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The Indian Trade

A silver beaver effigy

A silver beaver effigy, a popular symbol in the Indian trade in the 18th century. Artifacts pictured in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection.

Trade—the exchange of something for something else—was an important part of Anglo-Indian relations from the earliest days of European settlement in the New World. The Jamestown colonists traded glass beads and copper to the Powhatan Indians in exchange for desperately needed corn. Later, the Indian trade broadened to include trading English-made goods such as axes, cloth, guns and domestic items in exchange for shell beads. Fur traders like John Hollis in the Chesapeake traded the beads to other Indian tribes for beaver pelts, which were then sold for tobacco bound for the English market.

This trade network often resulted in great wealth for the European traders but also resulted in American Indians becoming dependent on English-made goods. A telling example is a 1783 letter written by Scottish merchant Thomas Forbes. Forbes was a member of Panton, Leslie, and Company which traded with the Indians in the southeastern United States after the American Revolution. Forbes’ September 28, 1783, letter to London lists “Articles of British Manufacture absolutely necessary for the Indians inhabiting the Western frontier of East and West Florida in North America.” The letter enumerates woolen, cotton and linen goods (including broadcloth, thread, blankets and garters), as well as saddles, shoes, hats, “riffles and smoothbored musketry; very cheap,” gunpowder, flints and bullets; iron items such as pots, axes, hoes and hatchets; and other domestic items such as scissors, razors and “dressing glasses” (mirrors).

The Indians in Florida also required other specific items that were made exclusively for the Indian trade. Items such as “silver trinkets for the ears, arms, and necks” were collectively known as trade silver, and were often produced by British or North American tradesmen specifically for the Indian trade. Articles of trade silver were important parts of Indian dress and adornment and can be seen in many existing portraits of important chiefs and leaders from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Gorget made for Indian trade

A gorget made by a New York silversmith for the Indian trade, probably for a member of the Iroquois.

The Indian trade also included ceremonial gift-giving, often accompanying negotiations or diplomatic treaties between the colonial, British or, later, United States government and a powerful tribe or individual. During the American Revolution, when Patriots and British representatives sought the support of Indian allies, both sides used trade goods to influence the chiefs’ decisions. When delegates from the First Continental Congress met with members of the Six Nation tribes in 1775, they brought with them rum and other gifts to persuade the powerful chiefs to remain neutral in the “family quarrel” between colonists and England. Similarly, when British agents visited members of the Seneca in 1777, Mary Jemison (a captive who married a Seneca warrior) remembered that the British agents “made a present to each Indian of a suit of clothes, a brass kettle, a gun, and tomahawk, a scalping-knife, a quantity of powder and lead, a piece of gold, and promised a bounty on every scalp that should be brought in.” 

In addition to being powerful diplomatic gifts, the Indian trade had another direct impact on the American Revolution. As the 18th century progressed, items of British manufacture such as guns and gunpowder, hatchets and axes, and broadcloth and thread replaced more traditional tools, weapons and other aspects of Indian life. As each Indian nation weighed the choice of whether to remain neutral in the conflict or take the side of the American Patriots or the British, they had to consider how their choice would impact their access to the gifts and trade goods upon which they were now dependent.

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