The Impact of the Fur Trade on Native Americans

The Technological Revolution
From The Course of Empire

by Bernard DeVoto

The revolution that destroyed the Neolithic world began with the voyage of John Cabot in 1498. No evidence has ever been found that before that date fishermen—Basque, Spanish, Portuguese, Breton, or English—visited the Grand Banks and went on to the Canadian mainland. But many a historian has had to suppress the twitch of a nerve that comes from certain inexplicable data, of which the most galling one is this: that as early as there are accounts of visits to these shores there are also Indians offering to trade furs for manufactured goods.

Cartier’s voyages of 1534 and 1535 found fishermen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and up the river, and found Indians who were habituated to the fur trade which had been begun by fishermen who landed to dry their catch. During the next seventy years the intertribal trading system—which was prehistoric, as old as the oldest archaeological discoveries—was converted into the trade for furs. By the time Champlain arrived in 1603 the tribes that Cartier had met had been displaced, a complex system of collecting furs and distributing goods had developed, a practically continuous intertribal war had begun, and Indian life within reach of the trade had been shifted to a new basis. By Champlain’s time too the fur trade had become the beaver trade. Down to 1763 the history of Canada is primarily the history of the trade in beaver pelts. Down to about that date, moreover, the fur trade was the principal objective of imperial competition, and war, everywhere in the continent north of Mexico.

That statement, however, must be phrased in a different way for it emphasizes the currency—furs—whereas what counted was the market for European manufactures. The New World was a constantly expanding market; no limit to its development could be foreseen and indeed there was no limit. Its value in gold was enormous but it had still greater value in that it expanded and integrated the industrial systems of Europe. It was thus a powerful force in the development of capitalism and nationalism.

The impact of European goods produced a change in Neolithic America far more concentrated and rapid than anything in the history of white civilization. In 1500 Indian life north of Mexico was at a stage roughly equivalent to what we vaguely make out Mediterranean life to have been at, say, 6000 BC. The first belt-knife given by a European to an Indian was a portent as great as the cloud that mushroomed over Hiroshima. The heir of the ages had thrust his culture into the era of polished stone. Instantly the man of 6000 BC was bound fast to a way of life that had developed seven and a half millennia beyond his own. He began to live better and he began to die.

Nicholas Perrot bringing a fire-lighter to the Mascoutens signalized a change far more revolutionary than that which the application of steam power to machinery produced in white culture. He was in Wisconsin; his predecessors had signalized the same change from tidemark on inland. A knife blade of the poorest steel, an axehead of worked iron, a needle, a file, a pair of scissors, any piece of steel or iron meant comfort, ease, power, not possible to an Indian without it. Fell a tree with a sharpened stone or hollow out a log with fire, then with an axe; sew a dress with a bone awl and thread made of split animal sinew, then with a needle and silk or linen thread. A garment made of skins required the labor of hunting, skinning, curing, and tanning as well as tailoring, and it was in some weathers ineffective or unhealthy. Woolen cloth was immensely more versatile, comfortable, effective, and easier to work. The matchlock or flintlock of the early seventeenth century, which as a trade gun was displaced by the flintlock musket in another generation, was an incredibly inept firearm; but in the conditions of forest hunting it was much better than the indigenous bow. (The Indians of the Northeast used a bow which was neither double-curved or sinew-backed.) It outranged the bow and its heavy ball, from an ounce to an ounce and a half, made sure of the kill. It was an even greater advantage in war, in so much that the tribes that had firearms inevitably subjugated or drove out those which did not. Metal arrowheads, lance blades, knives, and hatchets had an equal superiority over flint weapons….

The revolution affected every aspect of Indian life. The struggle for existence, for food and shelter to maintain life, became easier. Immemorial handicrafts grew obsolescent, then obsolete. Methods of hunting were transformed. So were the methods—and purposes—of war. As war became deadlier in purpose and armament a surplus of women developed, so the marriage customs changed and polygamy became common. The increased usefulness of women in the preparation of pelts worked to the same end. These and related phenomena produced changes in social organization. The fur trade increased trade in general, so that there was more intercourse among tribes. This meant an acceleration of cultural change, for the tribes acquired arts, crafts, myths, and religious ceremonies from one another. Standards of wealth, prestige, and honor changed. The Indians acquired commercial values and developed business cults. They became more mobile. Hunts, raids, and trade excursions ranged farther. Tribal movements and shifts were speeded up.

In sum it was cataclysmic. A culture was forced to change much faster than change could be adjusted to. All corruptions of culture produce breakdowns of morale, of communal integrity, and of personality, and this force was as strong as any other in the white man’s subjugation of the red man. The wonder is that the Indians resisted decadence as well as they did, and fought the whites off so obstinately and so long. For from 1500 on they were cultural prisoners.

The Fox chief who told Perrot, “You gave birth to us for you brought us the first iron,” was telling the truth, and Perrot’s threat to close the trade to the Ottawas was a threat that he would deprive them of the means of subsistence. To the last fragment of a broken axehead, the last half of a a cracked awl, the last inch of strap iron, a better life depended upon the trade. Down to just such items the goods traveled along the native trade routes, hundreds of miles beyond the white trader who had first sold them for furs. A tribe that traded directly with the whites had the most favorable situation, fully supplied and better armed than its customers and possessing the power of any monopoly. Consequently there were trade rivalries, trade diplomacy, and trade wars. For most Indian tribes war had always been a sport, a cult, and a vocation. But the trade with industrial Europe made it for three centuries a fundamental condition of Indian society. Trade wars produced tribal displacements and migrations. The attacked fled before the attackers; those who had firearms or iron for points pushed back those armed with bone- or stone-tipped weapons. New frictions, tensions, and population pressures followed.

But it must be said with strong emphasis that these movements, though they were a supremely important force in our history, were only movements for a new reason. Too many historians have treated the Indians as if they were a static and even uniform society when the white men reacher North America. Whereas sizeable population movement were going on at that time and had been always going on through the prehistoric period as afar back as archaeological evidence extends. There was competition for hunting grounds and agricultural lands; the less populous or warlike were forced somewhere else. Exhaustion of food supplies caused some movements. Climatic changes produced others, notably in the Southwest and the Upper Mississippi Valley. The massing or aggregation of culture groups forced the displacement of some long-established societies, as in the southward retreat of the Pueblos. For some migrations, such as that of the Utes and Comanches, it appears to be true of many prehistoric peoples, that there was no reason beyond the common American ones; an itching of foot and a conviction that it’s a better country further on.

From Bernard DeVoto, The Course of Empire, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980), pp 90-94.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. I have always liked cotton my self.

  2. Posted by nate on December 16, 2009 at 7:46 pm


  3. Posted by Demosthenes on April 22, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    impressive spelling there

  4. Posted by Elijah on September 11, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    i think the indians traded turkey for fur i guess

  5. Posted by on January 28, 2013 at 1:56 pm


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