Indigenous Trade: The Southeast

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Indigenous Trade: The Southeast


Southeastern Tribes. Like the Indians of the Northeast, the indigenous peoples of southeastern North

America had engaged in widespread, long-distance trade for thousand of years before the arrival of Europeans. Tribes such as the Catawbas, Algonkins, Cofitachequi, and Chicaza participated extensively in both regional, intertribal commercewhich centered largely on the exchange of goods between inland and coastal tribesand in the larger continental trade. Southeastern commerce, however, differed from northeastern bartering in one important regard: during the Mississippian period the South witnessed the rise of several large cities that served as important commercial centers.

Initial Networks. The Indians of the Southeast engaged extensively in intertribal trading as far back as the Woodland period (1000 b.c.). Archaeological evidence suggests strongly that this trade was closely related to the widespread practice of mortuary ceremonialism, wherein luxury goods and prestige items were interred in ossuaries with the dead. To acquire the exotic, high prestige goods desired for their burial rituals, the southeastern Indians exchanged locally produced items with intermediary tribes for such prized rarities as Great Lakes copper, western obsidian, and Rocky Mountain grizzly-bear teeth. The presence of Appalachian Mountain mica and Gulf Coast marine shells at archaeological sites throughout the South also indicates that southeastern tribes bartered goods regularly along a network of regional and local trade routes.


Wampums dramatic transformation in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries demonstrates clearly the effects of the fur trade on the northeast Indians socioeconomic system. Made of carefully ground whelk and quahog shells found only in Long Island Sound, strings of purple and white wampum did not function as currency in precontact North America. Rather, as the historian William Cronon points out, these high-prestige items served as an important medium of gift giving that conformed to the Native Americans system of reciprocal social relations. So prized were wampum beads, in fact, that they were exchanged as gifts only for important purposes such as paying restitution for a murder, offering tribute to a powerful chief, or consummating an alliance with a foreign tribe.

The arrival of Europeans and the consequent integration of the Indians into the Atlantic economy through the fur trade rapidly transformed wampums nature and purpose. This occurred, in part, because metal tools of European origin allowed tribes living along Long Island Sound to increase markedly their production of the shells. More important, Dutch, French, and English traders gave wampum an established-if-fluctuating value in terms of pelts and made it available throughout New England after they realized that they could exchange it as currency for beaver furs. As a result, wampum rapidly changed from a high-prestige gift used to cement personal and political relationships to a medium of exchange used to purchase goods.

Source: William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983).

Mississippian Period (1000-1250 a.d. ). A new and more elaborate trade system developed around 1000 a.d. in conjunction with the rise of the Mississippian culture. Along with the enormous earthen mounds for which they are still renowned, Indians of the Mississippian tradition built large, impressive cities such as Moundville on the Black Warrior River in present-day Alabama and Cahokia at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. These cities quickly became important commercial centers in the informal, continentwide trade network. The presence of long-nosed god masks at Mississippian archaeological sites indicates, moreover, that

these cities traded directly with the Aztec Empire, likely through traveling Aztec merchants known as pochtecas.

Eve of Contact. Like their northeastern contemporaries, the Mississippian-tradition Indians who dominated the Southeast on the eve of European contact had a subsistence-based economy. While this system allowed the peoples of the Southeast to satisfy their needs independently, they nonetheless engaged extensively in regional intertribal trade and, through intermediaries, in the larger, continentwide trade. Most of the regional commerce involved the exchange of goods that, for ecological reasons, tribes had in abundance; it thus occurred largely between inland and coastal tribes. Interior tribes exchanged flint, cane, mica, pelts, wood, and feather cloaks for salt, dried fish, and ilex vomitoria leaves used to make the ritually important black drink. In addition coastal tribes supplied interior Indians with much-sought-after shells used to produce high-prestige items such as necklaces.


Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976);

J. Leitch Wright Jr., The Only Land They Knew: The Tragic Story of the American Indians in the Old South (New York: Free Press, 1981).