Indigenous Trade: The Northeast

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Indigenous Trade: The Northeast


Northeastern Indians. The Indian tribes of northeastern North America bartered extensively with one another and with the indigenous peoples of other regions long before Columbuss first voyage to the New World. The Hurons, Iroquois, Susquehannocks, Petuns, Neutrals, Montagnais, and others maintained extensive trade networks over which they exchanged surplus itemslargely corn, dried fish, or furseither with each other for necessities or with more-distant tribes for luxury goods such as tobacco and prized religious items such as sea shells. This complex trade network did more than just supply the Indians of the Northeast with luxury goods, however; it also ensured the peace by extending to intertribal relations the system of personal reciprocity on which harmonious Indian social relations rested.

Early Patterns. Archaeological evidence suggests strongly that Native Americans living in the Northeast traded with each other and with Indians from other regions as early as 2000 b.c. Copper artifacts found at sites in New York and Ontario, for example, were likely acquired through trade with Indians living in the copper-rich upper Great Lakes region. Archaeological evidence also indicates that Middle Woodland-era Indians living in the Northeast traded with the Hopewell culture that dominated the central Mississippi, Ohio, and Illinois River valleys from 300 b.c. to 250 a.d. From these Mound Builders the northeastern Indians obtained luxury goods such as large sea shells that originated in the Gulf of Mexico, pottery figures, pearls, and copper and silver ornaments. Through this trade the northeastern Indians also acquired the Hopewell cultures highly developed pottery styles and agricultural techniques.

Precontact Era. During the centuries prior to first contact with the Europeans, the Indians of the Northeast traded extensively with Native Americans living in other regions. Through indirect trade conducted by intermediary tribes the Hurons, Iroquois, Montagnais, and others

acquired luxury goods such as gourds, conch shells, and shark teeth that originated in the Southeast and along the Gulf Coast. From the West and the North, meanwhile, these tribes obtained buffalo-skin robes, charms, clothing, and raw copper. The Indians of the Northeast also engaged in a highly developed regional system of exchange. The Susquehannocks who lived in and around present-day Pennsylvania, for instance, exchanged wampum beads for goods produced by more-northerly tribes while the Neutrals of contemporary New York State had a thriving business trading tobacco and black squirrel skins with the Hurons of modern-day southern Ontario. The Hurons, in turn, supplied the seminomadic Algonkin Indians located further north with squirrel-skin coats, nets, ropes, and southern luxury goods such as tobacco, and foodstuffs in exchange for dried fish and skins. St. Lawrence River valley tribes such as the Montagnais Indians, meanwhile, continued to use the well-established Saguenay River trade route to swap foodstuffs for upper Great Lakes copper.


The most important precontact trading hub in North America was the Mississippian-tradition city of Cahokia. Located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers near present-day St. Louis, Cahokia was a political, economic, and religious center with a population of 38,000. From about 1000 a.d. to 1200 a.d. it dominated trade along the Mississippi River, served as an important commercial gateway for tribes living to the north, and occupied a key intermediary position in the extensive-if-informal continental trading network. Evidence suggests strongly, moreover, that Cahokia engaged in directif limitedcommercial intercourse with Mesoamerican cultures such as the Aztec Indians. Through this trade and its position as an important intermediary the city helped bring high-yield, Mesoamerican corn to the Indians of eastern North America. Ultimately, however, Cahokias dominance of Mississippi valley trade proved to be short-lived; it began to decline sharply around 1250 and was abandoned entirely not long thereafter.

Sources: Paul D. Welch, Moundvilles Economy (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991);

Thomas E. Emerson and R. Barry Lewis, eds., Cahokia and the Hinterlands: Middle Mississippian Cultures of the Midwest (Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991).

Diplomatic Aspects. Along with its obvious economic role, trade performed a crucial diplomatic function by extending to intertribal relations the system of reciprocity that governed social relations among the northeastern Indians. That system ensured tribal harmony by linking individuals and clans together through the reciprocal exchange of obligations, gifts, and spiritual power. At the intertribal level this resulted in peaceful, friendly relations between tribes that regularly traded goods and hostile relations between those that did not. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, for example, the Hurons enjoyed peaceful ties with the Algonkins


Trade amongst the Indians of the Northwest generally followed the pattern prevalent in the East. The exchange of luxury goods was unique, however, in that it was dominated by a single product: oolichan, or grease, fish. Nine to ten inches long and native to the Pacific Northwest, the oily oolichan fish were highly prized for two reasons. First, they provided an abundance of fish oil used to improve the flavor of the Indians winter diet of dried fish. More important, the grease fish were so oily that the Native Americans could use them as candles simply by lighting them.

No northwestern product was traded as extensively as the oolichan fish. The Tsimshian Indians who controlled the oolichan business by virtue of their location along the Nass River caught the fish during their annual runs in March and April. After cooking the fish down to get the grease, they transported them inland by canoe and then along forest paths known as grease trails. So desirable were the fish that the Tsimshian people achieved great wealth; they thus became the envy of the whole coast.

Source: George Woodchuck, Peoples of the Coast: The Indians of the Pacific Northwest (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977).

as a result of their regular, reciprocal commerce. At the same time they warred ceaselessly with the Iroquois confederation, with which they did not trade.

The Ritual of Exchange. The diplomatic nature of trade and its basis in the Indians system of reciprocal social relations powerfully shaped the way it was conducted. The trading itself took place only after several days of feasting, speeches, and the exchange of formal gifts between headmen designed to ease tensions between the parties and to assure continued commercial relations. Reciprocity and the desire to retain good relations also governed the actual bartering. As a result, while northeastern Indians keenly understood the relative market value of a commodity, they refused to haggle for fear of offending their trading partners and destroying the commercial relations on which peace rested.


Neal Salisbury, Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England, 15001643 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982);

Bruce G. Trigger, The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660, 2 volumes (Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 1976, 1987);

Trigger, Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 15: Northeast (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1988).