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Program 9: Rolling Back the Frontier

Excerpts from Interview with Jay Adams:

Story of Pilgrim's early trading with Indians (Corn for Fur)

"The Pilgrims had intended to catch fish as a way of earning a profit for the joint stock venture from the beginning. They knew even before leaving England that they were going to have a tough time breaking into what they understood to be the fur trade because either the French to their north or the Dutch to their south and west and all had basically cornered that market. And yet they knew that English and other Europeans had been fishing successfully off the coast of Maine and northern New England for some time. They thought they could break into that trade. There were a couple of problems."

"It was only by accident in a sense that they [The Pilgrims] discovered the Kennebec River Valley and learned that neither the Dutch nor the French had extended any fur trading initiatives into the valley. And it was the success of the 1625 corn for furs, very speculative journey in the boat they had built, their shallop, that turned the tide for them and led them to decide not to catch fish any longer. But to trade whatever they had, European trade goods and corn that they had grown & furs."

"They [the Pilgrims] found out about the fur trade when some of the fisher folk at Damariscove Island, off Boothbay Harbor, arrived in Plymouth with mail. Folks had written them and those letters came over on that sailing vessel and ended up at Plymouth. And Governor Bradford wrote a thank you note and the Pilgrims got in their shallop, sailed over to Damariscove to say thanks and to write letters home. And it was while on that journey to Damariscove that the fisher people there told them about the Kennebec River and suggested that here maybe a drainage area who's, who's local Indians had not been engaged in that trade and which might be very willing. The Indians might be very willing to get involved and sure enough it led to the 1625 voyage and the rest is history."

"The first venture consisted of the 1625 loading this open shallop. They did build a certain amount of decking to protect their crop of corn. Loaded that corn on board. That was the first year by which they had a successful enough agriculturally to have a surplus of corn available. Otherwise it was pretty hand to mouth for them. They loaded that boat with corn. You'd say to yourself: well, why would the Pilgrims want to trade corn to the Indians? Well, geographically the Kennebec River Valley essentially marks the line of demarcation passed which east of which from, there's just not enough growing season to grow corn. And it's quite possible that the Kennebec area Indians had already been trading whatever they had for corn with southern Maine or southern New England Indians even before European arrival.

So it could have been that the Pilgrims simply broke into the trade. Took a commodity that they knew would be of interest to people who otherwise rely on hunting and gathering and offer to exchange that commodity for, for furs and it worked out. I don't know how many bushels of corn the Pilgrims had on the boat. But they took away about 700 pounds in weight worth of furs and apparently there were pretty excited about it. And immediately began to plan to make the venture more permanent."

"If you think that if every pound of beaver is worth an English pound of money then maybe those 700 pounds were worth 700 pounds. Certainly in that early going, the price of beaver in Europe, it's value made those early years pretty successful."

British Demand for N. American Beaver

"Beaver hats and other broad brimmed hats have started to be popular in the 1500's. It's just a matter of style I guess. But over the years the brims on these hats just got bigger, bigger and bigger and they took more beaver pelts if that's the highest style hat that you wanted.

At first the hatters relied on local European beaver. But it didn't take very long to essentially trap or hunt them out. So even before the Pilgrims got here Europeans were looking for an alternative source of beaver.

North American beaver live in a colder climate. So the quality of their fur is higher anyway and those pelts became extremely prized and even past the Pilgrim era into the 17th century into the 18th century beaver hats remained really popular on both sides of, both sides of the Atlantic."

"Beaver was important because in the 1500's at least beaver hats and other hats I'm sure as well, but particularly beaver hats became the rage. And over time they got bigger and bigger. Not so some much the crown size but the brim just got really big. So what that does is sort of cavalier period and one thing or another. And there's enough demand for these hats that they out pace the supply of European beaver.

"And so Europeans begin to explore North America in the 1500's and early 1600's. They become aware of the presence of the North American beaver and to their delight they discover that those beaver had even better quality pelts because the beaver needs to stay warm in colder climates. And so even before the wealth of the forest and seas attract Europeans, it's those fur bearing animals in North America that had tremendous economic, economic value and Pilgrims were just a number of groups that try to tap into that wealth."

"The Indians are very interested in the fur trade. They become quickly interested and even dependent on European trade goods and are always willing to trade with the partner, the French, the English or the Dutch for the highest quality trade goods in the end."

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


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