Competitive Struggle by R.G. Robertson: a review

An extremely well-researched and well-written book about the fur trading posts in the continental United States west of the Mississippi River. More or less incidental to that accomplishment, Robertson gives us a fine history of the firms headed by John Jacob Astor and generations of the Chouteau family, and of the folks who attempted to compete with them in the beaver and buffalo hide trades.

The book’s an admirable accomplishment. The execution is nearly flawless, and the amount of information contained in this book is simply amazing. Moreover, it’s cross-referenced in ways that make it relatively simple to follow the threads of the story from post to post. And the endnotes contain extremely valuable essays comparing the reliability of various sources. Very nicely done.

Except: I really wish he’d written a different book. This book’s a long collection of related essays, with common threads and characters appearing time and again. The author states early on that the organization is deliberate, because “I feel these other categories are just as arbitrary.” This is certainly true to some extent, but the particular categorization selected–an alphabetical listing of all known fur posts–creates a story fragmented in ways that interfere with readability. A geographic history would have been far less fragmented than this book, but an organization based on companies or chronology would have been my preference.

This is, nonetheless, a wonderful accomplishment. Highly recommended.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

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