Fur Trade. The trade in animal pelts between North America and Europe began in the late sixteenth century, after the French arrived on the Saint Lawrence River. The French supplied metal and glass goods, textiles, and firearms and ammunition while the Indians initially traded the beaver robes they used during the winters and annually discarded. After the arrival of the English in the
early seventeenth century native traders negotiated for the best deal, playing one European colony against another. Access to British firepower made the League of the Iroquois the most powerful native group in the Great Lakes region. In the mid 1600s they defeated the Hurons and Petuns, who were allied with the French, in a great war over furs. Following widespread custom, the Iroquois adopted members of the peoples they defeated. Expanded commerce placed pressure on wild-game populations. A pattern became established in which native traders journeyed farther and farther westward to find more fur-bearing animals. However, French traders seeking to cut out the middleman pressed westward to the source of the furs. By the mid eighteenth century Europeans had thoroughly penetrated the fur-producing regions. They stimulated rivalry among native peoples and brought guns and ammunition with which such conflicts could occur. At about the same time, the horse—a transportation innovation brought to Mexico by the Spanish—had reached the native peoples of the southern Great Plains.
Wars. Beginning in 1689, in the aftermath of England’s Glorious Revolution, European conflicts repeatedly spilled over into North America. Spain was a nation in decline, but the continent’s two major powers—France and England—were jousting for power, wealth, and empire. King William’s War (1689–1697) turned partly on competition for the fur trade. Fearful of isolation, the French began to pressure the Iroquois to align with them or at least to observe neutrality. Conflict began as the result of England’s provocations against the French and the Abenakis of northern New England, who responded by raiding British settlements. The war played out in a series of costly but inconclusive skirmishes. By 1700 each of the five nations of the Iroquois made peace separately with France. Queen Anne’s War (1702–1713) was fought to determine who would be the Spanish monarch. Spain’s alliance with France meant that native peoples in Spanish and French zones of North America would come into conflict with those living under British influence. Fierce fighting took place in New England, where Abenaki warriors allied with France sacked Deerfield, the northernmost British settlement on the Connecticut River. In the South the French forged a durable alliance with the Choctaws and won over some of the many groups that made up the Creeks. In 1702 a British naval expedition sacked Spanish Saint Augustine, and two years later the British attacked a chain of Spanish missions in north Florida with more than one thousand Creek and Yamasee warriors. After capturing the missions they returned to Carolina with hundreds of native prisoners of war. The raid destroyed the Apalachee people of north Florida, who had survived as a chiefdom for hundreds of years. It also created lasting ill will among the surviving native peoples of the Southeast. The War of Jenkins’s Ear (1739–1742) began when English captain Robert Jenkins claimed that a Spanish naval officer cut off his ear in an interrogation. The initial phase saw naval clashes between England and Spain in the Caribbean and soon led to all-out continental war in Europe. Meanwhile, the simmering trade rivalry in the Northeast had led the French and British to erect forts on their border, and a new conflict, King George’s War, began in 1744. William Johnson, then a successful Indian trader and later the British Indian superintendent, persuaded the Mohawks to end their military neutrality and join him in raids against the French forts. In the South the Chickasaw resistance to the French and the Choctaws effectively disrupted trade routes, while the British-allied Cherokees battled the French-allied faction of the Creeks. A treaty ending the war was signed in 1748, but peace lasted less than ten years. In 1754 renewed hostilities led to the French and Indian War, the last great war between England and France for possession of the North American continent.
Contrary to popular belief, scalping was a Native American practice long before the arrival of Europeans in North America. (The only nonIndian people who are known to have scalped their foes were the Scythians, a nomadic Eurasian people of antiquity.) In recent years archaeologists have recovered human skulls from pre-1492 sites east and west of the Mississippi River that provide evidence of scalping. The skulls, some of which date from as early as 2500 b.c., exhibit circular cuts and scratches where scalps were traditionally lifted. Many of the first white explorers of the continent left written descriptions of this Native American custom. The Stadaconans along the Saint Lawrence River showed Jacques Cartier in 1535–1536 “the skins of five men’s heads, stretched on hoops, like parchment.” In 1540 a conquistador of Hernando de Soto’s expedition to west Florida watched in horror as the Indians killed one of his comrades, then “removed his head, or rather all around his skull... and carried it off as evidence of their deed.” Moreover, in the Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Muskogean languages, the ancient root word for “scalp” is cognate with the words for “head” and “hair.”
Indian males considered scalps to be trophies. A scalplock symbolized the warrior’s soul, and a young man earned honor and status by taking the scalp of an enemy. Although Europeans did not invent scalping they certainly promoted its spread and frequency by supplying Native American warriors with metal knives and offering bounties for not only Indian but European scalps as well.
Source: James Axtell and William C. Sturtevant, “The Unkindest Cut, or Who Invented Scalping? A Case Study,” in Axtell, The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).
Richard Middleton, Colonial America: A History, 1585–1776, second edition (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996);
Eric R. Wolf, Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).