The Revenant is one of eight films that could walk away with the Best Picture prize at this weekend’s Oscars. Whatever happens, however, it’s the only one whose story can claim some credit for the development of the West Coast.
The 1820s fur-trading expedition fictionalized in the Leonardo DiCaprio film (and the novel on which it’s based) was part of a major arc of 19th-century American history, explains Eric Jay Dolin, author of the book Fur, Fortune, and Empire. And, in drawing the eyes of the fledgling nation west, it helped shape the borders of the evolving country.
Here’s what happened: as soon as Europeans came to the shores of the New World, the fur trade—mostly for beaver pelts, which were highly desired in Europe—was big business. For the first settlers in areas like New Amsterdam, fur was a crucial part of the local economy. They were able to trade European goods with the local Native American population for the pelts, trade those pelts with Europeans for currency and buy European goods with that currency. Thus, says Dolin, “the beaver was critical to the survival of the early colonists.”
By the beginning of the 19th century, however, the beaver population in the East had been crippled. Fur traders (most notoriously John Jacob Astor) hoped to capitalize on the newly finalized Louisiana Purchase by sending traders and trappers out west. As a bonus, opening up the trade to the west coast would mean easier access to the lucrative Chinese market for beaver and otter fur. (“In 1800, you could get almost $100 for a sea otter pelt in China,” Dolin says. “At that time, the average laborer in the US made $1 or $2 a day.”)
“The Hugh Glass incident [of The Revenant] is the first thrust of the fur traders from St. Louis primarily pushing out west and making tentative forays up the Missouri,” Dolin says. “The ‘mountain men’ opened up the west to the gaze of the people in the east, who would later be the very people who would head out west to settle these new parts of the country.”
They also captured the American imagination, depicted in paintings and periodicals as rugged individuals who carved out a near-heroic life in the wilderness. The “mountain men” of Glass’ era established relationships with Native Americans in the area, though those relations would often sour when mountain men switched from trading to trapping, and they broke new trails that would later by followed by the settlers that helped make America’s think of the Pacific Northwest as part of itself. Often, these early settlers would be led by guides who had originally come west for fur. Those settlers introduced other economies, like farming and mining, to the area. By the election of 1846, the Oregon border was a big enough issue to swing a presidential election.
“Within the context of what happened out west, the era of the mountain men and the fur trade in general was very important to the history of the United States, with respect to its economic impact but more importantly with respect to the evolution and expansion of the United States,” Dolin says. “No matter what you think of trapping animals, the fur traders played a fascinating and important role in our spread across the country.”