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Program 9: Rolling Back the Frontier

Trading for furs. Source: A Popular History of the United States by William Cullen Bryant & Sydney Howard Gay. New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1876.FUR TRADE

Following the initial discovery and exploration of the New World, some entrepreneurial Europeans quickly saw the potential wealth hidden in the hides of North America's wild creatures and the first trans-Atlantic fur trade was born. In the late 1500s, felted fur hats became the height of European fashion, creating a boon of prospective fur traders.

As far as pelts went, beaver was the most coveted, and Native Americans found that they could trade these and other hides (which were of relatively little consequence to them) for the European-made goods which they desired. Maine's Indians were among the first to take advantage of the opportunity to supply furs to Europeans-even Samuel de Champlain reports encountering some of them in 1603.

Fur was the primary currency the Native Americans had at their disposal, whereas the Europeans had a variety of trade items, which can be grouped into six general categories: weapons, hardware, cloth/clothing, small items (beads, trinkets), foodstuffs, and narcotics.

It is difficult to gauge the volume of trade conducted early on, but it is evident that French traders (Acadians) were probably the most successful, followed by the English and Dutch. Between 1625 and 1631, fur-trading stations were set up at Pejepscot, Cushnoc, Richmond Island, Penobscot, and Machias. This encouraged potential traders, and consequently, competition-on both sides. While the fur trade certainly seemed mutually beneficial (for Europeans and Natives) initially, there were difficult repercussions.

For Native Americans, contact with Europeans and their diseases took a tremendous toll. When Captain John Smith arrived in 1614, many Wabanakis and other Maine Indians were dying because they lacked immunity to common European diseases that had been passed on by traders and settlers. In 1616, 1619, and later in 1634, matters reached epidemic proportions-going so far as to (by many accounts) completely wipe out some tribes.

Unfortunately, widespread illness was not the only direct undesirable effect of the fur trade. Economically speaking, the unregulated competition between fur traders was fierce to the point that, in 1634, two Englishmen were killed in an altercation that resulted from their disputation of the Plymouth Company's exclusive rights to trade in the Kennebec area. Finally, the situation calmed and fighting among the British halted. Now, their only direct competitors were the French to the North.

By this time, many Wabanakis had become dependent on European muskets and other goods for their very survival. But as animal populations were gradually exhausted, Maine Indians found themselves having to hunt in new areas in order to maintain their ability to trade. This led to the "Beaver Wars", a series of conflicts throughout Maine and the St. Lawrence area in which disputes over trapping rights ended violently.

Beginning in the late 1630's and continuing through the 1660's, the "Beaver Wars" ultimately pitted the Algonquian League against the Iroquois Nation. The Algonquians were associated with the French while the Iroquois had befriended the English who took control of trading areas that had belonged to the Dutch.

Eventually, the fur trade went into decline, primarily for eceonomic reasons. Initially, the rare pelts brought to Europe from North America had been a luxury. As with any luxury item, as supply increases, demand decrease. As demand decreases, so does the value. As value decreased, Europeans less and less motivation to acquire the goods. In addition, suspicions of traders and settlers among Indian populations were on the rise in New England, making trade that much more dangerous. And so the once-mighty New England fur trade dwindled and died along with the camaraderie between Native Americans and Europeans in New England that it had fostered, and war was imminent.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Baker, et al. American Beginnings. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
  • Bourque, Bruce J. Twelve Thousand Years: American Indians in Maine. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.
  • Judd, et al., ed. Maine: The Pine Tree State From Prehistory to the Present. Orono, ME: University of Maine Press, 1995.
  • Rolde, Neil. An Illustrated History of Maine. Augusta, ME: Friends of the Maine State Museum, 1995.

INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPTS OF THE EARLY FUR TRADE

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FERDINANDO GORGES | FUR TRADE | MASSACHUSETTS BAY COLONY | POPHAM COLONY | FEATURED INTERVIEWS | TRANSCRIPT


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