The Transformation of Native American Warfare: Trade and the Shift to Economically Motivated Conflict

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The Transformation of Native American Warfare: Trade and the Shift to Economically Motivated Conflict


Change. While warfare among the eastern Indians during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries followed the mourning-war pattern, it was in the process of being altered by a combination of demographic and economic factors. Eastern Indians practiced slash-and-burn agriculture, which quickly depleted the soil and thus forced settlements to move every twenty or thirty years. Combined with a rising continental population during the centuries prior to European contact, this agricultural system was compelling tribes to fight for control of increasingly scarce territory. More important, the rapidly growing exchange of beaver furs for European manufactured goods during the sixteenth century was beginning to transform dramatically the objectives (as well as the nature and style) of eastern woodland Indian warfare.

Origins of the Fur Trade. The fur trade originated during the early sixteenth century as a side business for European fishermen. French, Spanish, Basque, and Portuguese sailors supplemented the profits earned fishing off Newfoundland by exchanging manufactured goods for the Indians only salable commodity: beaver pelts. Around the middle of the century, the increasing demand for fashionable beaver-fur hats in Europe transformed the pelt trade into a major economic activity in which merchants exchanged brass items, beads, glass, kettles, liquor, cloth, and, especially, iron weapons for furs. By 1581 the beaver trade had become so lucrative that French merchants from the port of St. Malo began sending ships annually to the Montagnais settlement of Tadoussac on the St. Lawrence River. Within three years earnings were so high that they sent five ships; in 1585 they sent ten.


The Spanish soldiers that accompanied early conquistadores such as Juan Ponce de León and Panfilo de Narváez wore traditional, European metal armor. While such armor proved highly effective in Europe, it was unsuited to campaigning in the humid, swampy south because of its weight and its tendency to create easily infected wounds by chafing against the wearers bare skin. More important, metal back- and breastplates could not stop the flint-tipped arrows that southeastern Indians such as the Aute fired from their powerful longbows. The more-experienced soldiers who accompanied de Soto consequently adopted the style of armor worn by the Aztec Indians. Composed of several inches of quilted cotton covered by thick leather, Aztec armor protected the Spanish troops from Indian arrows while simultaneously allowing them to maneuver quickly and easily. Without this New World invention, de Sotos expedition would doubtless have suffered more substantially from Indian attacks.

Source: Ian K. Steele, Warpaths: Invasion of North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Hunting Grounds. The fur trade quickly transformed the eastern Indians blood feuds into territorial contests called beaver wars. The ever-increasing desire for European manufactured goods induced Native Americans such as the Micmacs of coastal Canada to begin specializing in fur trapping. Intensive trapping of beaver, in turn, led them to expand their hunting grounds into areas possessed by other tribes. After hunting beaver to the point of extinction in their own territory, for example, the Micmacs attacked the nearby Etchemin Indians in an effort to take their rich trapping grounds. The superior iron weapons that the Micmacs received in exchange for beaver pelts ensured that they would prevail. By the early seventeenth century, in fact, Micmac assaults had forced the Etchemin to relocate permanently to less-valuable territory north of the St. Lawrence River.

Centers of Trade. The fur trade also led inland tribes to clash with coastal Indians over access to European trade. Such conflicts stemmed from the coastal tribes efforts to establish exclusive trading relations with the Europeans. During the 1580s, for example, the Montagnais used their position on the Saguenay Rivera trade route long before the arrival of the Europeansto profit not by increasing fur trapping as the Micmacs had done, but by purchasing pelts from other tribes at a discount and then selling them to the French. To maintain their monopoly, the Montagnais periodically clashed with inland Native Americans who sought to trade directly with the Europeans. Inland tribes responded to such actions in two fashions. Some attacked coastal Indians and forced them out of their territory. The Wappingers of the upper Hudson River, for instance, violently drove the Munsee Indians out of the lower part of the valley. Others sought to restore the balance of power by initiating concerted campaigns designed to seize the iron weapons that underlay the coastal tribes military advantage. The Mohawks apparently conducted such a campaign against the St. Lawrence Iroquois during the latter half of the sixteenth century.

Ongoing Change. By 1600 the fur trade was well on its way to altering irrevocably the nature of the eastern woodland Indians wars. The desire for the pelts needed to acquire manufactured goods had already transformed warfare in the Northeast from low-intensity blood feuds to far deadlier contests over hunting grounds and trading sites. At the end of the sixteenth century this process had not yet changed the style and objectives of warfare among tribes living in the interior and in the South. The spreading demand for European manufactured goods, however, and the desire for the iron weapons needed to keep pace with similarly armed hostile neighbors ensured that the fur trade would change the nature of warfare among all the eastern woodland Indian tribes. Growing conflict over territory, moreover, compelled small bands and tribes to join together for protection and led victorious tribes to absorb vanquished ones. It thus abetted the rise of confederations that had begun during the prior century.


Initially, the matchlock firearms employed by European troops did not lend themselves well to combat in the New World. Muskets proved highly effective in the mass-formation style warfare common in Europe, but were ill suited to the Indians favored tactics of ambush and surprise attack because the lighted, smoke-producing wick they required revealed the bearers location. Sixteenth-century matchlock muskets, moreover, were heavy, unreliable weapons that misfired often and would not work in rain or other inclement weather. In addition they were only accurate up to fifty to seventy-five yards.

The musket nonetheless rapidly became the favored weapon of European troops operating in the New World. This occurred, in part, because some matchlock firearms could fire a spray of small, deadly musket balls that could strike several targets at once. More important, muskets required very little training or skill compared to other projectile weapons such as the crossbow. Ease of use, in fact, led Spanish troops in the New World to use matchlocks exclusively after 1550, even while the crossbow remained the dominant weapon among Spains European armies.

Sources: M. L. Brown, Firearms in Colonial America: The Impact on History and Technology, 14921792 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1980);

Ian K. Steele, Warpaths: Invasion of North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).


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 (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1976);

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