Commerce by a Frozen Sea
Native Americans and the European Fur Trade
Publication Year: 2010
Commerce by a Frozen Sea is a cross-cultural study of a century of contact between North American native peoples and Europeans. During the eighteenth century, the natives of the Hudson Bay lowlands and their European trading partners were brought together by an increasingly popular trade in furs, destined for the hat and fur markets of Europe. Native Americans were the sole trappers of furs, which they traded to English and French merchants. The trade gave Native Americans access to new European technologies that were integrated into Indian lifeways. What emerges from this detailed exploration is a story of two equal partners involved in a mutually beneficial trade.
Drawing on more than seventy years of trade records from the archives of the Hudson's Bay Company, economic historians Ann M. Carlos and Frank D. Lewis critique and confront many of the myths commonly held about the nature and impact of commercial trade. Extensively documented are the ways in which natives transformed the trading environment and determined the range of goods offered to them. Natives were effective bargainers who demanded practical items such as firearms, kettles, and blankets as well as luxuries like cloth, jewelry, and tobacco—goods similar to those purchased by Europeans. Surprisingly little alcohol was traded. Indeed, Commerce by a Frozen Sea shows that natives were industrious people who achieved a standard of living above that of most workers in Europe. Although they later fell behind, the eighteenth century was, for Native Americans, a golden age.
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
Table of Contents
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Introduction: Native Americans and Europeans in the Eighteenth-Century Fur Trade
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Visiting heads of state are routinely offered gifts. One unusual gift-giving ceremony took place on July 14, 1970, at Lower Fort Garry, the site of an old fur trading post, on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Manitoba. In the course of the ceremony, Queen Elizabeth was presented with a quantity of poplar along with a tank holding two live and very frisky beaver...
Chapter 1: Hats and the European Fur Market
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As Daniel Defoe suggests, a good felt hat to cover his brains was more than this traveler had known. Was he a servant copying his superiors, or a provincial shifting his dress to conform to the fashions of the city? Or was his bonnet simply worn out after his long journey? We do not know. Yet, by the simple action of changing hats he tapped into a trade that linked Europe with North America and connected English, French...
Chapter 2: The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Organization of the Fur Trade
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The flow of pelts that transformed the English felting and hatting industries in the late seventeenth century was the result of two fortuitous events. The first was the signing of the Treaty of Breda marking the end of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. England, the United Provinces, France, and Denmark signed the treaty in the Dutch city of Breda in July 1667. England had captured New Amsterdam from the Dutch...
Chapter 3: Indians as Consumers
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The commercial fur trade of the Hudson Bay region that provided raw materials to the hatting and garment industries of Europe depended for its very existence on the ability of European traders to provide goods that were ‘‘pleasing to the Indians.’’ This phrase not only captures how the London directors of the Hudson’s Bay Company saw the trade; ‘‘pleasing to the Indians’’ epitomizes the roles of the respective parties. The city merchants who came to make up the Court of Assistants or...
Chapter 4: The Decline of Beaver Populations
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Native Americans paid for kettles, guns, blankets, alcohol, tobacco, cloth, and other European goods with furs, mainly beaver pelts. In Chapter 3 we saw that as the price of furs at the posts rose, native consumers purchased more goods, notably luxury items. What we explore here is the extent to which the increased trade was reflected in the number of beaver pelts delivered to the posts, and how that in turn affected the beaver population. This is an important question because the Hudson...
Chapter 5: Industrious Indians
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Hundreds of canoes from communities across the woodlands and plains made their way downriver to Hudson’s Bay Company posts each year. Natives came to take advantage of the opportunity, as James Axtell puts it, to ‘‘acquire new tastes, to form new aesthetic preferences.’’ 1 But forming and satisfying new preferences, whether for Venetian beads, Brazilian roll tobacco, or other luxury goods, required furs. Each...
Chapter 6: Property Rights, Depletion, and Survival
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The phrases ‘‘the earth is part of us’’ and ‘‘the earth is sacred’’ are powerful and emotive. These extracts from a speech widely believed to have been delivered by Chief Seattle in 1854 as his people were moving off their ancestral homeland were in fact written in the 1970s by Professor Ted Perry of the University of Texas as part of a film script.1 The producers of the film credited the words to Chief Seattle, and the text came...
Chapter 7: Indians and the Fur Trade: A Golden Age?
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The fur trade gave natives access to goods they could not produce themselves—goods that had a great impact on native life. Now, rather than relying exclusively on implements of stone, bone, and wood, they could substitute guns, knives, ice chisels, kettles, and other metal products. And the European technology embodied in these goods made daily activities easier. Iron kettles, knives, awls, and needles all improved the daily round of women’s work. Cooking was easier in kettles...
Epilogue: The Fur Trade and Economic Development
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After the defeat of the French in the Seven Years’ War, English and Scottish merchants operating out of Montreal replaced the Compagnie des Indes. By 1800 the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Montreal traders had established settlements farther inland, and new sources of beaver supply were opened up as the trade expanded to the Lake Athabasca region and areas farther west.1 For native communities living in the Hudson Bay region the increased fur trading activity only worsened the...
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We are deeply grateful to the many who have advised, encouraged, and supported us in our effort to interpret the eighteenth-century fur trade in a way that recognizes more fully the role of the Cree, Assiniboin, and other native groups. We also have benefited immensely from the comments of participants at the many workshops and conferences where we presented our work...
Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2010