The Transformation of Indian Exchange: The Fur Trade

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The Transformation of Indian Exchange: The Fur Trade


Cause of Change. The arrival of Europeans in North America in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries

initiated a process that would, over the next 150 years, change forever the eastern Indians socioeconomic system. During that period tribes living in the Northeast began gradually to exchange beaver furs for European manufactured goods. At first this trade was conducted in a manner consistent with the Native Americans system of reciprocal gift exchange. As the years passed, however, the northeast Indians increasing participation in the fur trade radically transformed their traditional system of exchange and the nature of their society, and left them economically dependent on the Europeans.

Origins. The fur trade began as a side business for European fishermen in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Breton, French, Basque, Spanish, and Portuguese sailors supplemented the profits they earned fishing off Newfoundland by exchanging manufactured goods for beaver furs, the only valuable commodity the Indians possessed. Early trade was in keeping with the traditional system of reciprocal exchange: Native Americans bartered pelts for decorative trinkets such as earrings and glass beads in order to establish good relations with the Europeans. Soon, though, coastal tribes such as the Micmac and Abenaki were exchanging furs

with Europeans not to affirm social and political ties but to acquire utilitarian items such as brass kettles, fishing hooks, and, especially, iron weapons.

Expansion. The fur trade became a major economic activity during the latter half of the sixteenth century. Sharply increasing demand for fashionable beaver-fur hats in Europe, the construction of fish-processing stations on Labrador and Newfoundland, and the institution of regular trade between the French port of St. Malo and the Montagnais settlement of Tadoussac on the St. Lawrence River in the early 1580s combined to spur a dramatic rise in the exchange of pelts for manufactured goods. Seeking the prestige and utility that accompanied the possession of European goods, tribes such as the Micmacs gradually devoted less and less time to subsistence agriculture so that they could concentrate on hunting beavers. The resultant overtrapping of fur-bearing animals soon forced such tribes to war with nearby Indians in order to expand their hunting grounds. Such territorially motivated warfare, in turn, spurred other Indians to participate in the fur trade so that they could acquire the iron weapons needed to defend themselves and restore the balance of power. Military necessity thus played a critical part in bringing the northeastern Indians into the expanding Atlantic economy.

Specialization and Dependency. Over time the fur trade fundamentally transformed the northeastern Indians socioeconomic system and the nature of their trade. The growing desire for high-prestige European goods gradually led tribes such as the Micmac, Montagnais, Malecite, and Passamaquoddy to abandon subsistence activities and the manufacture of tools in favor of an exclusive focus on fur trapping. By the early seventeenth century, therefore, these tribes were no longer autonomous, subsistence-based societies that secured personal and political relations through the reciprocal exchange of gifts. Instead they had become specialized participants in an Atlantic economy which depended on continued trade with the Europeans for their survival.

Continuation. By 1600 the fur trade was well on its way to changing irrevocably the material basis of Native American society. The desire for utilitarian, high-prestige European manufactured goods had already transformed the tribes of eastern Canada from autonomous, subsistence-based societies into dependent ones that specialized in trapping. At the end of the sixteenth century this process had not yet affected tribes located in the interior and to the South, though European goods were already moving west along indigenous trade routes. The spreading demand for European goods; the increased penetration of French, Dutch, and British traders; and the need for iron weapons to keep pace with similarly armed hostile neighbors combined, however, to insure that the fur trade would soon alter the economic basis and system of trade among all the tribes located in eastern North America.


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

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).


The Transformation of Indian Exchange: The Fur Trade