Negotiation in a Contested Periphery: Indians in the Fur Trade

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Negotiation in a Contested Periphery: Indians in the Fur Trade.

Paper presented 4 May 2002 at the Annual Meeting on the Political Economy of World Systems, Riverside, California, May 2-4.

P. Nick Kardulias, College of Wooster

As originally formulated, the world-systems model postulated a relationship in which core states exploited peripheries for raw materials and made the latter into dependent satellites. This approach views indigenous people in peripheries as passive recipients at the mercy of political and economic forces beyond their control. While in many cases the impetus for change was from cores to peripheries, there were certainly instances in which the margins actively (and occasionally successfully) resisted incorporation (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997). At times, they also had the ability to select the precise form of their incorporation. While in many cases this did not alter the consequences for indigenous people, there were occasions when natives not only reacted successfully, but also outlined the terms of the encounter. This is a process that I call negotiated peripherality. Underlying this perspective is a biological analogy: just as biological populations experience the greatest change at the borders of their territories where the effects of gene flow are felt first and most dramatically, so to do cultural changes occur at an accelerated rate in contact zones. This paper explores the nature of negotiated change through an ethnohistoric case study of how Native Americans managed the terms of their involvement in the fur trade with Europeans.


Clearly, the original world-systems model of Wallerstein (1974) paid too little attention to the active role of people on the peripheries (see Hall 1986). There has also been perhaps an overemphasis on the interaction between states and not enough on how small-scale societies engaged in economic, social, and other exchanges (see Chase-Dunn and Mann 1998 for a consideration of small world-systems). In this paper I use the concept of negotiated peripherality (Kardulias 1999; Morris 1999) to explore how groups on the margins of great civilizations take matters into their own hands. By this term I mean the willingness and ability of individuals in peripheries to determine the conditions under which they will engage in trade, ceremonial exchange, intermarriage, adoption of outside religious and political ideologies, etc. with representatives of expanding states. We have to keep in mind that the representatives of the core are on foreign turf, and their very presence (at least initially) is often on terms dictated by the natives. Therefore, the outsiders must negotiate the terms of their presence. This understanding may take the form of a contractual agreement, but can also be a fluid arrangement that meets particular needs under certain circumstances. Hall (1999) has pointed out that incorporation is a variable phenomenon. In the case of the North American fur trade (see below), the natives clearly held the upper hand in this process at the outset and had a major say in the terms of trade. This fact illustrates that even when the contact is between state and non-state societies, the hierarchical imperative of early world-systems formulations need not come into play. Native peoples have the option of accepting or rejecting symbolic as well as utilitarian objects (and practices, e.g., methods of food preparation). They can also alter objects and symbols as part of the process of adoption. Since the cultural divide runs both ways, we need to understand that core representatives also adapt their products and behavior in response to the demands of the natives; those who do not run the risk of losing a potentially lucrative market. In the premodern period it was a rare circumstance when a state could impose its will on a periphery in an unfettered manner, or if it did, the effects might not be long-lasting.

Because of the intriguing mixture of activities that comprised intersocietal interaction, the locations where such events occurred were areas of intense cultural ferment. Contact could take the form of violent confrontation, aggressive (but non-violent) displays to impress other parties, small scale barter, exchange of ritual objects, trade in practical commodities, mutual participation in rituals, and other events. Exchange involved both physical objects and information and certainly had an impact on both parties in the transaction. Such an admixture could easily stimulate changes in both groups through the processes of direct borrowing, adoption of new foods, alteration of items or practices to fit the recipient group’s interests and values. It would be at such core-periphery contact points that culture change would be at its most intense. I suggest that this situation is analogous to the process of gene flow. The greatest degree of genetic change tends to take place in the areas that border two breeding populations, or demes, because the admixture of individuals significantly increases the genetic variability (Park 2002: 76-77). Evolutonary biologists refer to such areas as hybrid zones (Futuyma 1987:115). Such genetic mixing, because it increases the size and diversity of the gene pool, is a vital mechanism in physical evolution. The archaeological and ethnohistoric records also indicate that core-periphery contact zones served a similar purpose, not only in terms of interbreeding, but also in the form of cultures being reshaped. The difference between the genetic and social forms of this contact is that the latter involves human motivation as a mechanism of change as well as strictly biological processes.

Another useful concept in discussing the nature of the North American fur trade is what Allen (1996) calls a “contested periphery”, i.e., a region in the interstices between major states over which the latter fight for control. Allen’s original formulation concerned the ancient Near East in which powerful states repeatedly sought control over certain areas on the margins. The reasons for the incursions into these marginal areas differed. At times, the states pursued valuable natural resources. For example, the Assyrians sought copper and possibly tin from southern Anatolia. Another reason was control of critical land or sea passages that facilitated the movement of trade goods and military personnel. Cline (2000) has argued persuasively that the Jezreel Valley in Israel held such a status from antiquity to the modern era. North America in the period of European colonization certainly fits as a contested periphery. The English, French, Spanish, and Dutch played out their imperial ambitions on this continent. The fur trade became one of the major catalysts for this clash of empires. At least initially, the colonial powers required the assistance of native allies to realize their economic aspirations as these related to the acquisition of furs for the burgeoning industry in Europe. The vital role played by Indians provided them with the opportunity to negotiate with European traders. One might even argue that in the very early stages of the fur trade, the process of incorporation that theorists often discuss was as much a matter of Europeans being incorporated into the native American system as vice versa. The evidence provided in the remainder of this paper should clarify this point.

Below I examine an example of core-periphery contact in light of this model of negotiated peripherality. The example deals with the incorporation of Native Americans into the North American fur trade.


This section examines the economic and social impact of the fur trade on North American Indian cultures. The Indian role in the fur trade can be described as a craft specialization, within the context of the emerging modern world-system. To explain the emergence of specialized production of furs among Native Americans, I subscribe to a decision model based on rational choice (Barth 1959; Homans 1958) that considers both real and perceived needs. For North American Indians, these needs included the acquisition of European products and the development of alliances with Europeans to serve native concerns.

Negotiation and maneuvering by both sides characterized the fur trade from the outset. The Indian role, influenced as it was by the desire to obtain Western Goods, required modifications in various native practices to permit full exploitation of the network. Indians altered production strategies to suit their own perceived interests. They engaged in procurement, processing, and use/consumption activities that were embedded in the procurement sphere of the European market. Indian involvement in the fur trade was a microcosm of the larger world-system network (OVERHEAD).

Structural changes occurred in native societies to facilitate such shifts in economic emphasis and involved the development of craft specialization. Native Americans exhibited an entrepreneurial spirit in manipulating the system to their advanteage and, in doing so, adopted specialized economic behavior. Native American societies exhibited remarkable flexibility in adopting, absorbing, and manipulating European goods and practices within an Indian context. Social practices, kinship structure, and other elements flet the impact of the fur trade, but the agenda for change was an Indian one, despite the inability of native groups to foresee the ultimately catastrophic effects of this involvement.

Craft specialization conventionally refers to any non-subsistence activity, engaged in at least on a semi-permanent basis, by which individuals provide for some of their needs. The inference is that the specialist offers some product or service which is his/her particular domain, due to peculiar skills, knowledge, or aptitudes. Although specialists can exist in foraging societies, they only perform on a part-time basis in such situations due to the necessity to have all able-bodied persons contribute to the food quest (Childe 1974). However, since specialization enhances productive efficiency, perhaps the degree of homogeneity in this regard among simpler societies has been unduly emphasized. A more penetrating assessment might stress the degree or potential development of specialized production and its underlying correlates. Specialization may encompass an entire community or small society, acting as one arm of a complex, diversified foreign market economy. As such, craft production would involve a particular knowledge and set of tools, and a unique lifestyle.

It is within this general framework that the production of furs for the European market by Indians is examined below. The primary contention is that the acquisition of furs by natives was transformed as a result of contact with whites from being one aspect of the economy to being its main focus. In this process, various Indian groups were not just passive recipients of European influence, but rather exercised the ability to select from amongst the options with which they were presented. Especially among the hunting and gathering societies of eastern and central Canada and the northern United States, the choice was most often to invest heavily in the hunting and trapping of fur-bearing animals, the beaver in particular. A number of horticultural groups also opted to pursue this route. This activity makes sense as a specialization only in relation to the European market which generated the demand for furs. In this way, the Indians became crucial members of an international economic system; they were, in fact, the productive source and thus an indispensable element in the system (Saum 1965).

To better comprehend why the Indian role in fur production is deemed a specialization it must be viewed on two levels. If viewed from the wider perspective of the international economic scene, Indians fulfilled the role of procurement specialists. They acquired the raw materials that were subsequently transformed into finished commodities in Europe, then distributed and consumed on that continent. In this scheme, the Indian was one cog in a highly diversified economic mechanism. On another plane, this procurement sphere can be seen as encompassing acquisition, processing, and consumption activities of its own, quite apart from the final disposition of furs in Europe. Natives captured the fur-bearing animals, dressed the pelts, and utilized the skins for immediate utilitarian or trade purposes. However, this series of activities did not take on the stature of specialization until the trade with Europeans began. European demand stimulated the harvesting of furs at an unprecedented rate and diverted attention from traditional subsistence activities. This trend gained momentum during the entire history of the fur trade and fostered significant modifications in native societies.
Fur as a Resource and its Exploitation

Animal furs were the subject of Indian exploitation before Europeans arrived in North America, but the advent of the latter spurred the production of pelts to an unprecedented degree. This trade had begun in the early sixteenth century with French and Basque fishermen exchanging metal artifacts for the furs (Eccles 1969). Eventually, the skins of a variety of animals (bears, moose, deer, marten, fox, various felines, and later, buffalo) became involved in this traffic, but the most important by far for over 200 years was the beaver. This animal was known to possess an exceptionally fine fur, but the European variety was practically extinct in western countries by the 1500s, with only limited supplies available from Russia and Scandinavia (Eccles 1969). The fur comprised two layers: 1) An outer layer of rather stiff guard hairs, each about two inches long and hollow to provide insulation and prevent the fur from becoming waterlogged; this part is course and shiny and gives the animal its color. 2) A fine, thick, downy undercoat, with individual hairs one inch long; these hairs have tiny barbs that make the fur cling tightly together when it is matted, as in the production of felt for hats (de Charlevoix 1761). It was the latter feature that made beaver fur the ideal form for hat manufacture and accounts for its immense popularity.

From the European perspective, American furs, in particular that of the beaver, possessed several virtues: 1) They represented a commodity in short supply in Europe. 2) Because of their light weight, furs offered high value relative to bulk, could be readily packed and transported, and as a result, were highly profitable; early in the trade, a manufactured item worth one livre could be exchanged for a beaver robe that sold for 200 livres in France. 3) Indians performed most of the work, including delivery of prepared furs to European settlements; an economic partnership developed between the two parties involved in such transactions (Eccles 1969).
Material Cycle

This series of events involved the procurement, processing, and use of furs. Each of these areas will be treated separately first in terms of what the aboriginal practice was and then in light of alterations due to European contact.

The procurement aspect of this cycle refers to the hunting of fur-bearing animals. This activity generally occurred from mid-autumn to early spring, at a time when animal furs were in prime condition. As the principle source of high-grade fur, the beaver was one object of Indian hunting in the pre-contact period, although not to the same extent as during the historic era.

In a general economic sense, this hunting phase can be considered equivalent to the extraction of a raw resource. Prehistorically and to a degree after contact, fur-bearing animals such as the beaver also served as important parts of the native diet, (JR, 26:129; Trigger 1969; Murphy and Steward 1968; Francis and Morantz 1983) but when Indians shifted to full involvement in the fur trade, these animals became more than just a food item. Fur became the medium of exchange by which Indians received the valued European products (Kroeber 1939). The Jesuit le Jeune quoted an Indian who put the issue in such a light: "The Beaver does everything perfectly well, it makes kettles, hatchets, swords, knives, bread; and, in short, it makes everything" (JR, 6:297). This statement demonstrates the native realization that a concentration on beaver hunting could provide substantial economic rewards; in this sense, the emphasis on fur hunting became a specialized activity. Individuals known to be superior hunters of particular animals were called on to exercise their particular talents. This extractive part of the process was almost exclusively a male occupation. On rare occasions, netting of beaver could become a family affair (Craik 1975). By the nineteenth century, trapping was entirely male work. Men would spend the entire winter alone, or only in the company of other hunters, while tending the trap lines (Robinson 1879).

The second phase of the material cycle involved preparation of the fur. This was largely the duty of Indian women (Axtell 1980). To make the skin pliable, the flesh side was often smeared with a concoction of decomposed animal brains and liver, set aside for several hours, and then vigorously rubbed between the hands. This latter treatment was a common means of tanning various kinds of hides throughout North America (Peale 1872; Shufeldt 1889; Innis 1956). Calcareous soils, bone dust, or flour served as absorbing agents to remove this paste and to eliminate any excess moisture and remaining fat (Mason 1891).

Workers cut the prepared pelts into rectangular shapes and sewed between five and eight of these pieces together with moose sinew to make a robe. Natives wore this garment with the fur next to the body during the cold months and fur side out at other times. After extensive wearing for fifteen to eighteen months, the guard hairs, whose deep roots had been loosened by the scraping, dropped out, leaving only the downy fur or cotanne. In addition, the skin and fur became well-greased through contact with the body oil of the wearer, while the smoky interior of the Indian hut acted to cure the pelt. Because of this conditioning and the lack of guard hairs, such fur robes were ideal for the felting process used by European hat makers (Innis 1956). The first European traders simply bartered for the old robes the Indians had worn for some time, and for their part, the natives were more than willing to exchange an old garment for precious metal artifacts (de Charlevoix 1761).

As the fur trade developed, Indians increasingly focused on trapping in an effort to meet European demand for fur and, thus, obtain the valued manufactured commodities in return. Since not all of the furs could be treated in the elaborate manner of the robes, a system of grades developed, which though framed in terms of European standards, was clearly understood by Indians. Castor gras d'hiver was the top rank fur that had undergone the whole treatment and so was devoid of guard hairs and was well-greased and supple. Castor sec or parchment beaver was prepared by drying, and still had guard hairs because it was not worn. Deni-gras d'hiver referred to robes that the natives had just begun to wear, so the skin had not turned completely yellow. Castor gras d'ete were robes made of pelts that had less fur and thicker skins because these had been taken in summer. Castor veule robes had been scraped thin and treated, but not worn. Castor sec d'hiver or bardeau were skins taken in winter but not made into robes due to holes and imperfections; these were poorly prepared and rather coarse. Castor sec d'ete had been trapped in summer and was not made into garments. Finally, mitaines and rognures were small pieces used for sleeves and mittens in native apparel (Innis 1956).

Indians flooded the market with the lesser grades of furs as they intensified their concentration on trapping as a major economic pursuit (Danzinger 1978). Since European hatters needed a 3:1 ratio of castor gras d'hiver to castor sec, a huge surplus of the latter developed since it was much more expedient for the Indians to produce this type. This imbalance is reflected in the records of Ft. Frontenac; in 1722, 4,435 pounds of dry beaver (sec) was taken in compared to only 168 pounds of fat beaver (gras) (Preston and Lamontagne 1958). The stockpiles had reached such levels by 1700 that prices dropped, a factor certain French merchants tried to counteract by burning some of their stock (Vandiveer 1929). This sequence of events indicates that Indians regulated production levels of fur in terms of their own economic interests. By the mid-seventeenth century the mast majority of the beaver and other fur being trapped by Indians was being funneled into the trade with whites.

Native Americans as Traders

The consumption aspect of the material cycle for the Indians involved the exchange of the processed furs for European goods. These native groups were by no means strangers to trading activity. Archaeological evidence indicates long distance indirect trade between Iroquoian (including the Huron) and Algonkian groups throughout eastern Canada and the northeastern United States was well developed prior to the arrival of Europeans (Wintemberg 1942; Wright 1972). Similar conditions existed in the northern Plains, reached by French traders in the eighteenth century (Ewers 1972). With such a system in place, what was needed to spur the development of intensive fur-gathering by native Americans was a large market and desirable goods in exchange, both of which Europeans provided (Lawson 1972). The existing trade networks could readily tap a vast hinterland in which the natives turned to fur production on a large scale once they were initiated into the advantages of trade goods. As a result of this native exchange system, many Indian groups acquired European products well before any direct contact with whites. The Huron, who were at the center of an extensive exchange system with connections in all directions, received their first European goods from their Algonkian trading partners prior to 1603, before Champlain's first visit to the region (Heidenreich 1971). The Chippewa of Lake Superior were already familiar with European products when the Jesuits made initial contact with them in 1641 (Danziger 1978). From the outset, the Indian's role in the fur trade was instrumental in the success of the system. Not only did the natives trap the animals and prepare the furs, but they also transported the pelts to collection points, such as the trading posts.

Native involvement in the trade took two forms. At the most rudimentary level, the various Indian groups could present their furs directly to the European traders. This was the situation when Indians initially encountered Europeans in the St. Lawrence region and in the coastal areas of the Maritime Provinces. The cod fishermen who came ashore to dry their catch bartered for the furs that the Montagnais, Micmac, and other hunting groups had collected themselves. So accustomed were the Indians to this trade by 1534 that when Jacques Cartier sailed into the St. Lawrence in that year, the Micmac enticed the French to trade by waving furs at the explorers (Trigger 1979). As Europeans penetrated the interior, they met still more groups who provided furs (Trigger 1976; Illinois 1966; Innis 1956). The Europeans' need to maintain a large volume of business to cover their high transportation costs motivated this inland movement. The seemingly insatiable European demand for furs led these and other Indian groups to concentrate on the hunting of fur-bearing animals to a much greater degree than had ever been the case prior to contact. As a result, traditional hunting grounds were quickly trapped out, and Europeans moved further afield in search of new Indian sources (Ray and Freedman 1978).

The second native form of involvement was an outgrowth of the declining population of fur-bearing animals in certain areas combined with the desire of the Indians in such areas to continue the flow of trade goods. The major solution to the problem was to continue supplying the Europeans with furs by acting as middlemen. In this capacity Indians exploited the already existing trade networks. Such transactions concentrated on the acquisition of furs by the middlemen who in turn passed on some of their European materials to their native trading partners. Since the best quality furs were found in the cold regions north of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes, those groups that had regular contact with the northern hunters were in an enviable position.

In the first half of the seventeenth century, the Huron were the dominant middlemen in the French fur trade. Having rapidly exhausted the beaver supply in their home territory, the Huron used their considerable skills as traders to maintain the flow of manufactured products. They exchanged corn, tobacco, nets, and European goods for furs with northern groups such as the Nipissing (Trigger 1976). The Huron transported furs in large canoe convoys to French settlements on the St. Lawrence River. The French received 10,000 pelts annually, comprising anywhere from one-third to one-half of the total, in this manner from the Huron (JR, 60:211; Trigger 1976). When these people succumbed to Iroquois attacks in 1650, the Ottawa quickly filled the gap as suppliers. This same pattern repeated itself again and again as whites progressed further west. When first contacted, Indian groups focused intensively on fur trapping as a specialized means of obtaining foreign materials. When the Indians exhausted their local supply they would attempt to maintain the trading structure by becoming middlemen or expanding their territorial control in an effort to tap new sources. The importance of Indian middlemen is reflected in the fact that at some Hudson's Bay Company forts, natives provided 70% of the furs trades (Ray and Freedman 1978).

Another persistent feature of this system throughout its history was the active encouragement whites provide. Europeans urged Indians to trap fur-bearing animals even at the expense of time that could have been used in traditional subsistence activities (Preston 1975). It is clear that whites depended on Indians whose talents in hunting, preparing pelts, and transporting the furs fueled the trade into the nineteenth century. This was especially true in the early years. Before 1630 there were only 100 Frenchmen in Canada on a permanent basis at any one time (Eccles 1969). These few men depended on the productive capacity of the natives to satisfy the large European demand. There was a similar reliance in New England. The fortunes of Plymouth were closely tied to furs, and the natives' ability to supply this commodity, from the inception of the colony (Moloney 1967). Indians recognized the value of their labor invested in producing furs and negotiated accordingly. The yearly rendezvous at Tadoussac at the mouth of the Saguenay River during the 1500s witnessed the gathering of over 1000 Algonkian, Etchimin, and Montagnais. These people learned quickly not to barter their furs with the first European ship to arrive; instead, they waited for others in order to bid up the price (Eccles 1969). Traders' accounts are full of comments regarding the shrewd bargaining abilities of various native groups, who often played the Europeans off against one another by threatening to take their furs elsewhere if not justly compensated (JR, 6:299, 66:173; Preston and Lamontagne 1958). In addition, Indians were not satisfied with substandard goods. The Huron complained about guns that exploded and injured the user, cheap thread that made poor netting, and kettles that were too thin and wore out quickly (de Lahontan 1905). Indians were often loathe to take any metal object in trade which had even the slightest crack since they knew from experience that such breaks would expand in the rigorous northern climate (Ray 1980). The natives were not beyond deceit either, as they occasionally tried to pass defective furs as being of higher quality (Crowe 1974).

A quick review of some figures gives an idea of the volume of the trade and thus the degree of importance fur-bearing animals came to have. Between 1620 and 1630 the French exported anywhere from 12,00 to 30,000 beaver skins a year to Europe (Trigger 1976). By the 1680s the amount had reached 140,000 pounds/annum (one skin=one pound) (Innis 1956). New England supplied an annual average of over 40,000 pelts in the late seventeenth century (Norton 1974). In the early nineteenth century Europe received up to 200,000 beaver skins a year from America (Chittenden 1902). In return for this plethora of furs, Indians received a wide range of products. In 1722-1723, three French forts along the Great Lakes supplied the following goods in exchange for 16,677 skins (8,307, 49.8%, beaver): 1605 sewing needles, 632 catfish hooks, 273 men's shirts, 336 women's shirts, 214 children's shirts, 217 butcher knives, 2,109 other knives, 243 pounds of red and yellow copper cauldrons, 328 axes, 59 guns, 4,493 gun flints, 3,640 pounds of shot and balls, and 6,463 pounds of flour (Preston and Lamontagne 1958). Some of this material was used by the inhabitants of the forts, but most was passed on to the Indians. Other European goods involved in the trade included awls, hatchets, wool stockings, sewing thread, coarse white thread for nets, iron for arrowheads, glass beads, tobacco, soap, and sabers and cutlasses (de Lahontan 1905).


Dependence on Trade Goods

One important result of the tendency to specialize in fur production was an increasing dependence on European products and the trade system that developed as a means of attaining them (Kroeber 1939). Europeans made efforts to facilitate this process by establishing posts in strategic positions (Eccles 1969; JR, 66:69; Ray and Freedman 1978). The technological superiority of certain European items supplied the initial impetus, eventually reaching the point of dependence by the natives on the imported materials; this situation upset the balance in economies that had previously been largely self-contained (Callender 1962). As early as 1616, Indians in eastern Canada expressed their concern with maintaining the trade by offering to house Frenchmen whose fort had been destroyed by the British (JR, 3:71). By the 1630s the Huron had become dependent on European tools. Iron axes and hatchets enabled them to clear land more rapidly and allowed them to raise more corn which was exchanged for furs with their various native trading partners. Other metal cutting tools expedited a variety of manufacturing processes, thus freeing more time for trade. The Huron also required metal arrowheads which could pierce the wooden body armor used by their enemies the Iroquois. In addition, the Huron needed European trade goods to maintain the sophisticated system of intertribal alliances on which their security and prosperity rested (Trigger 1979). In 1647 the Huron, beleaguered by persistent Iroquois raids, undertook the hazardous journey to the French settlements under dangerous circumstances because of the need for hatchets, guns, ammunition, and other supplies (JR, 32:179).

A similar dependence on European products was evident among the Iroquois. By the 1630s this group used iron hinges, chains, harrows, hoops, and nails in house construction and other tasks. In the next decade guns, swords, axes, mallets, and clothing of European origin were also common in many Iroquois villages (Trigger 1976). The process of incorporation into the world-economy was well advanced, and it was from this point on that European traders were ascendant in relations with native trade partners.

This dependence on the fur trade had a number of repercussions for the Huron and other groups. By 1630 Huronia was essentially devoid of beaver because of excessive trapping. The Huron turned increasingly to the northern and western hunting groups to sustain the flow of furs, and encouraged this process by offering substantial amounts of French artifacts in return for furs. As a result, the hunters intensified their trapping and trading activities, and spent less time on fishing and hunting for subsistence. This led to an increasing reliance on agricultural peoples to make up the difference in foodstuffs. In eastern Canada, the Montagnais purchased much food from the French with a portion of their fur catch, but for other groups the Huron were a more reliable and cheaper source (Trigger 1976). See quote by Cornell

As a measure of the importance of obtaining European goods, there is the evidence of continued high levels of production and exchange even under adverse conditions. Between 1636 and 1640, approximately one-half of all Hurons perished in epidemics of diseases inadvertently introduced by the French. Despite this catastrophe, fur production reached new highs in the 1640s. Trigger suggests this level of production required substantial organizational realignment. The Huron evidently encouraged Algonkian hunters to trap more beaver than before. This activity further undermined the traditional Algonkian subsistence base, but greater dependence on Huron beans and corn, probably a more secure means of alleviating starvation, balanced the situation. The Algonkian hunters may have been open to this change because of the loss of many skilled craftsmen in the epidemics, an event that made them dependent on European utensils they received from the Huron. For the latter group, more time had to be spent in clearing land and in cultivation. In addition, as a proportion of the remaining population, more men would have been involved in trading activities. When French trade goods could be substituted for traditional Huron products that required much time to make, the increasing demands of trade probably dictated that the foreign objects be adopted (Trigger 1976).

Territorial Expansion

The traffic in furs was a catalyst that exacerbated existing animosities between native groups and spurred aggressive expansionism. This was another consistent pattern in all the regions affected by the fur trade and arose out of the dependence on European goods discussed above. To assure the flow of goods, natives either had to control the production of furs or the system of dispersal. When home areas were trapped out, as happened early among the Huron and Iroquois, alternatives had to be found. In the eastern Great Lakes region, the increase in prehistoric populations due to agriculture triggered conflict well before whites arrived (Trigger 1982; Ritchie 1956). The advent of the fur trade added further fuel to an already volatile situation and enhanced the old rivalries. With their local sources exhausted, the Huron zealously protected their middleman role and blocked the efforts of western groups to trade directly with the French and also kept their sources secret from the Europeans (Eccles 1969; Tooker 1964).

The Iroquois resorted to a more overtly aggressive plan when their local fur supplies dwindled. Since they were surrounded by other horticultural people who had little need for their food material, they could not engage in middleman exchange to the same degree as the Huron. The Iroquois opted instead for fur piracy and territorial expansion. They raided Huron and Algonkian trading parties and carried off the furs to trade with the Dutch. Expansion was primarily to the west in an effort to control hunting grounds in Ontario (Trigger 1976). The raiding to the north was successful in almost completely shutting down fur expeditions along the western St. Lawrence and forced Indians heading to French posts to take the more circuitous northern route (JR, 40:211). The Iroquois also blocked groups to their south and west from transporting pelts to the Dutch traders (Kenton 1925).

The French, Dutch, and English were all drawn into this intense rivalry. The Europeans were often obliged to join in military alliances with their native trading partners whose requests for aid they could not refuse if the flow of furs was to continue (Ray and Freedman 1978). Indians thus had a great part in determining the structure of the fur trade system.

Those native groups equipped with guns held a distinct military advantage in central Canada in the search for more fur territory. Guns upset the pre-contact balance of power. European weapons helped the Cree dominate the flow of furs into certain British posts. In their turn, the Chipewyan intruded on Cree lands in search of more beaver. In the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries the Blackfoot regulated the fur trade in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, taking and defending new hunting grounds primarily on the basis of superior force provided by firearms. It became clear to may native groups that if they lacked furs, they could not obtain European materials and were at a disadvantage vis-a-vis traditional enemies who had such access (Crowe 1974; Gillespie 1975; Lewis 1942; Saum 1965).
Changes in Social Structure

The social structure of native societies also yielded to the rippling effects of the traffic in furs. Lewis describes the alteration of marriage patterns among the Blackfoot due to exposure to the fur trade. The increased burden of preparing skins and hides placed a greater demand on female labor and thus enhanced their economic importance. As a result, polygyny developed to a level unprecedented for the Plains. In the 1780s, most men had one or two wives, with a maximum of six. By the 1830s some wealthy chiefs had eight wives while in the next decade most men had three, many six to eight, and a few as many as twelve wives. Later in the century some men had twenty to thirty spouses. The largest increase in wives occurred after 1833 and coincided with the burgeoning buffalo hide trade in Canada and the United States. Lewis envisions a circular system in operation. Guns obtained in the trade were used both to hunt and conduct raids for horses. By using horses to purchase wives, men converted idle capital (extra horses) into productive capital (wives). The women served to process more hides which went to the trading posts in exchange for guns and other commodities (Lewis 1942).

The greater emphasis on bride price measured in horses led to changes in marrying ages. A report from 1787 indicated girls were married at sixteen to eighteen, men at twenty-two and older. By the late nineteenth century, girls married between ten and sixteen, and men rarely before thirty-five. Fathers wished to marry off their daughters as soon as possible to obtain the bride price. A man, however, was not considered an eligible son-in-law until he had accumulated sufficient property through hunting and warfare. Within the household, status differences and animosities between upper and lower wives intensified since the sororate lost force as an ameliorating influence (Lewis 1942).
Effects on Animal Populations

The greatest impact of this system was on the basic resources, i.e., the fur-bearing animals whose pelts were the Indians' products. A frequent observation by both contemporary eye-witnesses and modern scholars refers to the excessive hunting of furs by natives to meet European demand that resulted in the wanton annihilation of many species. This behavior is often held to be contrary to the prudent exploitation in aboriginal pre-contact times. (de Charlevoix 1761; J.C.B. 1941; Sandoz 1964 ; Crowe 1974; Axtell 1980) Martin attributes this change, from the traditional abstemious approach to a rampant profiteering at the expense of the environment, to the deterioration of an ecological ethos which had been bolstered by supernatural sanctions. The native religious beliefs and world view lost their hold on the Indian mind when shamans proved utterly incapable of checking the ravages of epidemic diseases. With this traditional underpinning removed there was no longer the fear of violating hunting taboos that regulated the amount of game that could be taken and led to a wholesale slaughter of animals for their fur (Martin 1978).

Although this explanation is useful in comprehending some aspects of the problem, its ideational orientation does not submit itself to empirical examination. On the other hand, economic motives can be found in the ethnohistoric record; it seems more likely that the desire for trade overrode the traditional conservation ethic, as Axtell posits (Axtell 1980). Natives did not abandon but rather amended hunting taboos due to the material conditions of a new economic reality and this change may have been a contributing factor in the subsequent decimation of animal populations.


This study suggests that people who live in peripheries or margins can and do determine the nature and extent of interaction with core polities to at least some degree. Certainly, states can impose their will in some instances. However, as Hall (1999: 14) points out, “complete assimilation was almost never a goal” of premodern states in their interation with other societies. Indeed, the analysis of such events loses much if influence is viewed as unidirectional, without duly considering the fertile ground into which the stimulus intervenes. As a result, peripheral groups often retained a distinct identity even as they selectively adopted certain outside features In the North American fur trade, natives accommodated rapidly to the demands of a capitalist market economy. This action involved economic specialization in both production and distribution, by way of a series of conscious choices made after balancing what the Native Americans viewed as the appropriate available options. In this case at least, the people in the periphery exercised some level of control in managing the relationship with the outside world. Nonetheless, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the development and expansion of the fur trade occurred within the context of intense competition between the major European colonial powers. The key point is that the very fact that North America was a contested periphery for the Europeans gave native American peoples, at least in the early stages, considerable influence in shaping the nature of Indian-European interaction.


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