Before the first European traders came to North America, no Indian had slept on a wool blanket. They had never worn a cloth shirt or silver jewelry nor tasted rum. Their hunters had never used a musket or a steel knife nor had they ever used a flint and steel to start a fire. Clay pots were used for cooking, animal hides for cloths and shoes, maple sugar was harvested from the trees.
Even before the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English established colonies they began to trade with the local Indians. The fur trade in North America began in the early 1600s and eventually came to be a huge part of the colonial economy for three reasons:
- There was an almost limitless supply of furs and hides in North America. As an example, the annual export of hides from Charlestown between 1739 and 1762 was between 130,000 and 350,000 hides a year. Between 1755 and 1773 nearly 600,000 deer hides were sent to England from Savannah, Georgia.
- The American Indians were very motivated to trade because they wanted European goods. The Indians wanted things like axes, pots, knives, and clothing, and the settlers wanted animal furs and hides. The Indians wanted some of these things because they were better- a metal pot lasted longer than a clay pot, but also because they were very easily acquired. Making a clay pot for cooking took a long time and resulted in a fragile item. Half dressing a deer hide could be done in a day or less. So, the metal pot actually cost less in time and materials.
- There was a huge demand for furs and hides in Europe. Much of the game had been hunted to near extinction, and there were no great herds of cattle like we have today. Beaver hats were all the rage, and the only source of leather was from the colonies.
The fur trade was big business in colonial America. Yearly exports of furs and hides to England could exceed $30 million (present value). Traders, merchants, clothiers, hat makers, blanket makers, lead foundries, gun smiths, and blacksmiths all made money off of the fur trade, and both the Woodland Indians and the colonist eagerly participated in it. For example, in 1750 a trader from the colony of Pennsylvania loaded 80 pack horses with trade goods and headed out to trade with the Cherokee. Those packs equated to nearly twenty-five thousand pounds of goods.
France and England eventually squeezed out the Spanish and Dutch from North America, and they both tried to use the fur and hide trade as a form of economic warfare against each other. This constant jockeying for position lead to a series of wars between England and France; King William’s War in 1689, Queen Anne’s War in 1702, King George’s War in 1744, and the French and Indian War in 1754 which ended with the English in control of North America. Once England took control after the Seven Years War, the Indians only had one partner to trade with and that was the English. That meant England set the rules for trade.
The Fur Trade was vital to the economy of Colonial America, but it was also the beginning of the end for the American Indians. They became dependent on European trade goods like knives, guns, powder and ball. That dependence had an extremely negative impact on their way of life. They could not alter this after they became dependent on Europeans for trade, and once England forced the other European countries out of North America, the Indians had no one else to trade with except the English. The fur trade was also the precursor for further exploration and eventually settlement by colonists. This forced the Indians in the area into smaller and smaller territories, and in 1838 the last of the Indians were removed by the United States government over what we know today as the Trail of Tears.
We have three stations on the Tennessee History Trail dedicated to the fur trade and its impact on native populations. Our signature event is held each October at Bledsoe Creek State Park, with supplemental programming offered throughout the year. Click Here to learn more.
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Anderson, Fred, Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in British North America
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Carlos, Ann and Lewis, Frank. Exchange among Native Americans and Europeans before 1800: Strategies and Interactions. University of Colorado, Boulder. 2012
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Innis, Harold, and Arthur J. Ray. The Fur Trade in Canada an Introduction to Canadian Economic History. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
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The Draper Manuscript Collection, Wisconsin Historical Society, Mf. 29, Microfilm, Tennessee State Library and Archive