Pre-1600: Trade and Commerce: Overview

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Pre-1600: Trade and Commerce: Overview

Transformation. Trade in North America began to undergo a sweeping transformation during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries because of the arrival of European traders, explorers, and fishermen. For thousands of years subsistence-based Native American tribes had engaged in the local, reciprocal exchange of high-prestige luxury items. With the coming of European merchants and explorers in the decades after Christopher Columbuss discovery, however, the Indians of the Northeast began exchanging beaver furs for European manufactured goods. As a result they soon abandoned subsistence activities and became specialized participants in the early modern system of international trade. The Europeans also brought another, more violent form of commercial intercourse with them to the New World: predatory commerce through privateering raids in the waters off North America.

Precontact Trade. Living for the most part in self-sufficient, subsistence-based communities, precontact-era Indians did not need to trade to survive and saw little gain in accumulation. They nonetheless participated extensively in intertribal commerce. They did so, in part, to acquire luxury goods and exotic prestige items that they interred with the dead in keeping with their practice of mortuary ceremonialism. More important, they engaged in the reciprocal exchange of gifts as a way of securing and perpetuating political alliances by linking tribes together. Intertribal trade was thus an important tool for maintaining the peace.

The East. Indian tribes located in the eastern part of North America had traded with one another for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the Europeans. In the northeast tribes such as the Petuns, Hurons, Montagnais, Susquehannocks, and Algonkins exchanged surplus goods and luxury items such as squirrel-skin robes over an extensive trade network. In the Southeast, meanwhile, tribes such as the Chicaza, Catawba, and Cofitachequi took part in a regional trade that occurred largely between coastal and inland tribes. In both areas, Native Americans also participated extensively in informal, continentwide trade through intermediary tribes.

The Southwest. Intertribal commerce among the Indians of the Southwest differed markedly from indigenous trade in eastern North America in terms of its development and nature. Early southwest Indians such as the Anasazi had participated in a pansouthwest trade network with Central American civilizations such as the Toltec Empire. As a result they helped spread Mesoamerican agricultural techniques and pottery styles to the Indians of North America. At the time of first contact, meanwhile, the Pueblo Indians living in and near the Rio Grande valley had developed a complementary commercial relationship with the Plains Indian tribes located to their east that was far more complex and differentiated than the reciprocity-based trade practiced in eastern North America.

Fur Trade. The arrival of European fisherman, explorers, and merchants in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries sparked a dramatic and far-reaching transformation of indigenous trade. Through contact with Europeans, tribes in the Northeast began to exchange beaver pelts for manufactured goods. Initially this trade followed the traditional pattern of reciprocal exchange that had governed Indian trade for centuries. Soon, though, growing participation in the fur trade changed the northeast Indians system of exchange, altered fundamentally the economic basis of their society, and left them economically dependent on continued European trade for their survival.

Privateering. Before 1600 the nations of western Europe did not engage in normal commercial intercourse with one another in North America. Instead the British, French, and Dutch participated in a form of predatory trade in the waters off North America through privateering raids against Spanish shipping that were destined to play an important part in the early settlement of North America. Both the French and the British, for example, attempted to establish fortified colonies on the continent from which privateers could raid the lucrative Spanish treasure fleet year round. The first permanent European settlement in North America, meanwhile, was an indirect product of privateering: Spain established St. Augustine to defend its Caribbean shipping and to prevent the construction of further privateering bases in Florida.

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Pre-1600: Trade and Commerce: Overview

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Pre-1600: Trade and Commerce: Overview