Indian Trade and Traders

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INDIAN TRADE AND TRADERS. The Indian trade of North America has traditionally been described as the web of economic relations between Europeans and their successors (Euro-Americans and Euro-Canadians) with Native Americans. Ever since Columbus's first land-fall, Indians and whites have exchanged items of material and cultural significance as part of complex diplomatic and economic relationships entered into by two or more parties to secure exotic goods, establish and maintain political alliances, and ensure cohabitation of lands. By this same convention, the Indian trader has been portrayed as a Euro-American or Euro-Canadian male engaged in supplying Native Americans (male and female) with goods and services in exchange for Indian-made or-processed commodities such as furs, pelts, hides, and foodstuffs; geographic information; and, at times, Native political and social alliances. This individual, often portrayed as a back-woodsman or hunter-peddler, is historically associated directly with the beaver trade because of that animal's highly prized fur, used by Europeans in the manufacture of hats and coats by Europeans.

A more accurate view treats the Indian trade of North America as an ancient institution firmly established well before European contact and colonization. Linking both tribes and regions, this Indian trade involved individual traders as well as trader cultures that served as conduits between tribes separated by vast distances. Indian traders—female as well as male—met at Native American trading centers strategically located along major river systems or at hubs where several tribes seasonally passed en route to hunting, gathering, or fishing grounds. Examples include the ancient city of Cahokia in present-day Illinois, the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara villages (often called Middle Missouri Indian towns) in the present-day states of North Dakota and South Dakota, Zuni Pueblo in contemporary New Mexico, and passages or portages between important waterways such as Sault Sainte Marie and Niagara Falls in the Great Lakes region and the Dalles on the Columbia River. In addition to foodstuffs, fiberware and clayware, hides, and exotics ranging from obsidian and flint to seashells and pearls to precious gems and minerals passed hands in Indian lodges and at native trade fairs before a.d. 1500.

Early European-Indian Trade

After 1600, these same trails, watercourses, and meeting grounds became routes of European traffic and footprints for forts, factories, and towns placed at strategic points such as Albany, Augusta, Chicago, Detroit, Kodiak, Michilimackinac, Mobile, Natchitoches, Portland (Oregon), San Antonio, and St. Louis. Colonists introduced European mercantile ideas of inventories and profits based upon dynamics of supply and demand, often compromising Native systems, which operated on principles of barter exchange, gift-giving, and reciprocity. Whites who adhered to norms of Native trade did better than those who ignored or bypassed Indian protocol. The French succeeded best in the Indian trade business, becoming social as well as economic partners across North America. Up to the fall of New France in 1760 and beyond, French-Indian relations along the Saint Lawrence and Mississippi Rivers and in the Great Lakes region remained cordial, tied by kinship as well as economic partnerships.

Spanish, Dutch, English, Russian, and Swedish traders were less successful because of their more rigid expectations: they insisted that Indians conform to European trading standards. All colonists sought furs and hides, including deerskins, for a lucrative European and Cantonese fur market, making the occupation of the white or mixed-blood (métis or French-Indian and mestizo or Spanish-Indian) trader a common occupational type on all national and ethnic frontiers in North America. Each had government-licensed trading companies with wide powers to expand the respective nation's interests in addition to authority to trade, trap, hunt, and settle. Also, each country had independents, known in French parlance as coureur de bois (runners of the woods). From the Saint Lawrence to the Rio Grande and on to the Pacific Ocean, these "free" trappers and traders trekked and traded, earning reputations for adventure and exploration, and often compromising national interests for personal gain. Across every fur trade frontier, small concerns were absorbed by medium-and large-sized companies, whose workforces were under contract for specific terms of engagement and for set annual salaries.

Many major cities developed because of this nascent Indian trade. They include Albany and New York City (Dutch); Detroit, Mobile, Natchez, and Montreal (French); Charleston, Philadelphia, and Savannah (English); Pensacola, Santa Fe, and St. Louis (Spanish); Wilmington, Delaware (Swedish); and Kodiak, Alaska, and Fort Ross, California (Russian).

The Indian trade by itself did not result in total economic dependency of Native peoples on white suppliers of guns, blankets, kettles, knives, and other utilitarian items that made life more comfortable. Every tribe engaged in this European-supplied trade to a degree, some flourishing under the new formula of Indian-white trade, others suffering hardship and loss of economic position. Throughout the eighteenth century, most tribes of eastern and southeastern North America were locked into the Indian trade as way of life and expected French, British, and Spanish traders to protect their respective trade spheres from outside aggressors and internal rebellion.

Trade after the American Revolution

In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the Indian trade continued under different flags and more restrictive rules. Congress regulated Indian trade under a series of Trade and Intercourse Acts beginning in 1790, establishing government "factories" in the heart of Indian territories in 1796 with the intent of keeping settlers and alcohol out of Indian country. This segregationist approach was abandoned in 1822, allowing large and small companies to compete for Indian furs and favors in the western territories. In both Canada and the United States, independent traders and smaller firms were historically leveraged out of business by oligarchies such as the Montreal-based North West Company; the Philadelphia firm of Baynton, Wharton, and Morgan; and Spanish, Indian, and English traders working for the British firm Panton, Leslie, and Company, based in Florida. Two near-monopolies—the London-based Hudson's Bay Company (which absorbed the North West Company in 1821) and the New York-based American Fur Company (formed by John Jacob Astor in 1808) with its St. Louis-controlled Western Department (organized in 1822)—emerged in Canada and in the United States, respectively, up through the American Civil War.

As smaller, fur-bearing habitats were trapped out or settled, a new economic Indian trade prevailed from 1840 to 1890 on the western plains and prairies. This buffalo-hide trade supplied water-and steam-powered factories' demand for leather belts as well as military overcoats, rugs, and blankets. Once the buffalo were gone, economic dependency on reservations in Canada and the United States gripped Indian communities, now reliant on annuities and the need to become herders and farmers.

Still, the Indian trade and the Indian trader, part of an international fur industry, continued in Alaska and in Canada's remote Yukon and Northwest Territories, where it remains important, as well as in the eastern Arctic. Across North America, Indians themselves have continued to function as Indian traders, many dealing in arts and crafts, others in horse breeding and trading; others in restoring buffalo, trading calves for other livestock and goods from one reserve to another; and still others in mitigating violations of treaties by swapping further litigation for restoration of tribal lands or monetary compensation.


Chittenden, Hiram Martin. The American Fur Trade of the Far West. New York: Francis P. Harper, 1902.

Ewers, John C. Plains Indian History and Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

Innis, Harold A. The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1930.

Sturtevant, William C., gen. ed. Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 4, Indian-White Relations. Edited by Wilcomb E. Washburn. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1988.

William R.Swagerty

See alsoCharleston Indian Trade ; Fur Companies ; Fur Trade and Trapping ; Indian Economic Life ; Missouri River Fur Trade ; Mountain Men ; Pacific Fur Company .

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Indian Trade and Traders

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