views updated


Native Americans traded animal skins and pelts with each other for centuries before European explorers arrived in the New World. Inland Native Americans regularly traveled to coastal regions to trade furs and stone tools for fish and shells. The period from 1600 to 1750 is known as the mercantile era, when Native Americans traded with Europeans from various countries, including the Netherlands, England, France, and Spain.

Trade was a way for Native Americans and Europeans to acquire things lacking in their own worlds but abundant in other lands. The New World had abundant animal populations. In addition to deerskin furs and pelts, Native Americans supplied Europeans with products from bear, buffalo, deer, elk, beaver, fox, mink, muskrat, and raccoon. Native Americans also had crops the settlers needed to survive, and gold and silver, from which European traders earned great profits.

Both sides eager to trade

In return, Europeans supplied Native Americans with crafts and manufactured goods that were unavailable or in short supply in the New World. European items traded included awls, axes, beads, blankets, buttons, cloth, clothing, combs, guns, gunpowder and shot, hoes, mirrors, ribbon, rum, scissors, and thread. Manufactured weapons allowed Native Americans to kill more hunted animals, while the domestic goods in trade they received brought radical changes to their households.

At first, the terms of trade were entirely the product of negotiation between the explorers and the natives. Colonial governments eventually tried to regulate the terms of trade. The Superior Council of Louisiana , for example, banned the unauthorized sale of liquor to natives in 1717, and in 1721 it set rates of exchange for trade on the lower Mississippi River. For their part, Native Americans became shrewd about choosing between different colonial powers to maximize the benefits of trade for themselves.

The Slave Trade

The slave trade in America also developed between 1600 and 1750. Europeans and colonists captured humans in Africa or bought them with goods, chained them onto slave ships , and transported them to the West Indies and to Carolina to sell them into slavery.

Of the eleven million African slaves who crossed the Atlantic Ocean between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, about six hundred and fifty thousand went to the American colonies. Shiploads of slaves were sold either to a plantation or group of planters, to individual buyers at auctions, or to merchants in a spectacle called a scramble. Under the terms of the scramble, merchants set a price for each slave on a ship and then allowed buyers to rush aboard to select the ones they wanted to buy. Colonial law, which eventually became American law, deemed that slaves were considered to be property with neither civil rights nor basic rights as human beings.

Trading had consequences for native communities. The availability of European goods, such as cloth and utensils, led Native Americans to neglect to provide such goods for themselves from the resources at hand in America. Then, they migrated westward as animal populations dwindled, which opened up coastal and inland regions for European settlement. In time, the trading relationships evolved into forced displacement of Native Americans by the United States, which eventually wanted land and resources for agriculture and industry instead of trade with Native Americans.

More From