Goods Exchanged. Deerskins and the pelts of other animals were the first lucrative commodity in New England,
New York, and South Carolina. There was a demand in Europe for the skins, and there was a ready supply in the colonies. Traders exchanged manufactured goods for bear, buffalo, deer, elk, beaver, fox, mink, muskrat, and raccoon furs from many Indian tribes. In return the Indians received awls, axes, beads, blankets, buttons, cloth, clothing, combs, guns, gunpowder and shot, hoes, mirrors, ribbon, rum, scissors, and thread. As early as 1717 the Superior Council of Louisiana prohibited the unauthorized sale of liquor to Indians. By 1721 the same Council established rates of exchange for trade on the lower Mississippi. One meter of cloth or one ax was worth four dressed skins. Two dressed skins would fetch one blanket or tomahawk. One dressed skin was worth two-thirds of a pound of gunpowder or twenty gun flints. Savvy Indians sought better deals by comparing the quality of French and English merchandise and bargaining for better exchange rates.
Systems. Trading skins and pelts was a tradition of many centuries among Native Americans. Inland Indians had routinely traveled to the coast to trade their furs and stone tools for fish and shells. Indians greeted European settlers with fish, corn, and pelts and began an extensive trading system. Iroquois hunters served as middlemen for New York Dutch traders, delivering furs to trading posts at Albany and Oswego. Pennsylvania traders went directly to Indian villages deep in the interior. Residents of Pennsylvania frontier towns furnished traders with supplies and maintained warehouses to store furs and skins until they could be shipped to the coast. Cherokees and Catawbas traded deerskins with South Carolinians well into the eighteenth century. As late as 1749 deerskins made up 18 percent of the Lower South’s exports. Around the Great Lakes, the Hurons exchanged furs with French traders.
Effects. Although the trade in furs and skins proved an economic success for European settlers, it changed forever the way the Native Americans lived. They ceased to be self-sufficient as they ignored their crops in the effort to meet the demand for furs. They neglected the traditional production of clothing and household utensils because of the availability and quality of European merchandise. By focusing their energy on supplying a single export, the Indians became increasingly dependent on the European trader for manufactured goods. Finally, their migration further west, where they scouted for more skins, left their homeland vulnerable to European occupation.
William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983);
Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (New York: Norton, 1975);
James H. Merrell, The Indians’ New World: Catawbas and Their Neighbors From European Contact Through The Era of Removal (New York: Norton, 1989);
Daniel H. Usner Jr., Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley Before 1783 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).