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1. Indian Culture 2. Beginnings on the St. Lawrence 3. The Canoe and the Voyageurs 4. The Old Northwest 5. Indian Trade with John Jacob Astor 6. Across the Methye Portage 7. New Caledonia 8. Russians in Alaskan Waters 9. Horses in Indian Life 10. The Saskatchewan 11. The Missouri from St. Louis to Fort Union 12. Fort Union and Beyond 13. Indians and Ashley's Rendezvous System 14. The "Fur Desert" 15. Rocky Mountain Fur Company 16. American Rockies Competition 17. Southwest Trappers 18. Fort Vancouver Trade 19. The Northwest Coast


Introduction The creation of The Indian Way: The North American Fur Trade was inspired by our realization that works about the fur trade in both Canada and the United States were written from the European viewpoint. Fur-trade history has been largely a portrayal of the courageous, persevering penetration of the new North American continent by European explorers and entrepreneurs, extending from the early sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. Their motivation has been correctly portrayed as a fascination with vast lands, empire expansion, and profit from North America's apparently unlimited fur-bearing resources. To describe this endeavor, most works about the fur trade view the aboriginal as a hindrance to be managed, overcome, or exploited. While the collection of pelts, primarily of beaver, might have occurred in a new land devoid of any native human presence, the entire style and sequence of events relied upon, and exploited, aboriginal lifestyles, knowledge, wilderness skills in living and travel, and also the incessant labor of Indian women. We actively conducted research over a period of at least fifteen years, probing and expanding as the critical role of aboriginal people was appreciated. Admittedly, we had a touristlike desire to see the places known from aboriginal living and legend, as well as those resulting from the white man's exploration and building. From this exploration, the concept of a book began to materialize. During these travels, many archivists and librarians gave their unstinting support. We have used, as far as possible, aboriginal oral history, and have relied upon recognized ethnological expertise to portray aboriginal participation. The broad, general aspects of


aboriginal cultures were always present, and the white man, at his cost and peril, often failed to see and learn this pervasive reality. To successfully manage such a broad subject, we have centered our work around 1833, a year of substantial maturity of the fur trade.


Chapter 1: Indian Culture

Sitting Bull, the great Sioux, advised, "Take the best of the white man's road, pick it up and take it with you. That which is bad leave alone, cast it away. Take the best of the old Indian ways, always keep them, do not let them die."i The white man, coming to North America in the early seventeenth century, believed he was bringing a method of trapping, traveling, and trading that would exploit the wilderness to great profit in furs, principally beaver. He had to learn, as Arthur J. Ray of the University of British Columbia wrote, that in the early eighteenth century, he would encounter people with ancient trading routes and skills. Although the North American fur trade rested in the cradle of the Indian culture, a European had much to learn if he were to make a profit. The trader was ignorant of the nature and extent of North America and its people. Neither his rural nor his urban habits and skills enabled him to travel, trap, trade, command aboriginal cooperation and respect, or even survive in the new land. In addition, the European was saddled with a strict class-consciousness and an inbred sense of superiority that could not accept the native as a partner. He had to learn to respect the Indians' ways and values. The culture widely found among Indians across North America—and which had a direct impact on the fur trade—included, perhaps first of all, hospitality; but other aspects were the provision of food, means of travel, the role of trade middlemen, land ownership, the importance of ceremonies, gift giving, language skills, family life, transportation, war, and revenge. While


focusing on the indigenous culture of the fur-trade story, we can only flash spots of light on this rich, varied, fascinating lifestyle that became part of the very nature of the fur trade. Aboriginals had adapted to their environment, living in settled villages, raising crops, hunting, and fishing; or if the environment was not amenable to crops, they were nomadic hunters and gatherers. Maize, beans, and squash, developed in the Americas, had, over the centuries, been adapted to diverse climate and agricultural conditions and were staples of local diet. Cornfields were found by European settlers in Virginia and Massachusetts, by Champlain with the Huron, along the Missouri river, and south to the Pueblo villages. In 1826 the Paiutes showed Jedediah Smith their irrigated corn, growing out of the red soil of the Great Basin. The Mescalero Apache planted corn on the plains of New Mexico, and the Mohave irrigated their corn, squash, and bean fields from the Colorado River. These and other vegetables were widely traded. For meat, the Europeans—both traders and colonists—depended on native hunters for fresh buffalo, elk, deer, geese, and fish. Pemmican, which was made from bison or salmon, was produced in lodges across the continent and made possible the fur trade in the Far North. Indian people have always traded. From northern British Columbia, southern California, eastern Oregon, and Wyoming, a series of middlemen brought obsidian for arrowheads and spearheads. Amber moved southward from the Arctic, and marine shells and diverse dentalia decorated necks, ears, and clothing far from the source. Native travel depended on memorizing the terrain as they moved through forests or along rivers and lakes.ii They shared information using linear sketches in the sand that emphasized the trail through hills, bends, rapids, or mountain passes. Indians measured distance by "sleeps" rather than space. In the winter of 1823, when Americans wintered with the Crow in present


Wyoming, long discussions around the fire resulted in them copying into their journals the maps that would lead them to beaver streams.iii On the plains, well-known trade centers included the Dakota Rendezvous at the mouth of the James River, where the Dakota bands Yanktonai, Sisseton, Yankton, and Teton came to trade. In the south, the permanent Pecos and Zuni pueblos along the Rio Grande welcomed Plains tribes such as the Apache, Kiowa, and Comanche to their trading fairs, where they traded their corn, squash, and beans for buffalo meat and animal hides. The agricultural villages of the Arikara and Mandan on the upper Missouri River were both important sources of horses and food for early traders. The Cheyenne and Crow brought horses from the south and traded them for vegetables. Na-Kwoel of the Stuart Lake Carrier band in British Columbia acquired an iron ax in about 1730 while trading on the Skeena River, where no European or Asian traders had ever appeared.iv Historian Arthur Ray, discussing the seventeenth-century trade on Hudson's Bay, pointed out that Indian middleman really controlled the fur trade from the beginning. As fur-trading posts appeared, the Cree became brokers between Canadian traders and other tribes, such as the Chipewyan, Blackfoot, Assiniboin, and Mandan. Their middlemen reached from the Mackenzie River basin to the Missouri, trading with the Dene in the Far North and the Assiniboin to their southwest. They acquired trade guns and ammunition from the French, the North West Company, and later the Hudson's Bay Company, and the superior armament enabled the Cree, and their alliance with the Assiniboin, to gain a firm foothold on the plains.v They traded not only for furs and robes, but also horses, pemmican, and slaves.


The concept of land ownership created friction among groups. Europeans believed that "new" land, and the New World, belonged to them by right of conquest. But this belief was not limited to whites. The Iroquois, the Cree, and the Sioux also displayed this mentality in their westward progression. To them "ownership" was defined as controlling access to preferred hunting, fishing, water, and camps. Warring over hunting grounds went on for years, and examples reach throughout North America. In the early eighteenth century, the Chippewa had attacked the Dakota villages at Mille Lacs and pushed the Dakota Sioux beyond the Mississippi River, out of their historical hunting grounds and the wild-rice area. The Cheyenne, who had been farmers in that region, were then forced south and west, changing from an agricultural society to one of buffalo hunting on the plains, and they became the prosperous middlemen of the plains' horse trade. The Osage middlemen on the Mississippi River received trade goods—and passed them on to other agricultural tribes. As the Osage moved west toward the Missouri River, where they were dominant traders and warriors, a powerful tribe and widely feared on the central prairie, the Kiowa, Comanche and later the Cherokee became their enemies in the rivalry over horses and hunting The practice of giving gifts also had a deep significance. A trader established his trustworthiness by giving gifts. "Gifts were part of the very thread that bound the Ojibwa into a society; the organizing principle of their economy and culture: kinship," according to historian Bruce White. "If you wished to seek to establish with someone a relationship that had all the rights and obligations that were found in the family‌you gave gifts."vii


Gifts could provide reparation for an inflicted injury, even murder, and appease the characteristic passion for revenge. The manner of giving, the role and status of the participants, the words spoken, and the attendant ceremony all indicated the value the gifts represented. Gifts from Europeans were at times considered a payment for the use of land for trading posts or freedom of travel. Beads, rum, tobacco, and clothing were given by trading companies to secure trading loyalty. Ceremonies established the atmosphere for trade and could not be aborted or hurried, but respected and observed by traders. Ceremonies were usually identified with nature, respect for animals, and personal power, or "medicine." Individual dignity and fortitude, eloquence, love of posing and drama, and the mystery assigned to tobacco and the pipe, or "calumet," governed all. Most Native Americans made use of some form of pipe ceremony, using native tobacco or bark as smoking material and pipes of various sizes, decoration, and materials. The smoke of the pipes carried prayers to the sky, and could establish a bond between groups or gain protection from enemies. Smoking a pipe with your host as you moved through native homelands was a simple courtesy and established trust. In 1822, as fur traders William Ashley and Jedediah Smith stopped at the Mandan village, a trip described in Chapter 13, they spent a day in council smoking with tribal leaders and discussing their plans for building a trading post and for trapping. Trading itself was no less stylized and just as obviously rooted in ancient trading practices. The native approach to the trading post involved certain parade-like courtesies that required appropriate flourish and precision in both the offering and the reception, including, at


times, cannon salutes and flag displays. A trading chief initiated the trade, but only after a ceremonious exchange of gifts and compliments, and often a pipe ceremony. The native gift might be dried meat, wild rice, or other food item; the trader would respond with rum, knives, flint, powder, shot, beads, or ribbons. As Rocky Mountain fur trader Jedediah Smith traveled with his party of trappers to the Southwest in the fall of 1826, a Ute approached him with a gift of corn as a symbol of peace, and he returned the compliment with the usual twists of tobacco and other trade goods. form of tobacco grew in many areas of North America, but when in the seventeenth century Hudson’s Bay Company traders introduced Brazilian tobacco as a trade item, the Indians preferred it above all others. The multiplicity of language was a problem for native and newcomer alike. Though many tribes were part of the same linguistic family, each language had many local dialects. Women who married into the band and slaves from other tribes were often used as interpreters within the villages. As the numbers of multilingual fur traders and employees expanded and spoke English, French, Spanish, Iroquois, or Cree, they also acted as interpreters. Sign language was in its most developed form on the plains and was used widely from Mexico to Canada. Trade jargon developed at coastal trade sites on the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and in the Arctic. Within our time frame of the early nineteenth century, the Chinook Jargon expanded up the Columbia River from the Pacific. The speech was based on the Chinook, Nootka, and Shahaptin languages of the coastal tribes and expanded by the various languages spoken by visiting sailors. The additional impetus of the English and French used at Astoria and Fort


Vancouver resulted in a useful jargon that became the most widely used lingua franca throughout the Columbia Plateau. The structure of the family, although at first seemingly irrelevant to the fur-trading Europeans, came to broadly affect the trading environment. As Europeans married native women, the new family relationships strengthened the position of the fur trader. Throughout native family life, there was strict protocol, and respect for elders was automatic. Marriage, generally arranged by the parents, was formalized by gift giving, a simple ceremony, and usually a post-nuptial celebration. The role of native women was often more complex than superficial observation indicated, and it varied from nation to nation. In nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, a woman’s strength and skills were essential in camp and to survival on the trail, and she owned the camp, from utensils to shelter. She captured small game and harvested roots and berries. Earlier, women on the plains had directly participated in the bison hunt, but with the advent of the horse, their role devolved into taking care of the meat and cleaning and scraping the hides. In aboriginal agrarian mythology, women were regarded as the source of life. The land and produce belonged to them, and they planted and harvested the crops. In many, if not most, tribes, women occupied a subordinate role in decision making and were even considered as chattels for barter or diplomacy. But there were also tribes where women expressed opinions in tribal or band council and where their views were often considered significant. The role of the fur-trader’s wife varied by location, whether in a village, a camp, or at a post. Among some tribes, having a native wife allowed an independent trader to benefit from the


same use of the land as other band members. In New Mexico, a native wife legalized his trapping and trading. The acquisition of fur pelts, deerskins, and buffalo robes; the purchase and positioning of trade goods; and the providing of provisions all depended on long-range transportation. Natives developed a variety of watercraft, including dugouts and rafts of logs, kayaks, umiaks (wooden boats covered with skins), the Aleut baidarkas developed for ocean hunting, and the famous birchbark canoe. Of all the aboriginal contributions to the North American fur trade, the birchbark canoe was unique in its almost universal utility and adaptability. It permitted the penetration of the water courses extending from the St. Lawrence and Hudson's Bay, the subarctic, and the Great Lakes/Mississippi valley into remote but profitable trapping and trading areas. Another practical form of water transportation was the bullboat. Hudson's Bay Company traders saw bullboats used by the Mandan on the Missouri River in the late eighteenth century. They were a useful conveyance for people who lived on the plains, where green, untreated bison hides were plentiful and the rivers were bordered by willows. Used often by women, bullboats were easily constructed with branches for the framework and covered with a bison hide, which, as it dried, shrank tightly around the framework. The circular tubs transported meat, firewood, furs, and children across rivers and lakes. As the fur traders stood on the edge of the prairie and faced westward toward the mountains, they needed to go where canoes could not take them. This environment required walking hundreds, even thousands, of miles over sometimes obscure and dangerous trails. The native construction and use of snowshoes for winter travel quickly spread among Europeans. The


toboggan was also developed to carry large loads of meat and other provisions, and was pulled by both humans and dogs. The domestication of dogs was first practiced in North America. On the plains, dogs were trained and harnessed to pull a travois, particularly in moving villages from place to place. When the plains people first saw the horse, they identified it as a big dog and developed a larger travois, often using the lodge poles, to carry larger loads. In addition to the utility of dogs for pulling and carrying, their ubiquitous presence allowed dogs to be used as food, either as a delicacy or necessity. As horses became more widely available, they replaced pack dogs. The Apache, living on the borders of the Spanish settlements, may have been the first aboriginals to ride horses. The widespread adoption of horses permitted heavier loads, greater speeds, and more direct trails to water sources, and facilitated the bison hunt. Demand for horses among Indians became and remained strong, and they were a principal trade item. In less than one hundred years, the horse spread from the Rio Grande to the Saskatchewan River, numbering, by estimates of various observers, from nearly eighteen thousand by 1835 to more than half a million by 1875.viii The demand for horses for the fur trade accentuated this movement. Pack trains that moved large amounts of goods, particularly on the brigade trails to the Snake River plain and California, helped make the years after 1830 the most productive for both the American and Canadian fur companies. The Shoshone, or Snakes, terrorized the northern plains from horseback, using as weapons bows and arrows and stone clubs until they were challenged by the Blackfoot equipped with guns. The Blackfoot apparently were the first of the northern tribes to have both horses and


guns.ix Just as southwestern natives acquired status through the horse trade, in the north, the Cree, Assiniboin, and Blackfoot acquired power through the trade of new and used firearms. The Blackfoot made strenuous efforts to prevent the movement of guns and ammunition west of the Rockies to keep them out of the hands of their enemies, the Kutenai and the Salish. So intense was this effort, they blocked the passes across the southern Canadian Rockies, forcing the HBC to use the more northern Athabasca Pass to reach the furs of the Columbia plain and New Caledonia. Between whites and natives, cultural misunderstandings about theft and murder led to the most serious difficulties. To the native, theft was merely taking what you needed; if someone had a surplus, it was acceptable to take some of it, particularly horses, guns, or knives. If necessary, the only punishment would be to return the item. The Crow were outstanding horse thieves, but if confronted they would either return them or sell them back. Stealing horses was a widespread tribal activity. To the white fur traders, horses were personal possessions needed to carry loads or provide transportation, and they might kill someone who stole them. Some murders were acceptable, according to Edwin Thompson Denig, an American Fur Company trader who compiled an extensive report on the Assiniboin and other nations of the northern plains. He found that it was considered acceptable to kill white intruders if they interfered with Indian activities or provided guns to their enemies. They did not kill without provocation, unless the opponent was an enemy. Killing an enemy was considered a good thing, an act of self-preservation to remove any danger in the way.x Murder could also start a revenge reaction that could go on for years or generations. Even a fancied slight could precipitate a long-enduring, revengeful, war-seeking passion. The need for


revenge could be locked up, only to erupt years later. Revenge could be extracted from a perceived offender or from any of his relatives or friends. When Jedediah Smith and his party returned to the Southwest in 1828, as described in Chapter 17, and attempted to cross the Colorado River at the Mojave villages, they were attacked. Ten of Smith's parties were killed, and the women with them were captured. Unknown to them, about a year earlier, trapper Ewing Young and others from Santa Fe had visited the Mojave, and there had been a scrimmage resulting in a number of Mojave killed. War was constantly in the native mind. "Indians to be Indians must have war," historian Alvin M. Josephy wrote, "Without it the young men have no occupation, no ambition, even if so disposed can do nothing to render their names and characters conspicuous."xi Killing an enemy, or "counting coup" by touching rather than killing an enemy, taking a scalp, or stealing horses brought distinction, which was necessary for a young warrior to earn a respected place in aboriginal society. Certainly without a creditable record in war, the young man could not expect the hand of a respectable young woman. War and revenge interfered with the flow of commerce, either through the middlemen or at the trading posts. The fur traders recognized that they must work within that system and actively support peace treaties. The fur trade prospered only as it adapted to the culture of Native Americans. Yet European goods and mores were the weft, and Native American culture was the warp that formed the tapestry of the fur trade. Inevitably, both native and white learned from each other.

Chapter 1: Indian Culture



. Mary Jane Schneider, North Dakota Indians, 242.


. D. W. Moodie, "The Role of the Indian in Mapping and Exploration in Canada: A Preliminary

Assessment," Canadian Association of Geography (June 1977), 2–4. iii

. Dale L. Morgan, Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West, 142.


. Adrian G. Morice, The History of the Northern Interior of British Columbia (formerly New

Caledonia) 1660–1880, 9–10. v

. David G. Mandelbaum, The Plains Cree, 36, 37.


. Grant Forman, Pioneer Days in the Early Southwest, 26.


. Bruce White, Give Us a Little Milk, 4.


. Ibid.


. Jack Nisbet, Sources of the River: Tracking David Thompson across Western North America,

227. x

. Edwin Thompson Denig, The Assiniboine, ed. J. N. B. Hewitt, 86.


. Alvin M. Josephy, The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the West, 23.

The Indian Way  

Indians and the North American Fur Trade