Impact of the Fur Trade



One of the signal features of the trade was its rapid movement westward as one beaver population after another was hunted out, and the fur hunters had to push farther inland in search of untapped beaver grounds.

This meant, inevitably, that people who had felt the first impact of the fur trade were left behind in its wake, while new groups sought to enter it.

Everywhere, the advent of the trade had ramifying consequences for the Lives of the participants.

It deranged accustomed social relations and cultural habits and prompted the formation of new responses—both internally, in the daily life of various human populations, and externally,in relations among them.

As the traders demanded furs from one group after another, paying for them with European artifacts, each group re-patterned its ways around the European manufactures.

At the same time, the demands of the Europeans for fur increased competition among the native American groups-

competition for new hunting grounds to meet the rising European demand,

and competition also for access to the European goods, which soon became as much essential components of native technology as markers of differential status.

The fur trade thus changed the character of warfare among Amerind populations and increased its intensity and scope.

It led to the decimation of whole populations and the displacement of others From their previous habitats.

Nor were furs the only item furnished by the Indians.

The growing trade also required supplies, and as the commerce in furs expanded westward it altered and intensified the patterns through which food was produced for hunters and traders alike.

Northeastern Populations


The Abenaki were the first native American populations with whom the Europeans entered into sustained trading for furs were the Algonkin-speaking Eastern Abenaki of the Maine coast

Their case demonstrates the recurrent effects of such contact.

One was the precipitous decrease of the native population.

The other was a shift in the mix of economic activities carried on by the indigenous groups, and the resultant changes in their social relations.

In the first years of the seventeenth century, the Eastern Abenaki occupied more than twenty villages. each under a chief. with a total population of 10.000 people.

By 1611 only 3,000 survived.


the others died European-borne diseases to which the native Americans were not immune.

The survivors became more involved in taking beaver for exchanges with the Europeans.

They continued to grow some maize, but with the short growing season and Frequent crop failures they were eager to trade furs for food, as they did with the Plymouth Colony after 1625.

They abandoned the coast, where they had previously fished and hunted waterfowl, and carved out small family hunting territories inland, making hunting by small Family groups a mainstay of their new adjustment (Snow 1976).

In this development of the family hunting territory, the Abenaki are by no means alone.

It is quite possible that before the advent of the Europeans native hunters favored particular hunting grounds where they hunted in the winter.

Yet the hunting territory, held and defended exclusively by small family groups against other possible users, was a consequence of the new individualized exchange relationship between trapper and trader (see Leacock 1954)

The Catholic missionaries who Followed in the wake of the first explorers also benefited from this splitting up of larger groups, since it made conversion easier as each family took its own territory for hunting without following in the track of its neighbors" (Jesuit Relations 16~2. quoted in Bailey 1969: 89).


Traveling up the St. Lawrence, the French explorers and traders soon established relations with the Iroquoian-speaking Huron.

The Huron (French From hure, meaning boar, ruffian, savage), who called themselves Wendat, formed a confederation of 20,000 to 30.000 people of multiple origins, established perhaps as early as the fifteenth century.

Originally strongly committed to horticulture, they had settled on the shores of Georgian Bay in Lake Huron and opened trade with the hunters-and-gatherers to the north of them:

they exchanged maize, tobacco, and Indian hemp for furs, skin clothing, fish, copper, and hunting and traveling gear.

The Huron were thus in a strategic portion to carry the expanding fur trade to the inhabitants of the north woods.

As their commitment to the trade grew, they also lessened their involvement in horticulture, drawing ever larger supplies of maize from their allies.

From the inhabitants of the north woods they took over the efficient birchbark canoe, which became the preferred means for transporting large quantities of furs down river to annual fairs at Montreal.

For a time the Huron language became the lingua Eranca of the Upper Great Lakes and the Canadian Shield.

Until their destruction by the Iroquois in 1648. they were the main agents and beneficiaries of the French trade with the interior, and the mainstay of French military operations in the area.

There were several reasons for Huron success in this role.

They occupied a strategic location for exchanges between the biotic zone to the south, which favored crops like maize, beans, squash, and tobacco, and the zone to the north, occupied by hunters and fishermen.

These exchanges predate contact with the Europeans by several centuries, perhaps dating back to the stimulus provided by horticulture around A.D. 1200 (McPherron 1967).

When the fur trade entered the area. there already existed mechanisms that permitted and facilitated exchanges of goods, to which beaver and other furs could now be added.

Father Jean de Brebeuf, writing in 1636, suggests that certain circuits or lines of exchange were held by particular family lines and had to be activated by a "master," whose role was inheritable.

Transactions of all kinds were accompanied by exchanges of gifts as tokens of friendship, and gift giving was a part of curing ceremonies and diplomatic feasts (see Wright 1967).

Most notably, large-scale gift exchanges accompanied the Feast of the Dead, which was held every decade or so to bury the remains of those who had died since the last feast.

On such occasions the successors to the dead chiefs were installed, and the names of the dead transferred to them.

The rituals thus served to ensure continuity in the leadership of local descent groups, while at the same time providing occasions for gift exchanges between the chiefs of such groups.

They underlined the separate identity and distinctiveness of such groups, while simultaneously establishing links of alliance between them.

These occasions could bring together members of different linguistic and political groups, as in the feast witnessed by the French missionary Lalemant in 1641 at Georgia Bay.

When the local Nipissing invited 2,000 people from as far west as the Sault and as far east as Huronia.

The quantity of valuables offered in furs, robes, beads, and hardware was considerable.

On that occasion, Lalemant says. "the presents that the Nipissirians gave to the other Nations alone would have cost in France forty or even fifty thousand francs(quoted in Hickerson L960: 91).

Such gift exchanges. incarnating ties of alliance and recognition of chiefly status, became a widespread concomitant of the fur trade as it spread inland from the Huron.

Adopted first by the Algonkin speakers of the Great Lakes, it spread from them to the Cree west of Lake Superior, and from the Cree into the Great Plains at the end of the seventeenth century (Nekich 1974).


The Dutch at New Amsterdam. and the English who took over from them in 1644, encountered in the upper drainage of the Hudson River another Iroquoian-speaking population of horticulturalists. who came to be known to Europeans as "Iroquois"-the French version of an Algonkin word meaning ‘real adder.’

The Iroquois were organized into a confederacy. which they called Ganonsyoni ("The Lodge Extended Lengthwise").

The five "nations—or named clusters of matrilineages—comprising the confederacy were:

the Mohawk (from an Algonkin word For "cannibal"). who called themselves Ganiengehaqa, or "Flint People’.:

the Oneida; the Onondaga: the Cayuga: and the Seneca (after Sinneken, a mistaken Dutch rendering of a Mahiran version of the Iroquoian name for the Oneida).

Early in the eighteenth century, the Oneida permitted entry into the confederacy by the Tuscarora of outsiders and the confederacy became known as the "Six Nations.

although the Tuscarora never had the right to sit in confederate councils.

The available evidence indicates that the Iroquois have long resided in this region.

In historic rimes, each of the five nations controlled its own settlement cluster, fields. forests, and hunting territories.

Though linked in one political organization, there were cultural and linguistic differences among them.

The languages of the various clusters were mutually unintelligible, and the business of the confederacy was carried on by multilingual chiefs.

The Iroquois confederacy had probably come into being in the course of the fifteenth century, as a means for reducing conflict and warfare among the clusters.

Soon, however, the growing fur trade gave the various clusters an overriding convergent interest.

While the beaver was uncommon in Iroquois country and quickly grew even scarcer in response to increased hunting, the Iroquois soon realized that their sepa rate and collective future depended on the beaver.

To increase their own access to furs, however, they had first to reduce or eliminate the competition of their neighbors.

Backed by the Dutch. and later on by the English. they unleashed a series of destructive wars against their French-backed rivals.

After an epidemic of smallpox weakened the Hurons in 1640, the Iroquois attacked and destroyed Huronia as a separate entity in 1648.

In 1656 they destroyed the Neutral Nation and the Erie.

In 1675 the Mohawk fell upon the Algonkin confederacy, which had formed to oppose the English colonists in New England.

In the same year the Seneca, in league with the English settlers of Maryland and Virginia, ended the threat from the Susquehannock, who controlled the central valley of Pennsylvania.

In 1680 the Five Nations opened war on the Illinois to prevent French contact with them.

Despite the scale of Iroquois military operations, the actual number warriors fielded in the course of these actions was not very great.

1660 a Jesuit father estimated that the Mohawks could mobilize 500 warriors. the Oneida fewer than 100, the Onandaga 300. the Cayuga 300. and the Seneca less than 1,000.

What lent the Iroquois their military capability was increased access to fire arms, traded to them mainly by the Dutch and the English.

By 1660 each warrior probably had his own musket, and superior firepower together with reliance on individual prowess in guerilla-like warfare granted them superiority over their neighbors (Orterbein 1964).

Entry into the fur trade and intensified warfare brought on other changes in Iroquois ecology and social organization.

The economic base of Iroquois life before the growth of the fur trade was horticulture and the hunt.

horticulture was largely in the hands of women, although the men helped in clearing land during the slash-and-burn cycle.

The social composition of the clearing group remains unknown, but other tasks of cultivation were carried out by the women of the village as a whole under the guidance of the head matron of the dominant lineage and with the matrons of other family lines acting as lieutenants.

Rights to use land, as well as the tools used in cultivation and food processing passed through the female line.

Distribution of produce was similarly in the hands of women.

The weight of these economic roles granted women considerable authority, since they could use their ability to provide food and moccasins to, exercise a veto over the activities of war pa parties of which they did not approve.

It also placed in their hands the dispensation of hospitality in feasting, an important activity in cementing alliances within and among the clusters IBrown 1975: 247-248: Rothenberg 1976: 1 IZ).

Furthermore, women owned the multifamily dwellings and exercised the right to nominate councilors to sit in the Council of the Lodge Extended Lengthwise.

Hunting and warfare, in contrast, were the work or men, and their activities grew increasingly important as the Iroquois became more involved in the fur trade, and more dependent upon it.

European trade goods, presumably exchanged for fur, appear in Iroquois sites as early as 1570, and a century later the Iroquois had come to rely almost completely upon trade and diplomatic gifts in order to obtain arms, metal tools, kettles, clothing, jewelry, and liquor.

The beaver was largely extinct in Iroquois country by 1640, and the Iroquois thus had to range farther and farther into the lands of neighbors and enemies to obtain the resources that paid for the European commodities--

or to carry on warfare in order to recompense diplomatic gifts made to them.

The separation of male and female roles increased with the growth of the fur trade and the intensification of foreign involvements:

the men were often away for years in pursuit of fur and enemies.

while the women were tied more closely to the sites of their fields and gardens.

It is possible that the Iroquois became increasingly matrilocal after the early seventeenth century (Richards 1957). in response to this growing bifurration of actlvitles.

It also seems likely, as Richards argues, that women gradually assumed the right to adopt captives into the local matrilineages. a function that grew vital as the Iroquois sought replacements for men killed in warfare.

In 1657 the Seneca were said to contain more foreigners than natives of the country. In 1659 the Jesuit Lalemant said: "If one should compute the number of pure-blooded Iroquois. he would have difficulty in finding more than 1,200 of them in all the Five Nations. since they are, for the most part, only an aggregation of different tribes whom they have conquered.

Two-thirds of the Oneida were Algonkin and Huron in 1669. The Jesuits even complained that it became difficult to preach to the Iroquois in their own language. (See Quain 1937: 246- 247.1

This evidence has some striking implications.

It points to the possibility that in the course of Fur trading and enhanced warfare the forms of kinship affiliation remained the same, but their meaning and function underwent a major change.

When the Europeans first arrived, the Lodge Extended Lengthwise was primarily a league of local groups adjudicating local interests in cultivated land and other resources, as well as impeding the escalation of local quarrels into feuds and warfare.

Yet increasingly the Iroquois confederacy found itself acting as an association of fur traders and warriors. sometimes of quite different origins. in relation to the translocal imperatives of the fur trade and of the political struggles between rival European state systems.

William Benton has spoken of the League as a kinship state, thus linking two concepts that are often treated as incompatible.

The Iroquois confederacy is perhaps better characterized as an association that tried to use the forms of kinship in the pursuit of associational functions.

It might even he seen as a native American parallel to the structure of the European trading companies, which also combined economic and political functions.

In this characteristic the Iroquois invite comparison with the Aro in the area of the lower Niger in West Africa, who also utilized kinship mechanisms and ritual to organize and dominate the local slave trade (see chapter 7).

Like the Are, the Iroquois were not a state but an association predicated on kinship affiliations that developed in response to translocal political and economic pressures.