Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Commerce Among Indians



  [This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



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 marvellous 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 Now World along the Arctic circle and on Hudson bay , continuously inhabited by the homogeneous [Inuit], in the inlets of the Atlantic coast, in the neighbouring 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 neighbouring 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 [Inuit] , 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 soapstone for lamps, jade for blades, and driftwood 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 supplier to satisfy their needs. 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.)


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 molluscs, 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 lake 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 transported 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 innumerable 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 lake Superior, pipes of catlinite, and black steatite from Minnesota and Canada, and objects from the Atlantic .


The Pacific Coast tribes occupied two areas that present quite opposite conditions in regard to commercial activity. From mount 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 neighbours, to exchange canoes for eulachon oil, wood suitable for boxes, and mountain-goat horn, while the Tlingit were intermediaries in diffusing the copper that came from the N. On the Columbia r. camass and moose were articles of commerce.


Commerce was greatly stimulated through the coming of the whites by the introduction of domestic animals, especially horses, mules, donkeys, cattle, sheep, goats and 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, travelled 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 Zufli textiles. In ancient times there were inter-tribal laws of commerce, and to its agents were guaranteed freedom and safety.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 108-109.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College