Published on February 15, 2012 by Amy
The fur trade in North America began with the earliest contacts between Native Americans and the Europeans. Within a few years of their arrival in the New World, French, English, and Dutch fur traders were competing with each other to form trading relationships with the Indians. In Europe, there was a good market for furs, while in America there were seemingly limitless numbers of fur-bearing animals.
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Fur traders offered the Indians a line of goods, including iron axes, knives, hatchets, awls, fish hooks, trade cloth of various types and colors, woolen blankets, linen shirts, brass kettles, jewelry, glass beads, muskets, ammunition, and gun powder. They also brought numerous types of alcohol, especially brandy and rum, to trade. The Indians eagerly sought these items and paid for them in furs. While the Europeans most coveted the beaver pelt, they also accepted otter, mink, fox, bear, and deerskins as payment for their goods. Very quickly the natives became dependent on European products. Many Indians abandoned their own culture for that of the Europeans. Manufactured goods replaced the items that natives had formerly made for themselves.
There were other problems with the fur trade. Competition between tribes over hunting grounds became more pronounced after the Europeans’ arrival. Tensions also caused conflict among the English, the French, and the Dutch. The competition between the English and the French culminated in the French and Indian War. The Native American chiefs saw that each side was using them, but because of the Indians’ dependence on white goods, they had to become involved in these conflicts. While there were many honest traders who dealt fairly with the Indians, others were greedy and unscrupulous men who cheated and exploited the natives. Alcohol was an important and permanent part of the trade. It had devastating effects on many Indian tribes. Numerous witnesses have written of the violence that the liquor trade brought to Indian villages.
The difficult problem of alcohol in the fur trade was never eliminated. In fact, its effect on the Indians increased as the fur-bearing animals were depleted and the Indians began to surrender their lands. Eventually the fur trade moved into the West, beyond the Mississippi. There the beaver was reduced to virtual extinction during the nineteenth century.
By the early 1800s, many Indian tribes faced starvation due to the shortage of animals. The Shawnee Indians were in especially hard times. The Shawnee Prophet tried to convince his people to give up all white customs and products. He had only limited success. His brother Tecumseh tried to unite the Indians west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River into a confederation. One of the principal reasons that his plan failed was his inability to feed his followers due to the lack of animals.