn't know a lot about whaling, and i decided to write a book. the china trade book came out of my research on the sea otter trade. after the american revolution, americans had to get up and stand on their own two feet economically, and one of the places they wanted to go was china, because they had fallen in love with tea. but now british sources of tea were cut off. so i thought it was a neat story. the book ends with today.
i thought that i do not like writing about modern history or politics, why not write about the first time americans were involved in the china trade? that's what i'm working on now. yes? >> can you pick a single individual that you admire the most in the fur trade? eric: thomas morton. there were many things not to admire. but he came to the shore of the boston harbor and set up a fur trading post in the mid-1620's to compete with the pilgrims. they did not like that. they were somewhat straightlaced. thomas morton, who claimed to be a lawyer, started an outpost which they dubbed "merrimount." he would have raucous like
fraternity parties with the indians, drinking and singing and songs about having sex. they were having a lot of fun. he put an 80 foot pole with antlers out to be a mark for everyone to know he was having a big party. they would drink a lot and trade with indians. that is not what i admire about him. [laughter] eric: i admire that he was sticking it to the pilgrims a little bit. he wrote about his adventure. the thing i admire about him the most is that he wrote extensively about the indians in such a unique way. he truly respected the indians he met.
he said that if he had a choice to live with the pilgrims or the indians, he would live with the indians. he said they respected their elderly, had no jails, no crime, they are kind to each other, they are joyful. it is an extended essay in praise of indian culture. i really like that. that's what i like about him. >> what do you think of jedediah smith? eric: i think he is a great character. i don't know some of the back story. i know there are various theories about his background and what he actually did out there. purely from an exploratory perspective, i think he is a giant in the history of the fur trade. he seems to be a man of high character and integrity. when you read his letters to his family, he is somewhat selfless. he was dependable. his peers liked him.
most importantly for me, what i focused on in the book is how he had the bravery to go where no one had gone before. he is like captain kirk. he liked going places and exploring as much as he did gathering pelts. >> if his map had survived, he'd be the most famous of western explorers. eric: i think you're right. i think the same could be said for many mountain men. they went to their graves without sharing their information. in particular, jedediah smith. he was killed by the comanches. everything he knew died with him. history is written by the winners. john poulter is another character.
i wish he had put more of his life down on paper, just like thomas morton, nothing is known about him in england. he was like one of the first capitalists in america. that's how i look at thomas morton. he believed totally in free trade, and free love. [laughter] eric: what is the name of his book? it was published in 1637. it's available somewhere. maybe you will find this a funny story. whenever i pick out a book to write, i stay excited for two
years as i have to write the book, and as you see, mine has a lot of words and information in it. people are constantly amazed that i can write a book and afterwards forget a lot of the facts. people ask me questions. i am totally blanking on it. [laughter] eric: trust me, it's in there. i'm already thinking about the china trade. >> as physical specimens these guys must've been something else. i'm sure you've read a couple of these where the indians walked all the way to taos. eric: they were tough. there is no doubt that the mountain men were tough. if they weren't tough, they were gone. any other questions? thank you very much for coming. [applause] >> if any of you would like your books signed, stand over here, please.
>> american history tv today. our new series road to the white house rewind. >> i missed. let them have it. he told me to sit facing the coke machine. i just do what i'm told. >> a look back at the 1992 presidential campaign of the clinton during a visit to franklin high school in new hampshire. marking the 70th anniversary of the nuremberg trials. the 1945 u.s. army documentary on nazi concentration and prison camps. and on oral histories. >> it was a couple days after d-day.