Thursday, January 10, 2013

“An Short Essay on the North American Fur Trade”


Michael J. Galban

The fur trade, as it existed in North America altered forever, the natural flow of life for every Native American group who participated in it, but probably not in the ways you might guess. It is not only the “new” products which became available to the Native peoples that created this profound change. It was also the inevitable shift that occurred to Native ways of thinking and ways of viewing the world which would have a great impact on Native people. While it is certainly true that new European materials, practices and technologies that had never before been available to Native peoples had a large impact on their lives and life ways but that is only a portion of the story. It is equally important to consider the trade in ideas, concepts, and perspectives that Europeans and Natives comingled and also the devastating and lasting impact of alcohol on native communities that must be considered. 

Within the complex and diverse indigenous culture groups across North America, there lays a core of belief regarding conservation of resources and local sustainability. The world of plants and animals, fish and fowl were not viewed as commodities to be bought and sold but as gifts for which proper gratitude is owed. Respect for the other entities of the land is a fundamental aspect of Native belief systems. Hunting and fishing rituals are meant not only to ensure a good harvest but also as an acknowledgement of the reciprocal relationship that human beings have with the gifts of creation. It is well known that symbolic offerings and codified ritual gestures were used by Native inhabitants of the Great Lakes since time immemorial and this did not change during the colonial period but in order to accommodate for the growing demand for furs native hunters had to adapt. 

However, some ancient native concepts would survive. Ideas about conservation and subsistence would be carried into the fur trade period much to the dismay of traders who were under constant pressure to increase the number of furs and to generate higher profits for their investors. 

In Andrew Graham’s “Observation’s on Hudson’s Bay 1767 – 1791” we are afforded a rare glimpse into 18th c Native trade customs. 

one canoe brings down yearly to the Fort one hundred made beaver in different kinds of furs, and trades with me seventy of the said beaver for real necessaries. The other thirty beaver shall so puzzle him to trade, that he often asks me what he shall buy, and when I make an answer, Trade some more powder, shot, tobacco and hatchets., his answer is, I have traded sufficient to serve me and my family until I see you again next summer;” 

In the Graham account, we can see two very distinct approaches to the fur trade. The European, engages in the fur trade primarily for sustained profit while the Native, participates to satisfy their yearly needs without an interest in accumulating a surplus of goods. Native people had to be taught to desire more than they needed; it was not an innate concept for them. Gift giving customs would be one of the ways in which Europeans could introduce this idea. Normally, gift giving was between friendly people and a necessary protocol before any important negotiation or assembly. European trade companies used this as an opportunity to stratify their Native consumers. They would give more and better goods to leaders and proportionately more simple goods to those deemed lesser by the company. This caused tremendous strain on the Native communities who previously had no real understanding of hierarchical cultural scale. Leadership was often more respected for what they gave away rather than the amounts they could accumulate. 

It is perhaps not well known that the first real waves of European immigrants to North America were part of commercial ventures and companies and not persecuted religious groups like the tiny group of Europeans at Plymouth. The early English who arrived along the Atlantic seaboard for instance, are more properly known as the Virginia Company, a group of investors who had the resources and foresight to see the vast resources of the continent as untapped. Companies were granted authority to conduct business in N. America by their sovereigns across the sea and competition rapidly grew intense as the European powers scrambled to divide the continent like a slaughtered hog. 

Companies like the Hudson’s Bay Co. and the Northwest Co. were formed to generate profit for their investors and as a result, they viewed the continent as a cornucopia of saleable goods. During this early period companies were granted trade monopolies over certain territories. They established the static trading post as a model throughout the continent which acted like magnets for native hunters. This model would endure well into the modern period and at its inception would forever alter the way Native people lived.

The most obvious and visual change that would take place in Native communities was of course, the introduction of new European technology.  Of all the goods traded to Native communities many would be surprised to learn that fabrics would make up the largest percentage of trade goods. Already prepared clothing like coats and shirts combined with blankets and raw cloth made up the bulk of a traders supply. Following that, goods made from metal like iron, steel and brass made up the next biggest category. And finally “small goods” like beads, bells and other decorative items would make up the smallest portion of the traders inventory. This proportion would be the standard throughout the colonial period in N. America. 

                                                        Benjamin West's "Penn's Treaty"

The introduction of new European products would certainly make life easier for the average Native family but it would not force them to begin to live as Europeans. Trees were still felled but it was now preferable to use a steel-bitted ax as opposed to the former fashioned from stone. Soups of wild game, rice, and other edibles would now be cooked in a brass kettle in contrast to the former clay pots and stone bowls. We can see this pattern repeated throughout the trade. The old mode supplanted by the new but without the alteration of the original intent. The core of native life ways would remain intact long into the colonial period, but the dependency on trade goods would intensify as time went by. Native people grew hesitant to return to the ancient practices as would anyone who finds that new technologies can make life easier. But this would not translate initially to more luxury time. Hunting and trapping for trade would gradually be incorporated into the annual cycle of life. A significant amount of the year would now be spent trapping exclusively for trade as opposed to simply subsisting independently. 

By simply participating in the fur trade, the dependence on the system is immediately evident. A hunter acquires a musket to ease his life and to provide security for his family and community. But eventually, he will need lead for ammunition and gunpowder for ignition. Flints wear out and need to be replaced and repairs and even spare parts will be required over the life of the firearm. This sort of cyclic dependency would be widespread throughout native communities in the colonial period. And the Native consumer is now trapped in the system and forced to evolve and adapt to a new way of life.

Beyond the material effects of the fur trade, the ceremony of gift-giving was the vehicle by which alcohol would be introduced into Native society. In the days before European contact, Native people had long developed a formalized arrangement of giving gifts to other groups to establish and re-establish old bonds and friendships. It was a simple yet profound gesture that was essential for any meeting or council to continue. Furs, pipes, and tobacco were all part of the ritual gift giving process. This ancient custom of gift exchange and friend making would become greatly corrupted as alcohol became the biggest part of that exchange.

                                                        Simcoe 1796

Company traders would cement relationships by giving out alcohol to their consumers before every transaction. Alcohol became so engrained in the trade that Native hunters would consider it an insult if they were not offered alcohol and would bring their business elsewhere. In the late 18th century the competition between trading companies translated into tens of thousands of gallons of alcohol being poured into Native communities in the Great Lakes as a purely commercial effort to create an addiction and dependence. Duncan McGillivray of the Northwest Co. writes in the 1790’s of the use of alcohol, 

“the love of Rum is their first inducement to industry; they undergo every hardship and fatigue to procure a Skinful of this delicious beverage, and when a nation becomes addicted to drinking, it affords a strong presumption that they will soon become excellent hunters.” 

Whether or not these early traders could foresee the devastation alcohol would continue to have in Native communities or not, their intention to use it as a tool to force production is without doubt.

By the early 1800’s Native communities in the Great Lakes have long adapted to the fur trade system. It was very rare in fact, for anyone to recollect a time before the trading companies. A dependence on the goods provided by the companies grew and after the wars for control of the continent finally waned in the mid 1800’s. Settlers in waves washed over the old hunting grounds and Native communities found themselves having to adapt to a new paradigm which no longer included the trade system.

The effects of commercial fur trade are still being resolved. Alcohol, greed, and disregard for the land are now all a part of the history of N. America. Despite the negative impacts of the old fur trade, Native people continue to work to hold on to those honored ways in communities all across the continent. It is of great importance to try and fully understand this pivotal slice of history if we are to learn from the mistakes of our past and work together to preserve our future. 

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