A North Star Editorial/Investigative Report: Fur Trade Exploits Native People—A Way of Life Changed Forever
American West, 1862
No other Euro-American activity has had a greater impact upon the native people than the fur trade. None has done more to change the way of life of the Indians for the worse.
As the tribes across North America came into contact with fur traders, most became dependent upon the European trade goods. It started with the exchange of furs for knives, fish hooks and other useful tools. Indian women appreciated copper pots which made it possible to cook over a fire without the risk of breaking earthenware pottery. Iron hatchets held a sharp edge better than stone axes. The Indians traded animal pelts for blankets, guns, powder and lead, tobacco, flints and kettles.
As the white traders began to sell weapons to the native people, the balance of power among tribes changed. A tribe with firearms could defeat and take the hunting lands of another tribe which did not. The Chippewa, armed with guns purchased from the French, used the new weapons to drive the Siouan people out of the north woods west of Lake Superior. Selling guns to one tribe and not to another caused serious problems among native people.
More ruthless Euro-Americans traded alcohol for beaver pelts. Some Indians who never used alcohol and had little toleration for it have become dependent on the liquor. They live inactive lives near the gates of the trading posts. For example, Alexander Henry provided ten kegs of mixed liquor to the Indian people near his post on August 28, 1801. He could not understand why they became “troublesome.” He readily admitted that he and his rivals take advantage of the native people, that all traders provide illegal liquor to them. Henry confesses that the white traders “have destroyed both mind and body with . . . RUM.”
Contact with the fur traders has changed most tribes. The traditional way of making tools and weapons has been almost lost. Some of the old ways of life which made it possible for native people to live in harmony with nature and their neighbors on the Great Plains are passing away.
When one tribe gained muskets, for example, its hunters could more easily kill large animals. Use of firearms has resulted in rapid reduction of buffalo herds. The Metis hunters nearly wiped out the buffalo in the Red River Valley. Moose populations suffered because they were such easy and large targets.
But the most devastating impact came from the spread of white diseases. In spite of knowing that smallpox was deadly, that it had killed thousands in previous epidemics, the American Fur Company unloaded its infested steamboat, the St. Peters, at Fort Union in 1837. According to Charles Larpenteur, the trader, the disease killed half of the entire Assiniboin tribe. Those native people living in permanent villages were particularly hard hit, because the infection spread so quickly from one earthlodge to the next. Smallpox nearly wiped out the Mandan in 1837. The only way to survive was to flee from the village. The Lakota have suffered less than the village people because they move so often. So many among the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa have died that have abandoned their old villages and moved north to Like-A-Fishhook Village and now live together as three tribes in 1862.
The fur trade was based upon exploitation. The large corporate companies squeezed out the small traders. Lifetime traders like Manuel Lisa died penniless. The fur trade robbed the land and the people who lived on it for centuries of its animal resources and destroyed the balance of nature. These companies destroyed Indian ways, trampled on Indian values, killed many thousands and damaged many more.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.