Indian Commerce

Search Fold3 for your
Native American Records

Evidences of widespread commerce and rude media of exchange in North America are found in ancient shell-heaps, mounds, and graves, the objects having passed from hand to hand often many times. Overland, this trade was done on foot, the only domestic animal for long-distance transportation being the dog, used as a pack beast and for the travois and the sled. In this respect the north temperate zone of America was in marvelous contrast with the same latitudes of the Old World, where most of the commercial animals originated.

The deficiency in the means of land commerce was made up by the waters. Natural conditions in the section of the New World along the Arctic circle and on Hudson bay, continuously inhabited by the homogeneous Eskimo, in the inlets of the Atlantic coast, in the neighboring Caribbean area, and in the archipelagoes of British Columbia and s. E. Alaska, encouraged and developed excellent water craft for commerce. Better still by far for the trader were the fresh- water rivers, navigable for canoes, of the Yukon-Mackenzie, St Lawrence, Atlantic, Mississippi, and Columbia systems, in which neigh boring waters are connected for traffic by easy portages, a condition contrasting with that of Siberia, whose great rivers all end in frozen tundras and arctic wastes.

The North American continent is divided into culture areas in a way conducive to primitive commerce. Certain resources of particular areas were in universal demand, such as copper, jade, soapstone, obsidian, mica, paint stones, and shells for decoration and money, as dentalium, abalone, conus, olivella, and clam shells.

The Eskimo, to whom the Arctic area belonged, carried on extensive commerce among themselves and with the western Athapascan tribes and the Algonquian tribes to the E. They knew where soap-stone for lamps, jade for blades, and drift wood for sleds and harpoons could be found, and used them for traffic. They lived beyond the timber line; hence the Athapascans brought vessels of wood and baskets to trade with them for oil and other arctic products.

The Mackenzie-Yukon tribes were in the lands of the reindeer and of soft fur-bearing animals. These they traded in every direction for supplies to satisfy their needs (see Fur trade}. The Russians in Alaska and the Hudson’s Bay Co. stimulated them to the utmost and taught them new means of capture, including the use of firearms. Remnants of Iroquois bands that were employed in the fur trade have been found on Rainy lake, on Red and Saskatchewan rs., even as far N. as the Polar sea and as far w. as the Siksika of the plains and the Takulli of British Columbia (Havard in Smithson. Rep., 318, 1879; Chamberlain in Am. Anthrop., vi,459, 1904; Morice, N. Int. Brit. Col., 1904.) See Caughnawaga.

The Atlantic slope from Labrador to Georgia was the special home of Algonquian and Iroquoian tribes. Inland were found deer, bears, foxes, and turkeys. The salt-water bays and inlets not only supplied mollusks, crustaceans, fish, and aquatic birds in vast numbers, but stimulated easy transportation and commerce. The great lakes and the St Lawrence, moreover, placed the tribes about them in touch with the copper mines of L. Superior. Through this enlarging influence the Iroquois were ennobled and became the leading family of this area. A medium of exchange was invented in the shape of wampum, made from clam shells. The mounds of the s. portion of this slope reveal artifacts of copper, obsidian, and shell, which must have been trans ported commercially from afar along the water highways in birch-bark canoes and dugouts.

The Mississippi area was a vast receiving depot of commerce, having easy touch with other areas about it by means of portages between the headwaters of in numerable streams; with the Chesapeake bay, the great lakes, and the Mackenzie basins through the Ohio and the main stream; with the E. Rockies and Columbia r. through the Missouri and other great branches of the Mississippi in the w. Buffalo skins and horns were demanded by the Pueblos, while pemmican and beads enlivened trade. The mounds reveal dentalium shells from the Pacific, obsidian from the Rockies, copper from L. Superior, pipes of catlinite, and black steatite from Minnesota and Canada, and objects from the Atlantic.

The Gulf area includes the ancient home of the Muskhogean, the Caddoan, and a few smaller families. Commerce here was inland. Their coast was almost without islands and came in commercial touch with an outside world only through Mexico. The discoveries of Cushing in s. Florida reveal a colony in the southern Mexican or West Indian culture status. The shorter rivers of this area put its N. border in trade touch with Tennessee and the Carolinas, and its w. with Arkansas and Texas. The Mississippi lured its traders almost to the Canadian border. The Rio Grande was the commercial artery connecting the E. areas with the interior basin. The Rio Grande Pueblos still trade their paper-bread with the Kiowa and Comanche of Oklahoma. Coronado speaks of Pawnee and Wichita visitors among the Pueblos of the Rio Grande in 1540 (Winship in 14th Rep. B. A. E., 1896).

The Pacific coast tribes occupied two areas that present quite opposite conditions in regard to commercial activity. From Mt St Elias s. to California trade was active, transportation being effected in excellent dugout canoes; the waters and the lands offered natural products easy of access that stimulated barter. Copper, horn for spoons, eulachon, and Chilkat blankets were exchanged for abalone and dentalium shells, and baskets were bartered for other baskets and the teeth of a large southern shark, also for the furs of the interior Indians. The Haida regularly visited their Tsimshian neighbors to exchange canoes for eulachon oil, wood suitable for boxes, and mountain-goat horn, while the Tlingit were intermediaries in diffusing the cop per that came from the N. On the Columbia r. camass and moose were articles of commerce. Farther’s., in Oregon and California, whether from the islandless coast or the genius of the peoples, the spirit of commerce was less prominent. Among the N. w. California tribes, the Hupa and others, dentalia served for local money. In central California (Yuki, Pomo”, Sacramento, and San Joaquin valleys, etc. ) wampum of pierced disks al most exclusively served as a medium of exchange and standard of value. In s. California the inhabitants of the islands carried on a commerce in basketry, feathered wearing apparel, nets, vessels of steatite and serpentine, various implements of stone and bone, wampum, sea-shells and shell ornaments, and cured fish, which they bartered with the tribes of the mainland for basket materials, skins, nuts, prepared meats, and other articles which they did not have on the islands. The Indians of the mountains and the interior valleys of California constantly traveled to ” and fro for the purpose of barter, and the trails over the range to the coast are yet plainly visible, especially from the lower Tulare valley (A. L. Kroeber and C. P. Wilcomb, inf’n, 1905; Stearns in Nat. Mus. Rep., 297, 1887) . From the early mariners we learn that the island Indians had canoes made of skins, some being very large and holding 20 persons. Vizcaino, the Spanish navigator, who made his voyage in 1602-3, mentions large boats of planks at Santa Catalina, Cal., and states that its natives engaged in trade, though not extensive, with those on the mainland (Hittell, Hist, Cal., i, 139, 1885). Hittell does not think that there were any voyages between the Santa Barbara ids. and Puget sd. , though canoes may have drifted or have been carried by stress of weather over considerable distances.

The Interior basin, especially in the Pueblo country, had a lively home and distant commerce, the duration and extent of which are witnessed by the trails measuring in all many hundreds of miles in length. Pacific coast shells and copper bells of Mexican origin are encountered in the ancient ruins. The inland commerce was fostered by the two kinds of social life, pueblo and castral. After the advent of the Spaniards, this traffic was greatly quickened. The Hopi traded in cotton of their own cultivation with out side tribes, and are still the chief weavers and traders of ceremonial cotton blankets, sashes, and kilts in the S. W. The Zuñi and some of the Rio Grande pueblos use shell beads and turquoise, trading largely with the Navaho. The latter have a wide and varied commerce, trafficking with the Havasupai, Hopi, and Walapai for baskets and using their blankets and silver work as an exchange medium with neighboring tribes and with the whites.

Commerce was greatly stimulated through the coming of the whites by the introduction of domestic animals, especially horses, mules, donkeys, cattle, sheep, goats, poultry; by the vastly enlarged demand for skins of animals, ivory, fish, and native manufactures; by offering in exchange iron tools and implements, woven goods, and other European products desired by the Indians. The effects of this stimulated trade were profound, both for good and evil. Indians were drawn far from home. The Iroquois, for example, traveled with the fur traders into N. w. Canada.

Many kinds of Indian handiwork have entered into world commerce. Money is lavished on fine basketry, beadwork, wampum belts, ivory carvings, horn spoons, wooden dishes, silver work, costumes, feather and quill work, and especially Navaho blankets and Hopi and Zuni textiles. In ancient times there were intertribal laws of commerce, and to its agents were guaranteed freedom and safety. See Boats, Fur trade, Exchange, Horse, Trails and Trade-routes, Travel, Travois, and the bibliographies there under; consult also Ran in Smithson. Rep., 271, 1872. (O. T. M.)



MLA Source Citation:

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 24 July 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/indian-commerce.htm - Last updated on Oct 18th, 2013


Categories:


Contribute to the Conversation!

Our "rules" are simple. Keep the conversation on subject and mind your manners! If this is your first time posting, we do moderate comments before we let them appear... so give us a while to get to them. Once we get to know you here, we'll remove that requirement.

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Newsletter Signup

We currently provide two newsletters. Why not take both for a run?

Genealogy Update: We send out this newsletter whenever we feature a new, or significantly updated, collection or database on our website.

Circle of Nations: We send out this newsletter whenever we feature a new (or significantly updated) Native American collection or database on our website.

Once you've clicked on the Subscribe button above you'll receive an email from us requesting confirmation. You must confirm the email before you will be able to receive any newsletter.