Before European colonization, Native American peoples carried on extensive trading relationships across North America. Unusual items, such as turquoise from New Mexico, found their way to the East Coast via trade routes that covered the continent (and often presaged the routes of modern interstate highways). Copper from Lake Superior and pipestone from Minnesota were carried, in some cases, many hundreds of miles from their sources. Aztec artifacts have been found along the U.S. Gulf of Mexico coast.
Trade patterns in North America seem to have been well formed as early as 2,300 years ago. The Adena and Hopewell cultures in what is now the U.S. Midwest traded for Lake Superior copper, Gulf of Mexico shells, and North Dakota flint. They used obsidian that originated in Wyoming's Yellowstone region, quartz from Arkansas, and silver from Canada. The following words by Bruce G. Trigger describing eastern North America, were true of the entire continent.
Eastern North America was . . . crisscrossed by exchange networks, many of which were of considerable antiquity. Trade across ecological boundaries sometimes involved staples, such as the surplus corn that the Hurons [Wyandots] traded with the Nipissings, and possibly with other Northern Algonquian peoples, in return for pelts and dried fish. Most trade, however, was in luxury items, including marine shells, copper, and fancy furs. Exotic cherts continued to be passed from one band to another throughout the boreal forests (1996, 329).Following European contact, trade took on a more sinister cast, as vectors of disease often followed trade routes. The traders transported pathogens to their families along with trade goods. In a spiraling effect, Native people who had been afflicted by disease often experienced a loss of income (for example, the fur trade in the Northeast, the deerskin trade in the Southeast), inhibiting their ability to purchase arms and ammunition and thus opening them to attack from others who had not suffered similarly. This dynamic, as well as the sheer population decline caused by trade-hastened disease, hugely impacted Native societies in North America.
As the European trade frontiers expanded, Native Americans in different regions both maintained precontact trade specializations and assumed new ones. Many groups in the Northeast specialized in guns and furs. Groups in what would later be called the U.S. Southwest specialized in the horse trade. Horses diffused northward mainly after Spanish settlement began in New Mexico after 1600, but some Native peoples, including the Pawnee, may have had access to them earlier than that. As early as the 1500s, some horses escaped Spanish herds and bred wild in New Mexico and Texas. These were the "Indian ponies," averaging less than 1,000 pounds in weight and smaller than modern-day riding horses. These agile, fast horses were interbred with larger animals acquired from Spanish (and later Anglo-American) herds. The Pawnees especially became known as horse traders on the Plains.
At times, Native people who shared neighboring territories evolved symbiotic trade relationships. The Crows, for example, routinely produced a surplus of meat and other buffalo products that they traded to the Hidatsas for their surplus of agricultural products. Different segments of the same tribe or nation might also evolve symbiotic trade relationships. Certain bands of Cheyennes, for instance, specialized in various modes of economic production. For example, southern bands specialized in horse raiding, while central bands specialized in the making of buffalo robes. The northern bands usually had a surplus of trade goods, such as knives and kettles, from trade along the upper Missouri River. Whenever people from two different Cheyenne bands were married, ceremonies included substantial gift giving, which performed an economic function of redistributing goods for mutual benefit. (This was true for many North American Indian groups.)
While trade among Native peoples served the same material purposes as similar forms of exchange among non-Indians, trade was viewed by most Native Americans as something more than an economic exchange. Trade also cemented political alliances. In some Plains Native American cultures (the Hidasta, for example), non-Indian traders were adopted ceremonially. Other links were created by traders' marriages to Native women. In trading relationships, bargaining often was not carried on directly in trade between Native people, who considered an argument over price as a breach of friendship. The consideration of a profit motive also was deemed uncouth in public. Trade was generally meant to be a mutually advantageous exchange of gifts.
Many Native peoples associated trade with the formation of a kinship bond. Among the Cheyennes, trade was accompanied by the "making of relatives." Influence accrued to the person with the largest network of "relatives" or "relations." Marriage was regarded as only one way of many that such a network could be built. European traders quickly learned Native customs of trade and adapted them to their purposes. Because Indians valued reciprocity, Europeans found that generosity on their part often would be returned. The commercial traffic in furs often was carried on according to Native trading customs, just as early diplomacy in America often took place according to Native American protocols.
From a Native American point of view, much of the trade of the Plains was perceived to be reciprocal gift-giving in association with the calumet, or peace pipe. The calumet had been used for hundreds of years in rituals that enabled otherwise hostile peoples to meet and trade in peace. Lewis and Clark's journal explains the ritual: "The party delivering generally Confess their Errors and request a peace[;] the party receiving exult in their Suckcesses [sic] and receive the Sacred Stem" (Wishart, 1994, 32). Bows and arrows, skins, food, guns, and other "gifts" might then be exchanged.
The two most important European trade items during the first years of contact were probably guns (initially banned in most trading areas), horses, and manufactured goods that aided agriculture and hunting, such as metal hoes and knives. All of these items comprised the advance guard of the European-American cash economy. To purchase guns, ammunition, horses, and riding tack (among the many other trade items that came with time), Native American peoples needed a commodity to exchange, usually the skins of fur-bearing animals, such as beaver in the Northeast, deer in the South, and a variety of skins in the Southwest. Everywhere, food was an important commodity, largely because the colonists often were unwilling or unable to raise or hunt enough of it to sustain themselves.
Trade also brought metal kettles, linen shirts, blankets, spinning wheels, Italian glass beads, shoes, drills, and many other items to Native people. The fact that the Industrial Revolution began in England provided that country with the most extensive inventory of trade goods and had a major influence on swinging the balance of North American military power toward England, and away from France and Spain, by the mideighteenth century.
Native American people adopted European trade goods because they made life easier. Still, some treaty records indicate that many Native American leaders questioned whether trade goods should be accepted. For one thing, they made their people dependent on the immigrants and their cultures for manufactured goods that Native peoples could not provide for themselves. As Indians adopted European manufactured goods, their own inventory of cultural and economic skills tended to decline. Another reason for the suspicion of non-Native trade goods was their association with misery. Not only did disease tend to follow trade routes, especially in the early years of contact and immediate precontact, but some of the imports, such as firearms, increased the level of violence in Native societies.
Nevertheless, because of trade, by the time of the American Revolution many Mohawks (in present-day upstate New York) had material living standards comparable to those of nearby European-Americans. Some of the Mohawks' Oneida neighbors, according to historian Colin Calloway, "lived in frame houses with chimneys and painted windows, ate with spoons from pewter plates, drank from teacups and punch bowls, combed their hair with ivory combs, used silk handkerchiefs, and wore white breeches" (1997, 46). The Cherokees, in a material sense, were living much like their non-Indian neighbors before they were expelled from their homelands on the Trail of Tears in the late 1830s, largely due to the influences of trade.
Human beings were an important trading commodity among Europeans and some Native peoples. Early Spanish explorers traveled in America planning to take slaves. When De Soto's expedition arrived in Florida, they brought leg irons and metal collars linked with chains for the express purpose of conveying Indian slaves along their line of march. After the Pequot War in 1675, Massachusetts colonists sold their prisoners into slavery in the West Indies. The Spanish at about the same time were shipping their prisoners of war to Cuba as slaves. The Apaches greatly enhanced their diets by raiding Spanish settlements and missions for cattle, mules, and horses. The Spanish retaliated by capturing Apaches and selling them as slaves, most of whom were compelled to work in Spanish mines. Any Apache was game for enslavement, even those who had come to trade or who had converted to Christianity.
In 1704, South Carolinians under Colonel James Moore united with Indian allies and invaded northern Florida, which was under Spanish control, razing fourteen missions and capturing about 1,000 people who were taken home as slaves. In 1708, about 1,400 slaves of Native American descent—a quarter of total slaves in the colony— were listed in a South Carolina census. In 1726, French Louisiana listed 229 Indian slaves and 1,540 black slaves. Pawnees were captured so often that the word "Panis" became a synonym for "slave" in the language of the French colonies. Virtually all of those known as Panis were captured first by other Indians and then traded to the English or French.
The slave trade sometimes became entwined with trade in horses. Having acquired horses in the early nineteenth century, the Klamaths raided Shasta and Pit River Indian villages in northern California, acquiring slaves who were traded at The Dalles, in present-day Oregon, for more horses and trade goods. With the advent of the fur trade in that area, non-Indians also became involved in the regional slave trade, typically using Native people for barter along with other "commodities." Russians colonizing present-day Alaska were occasionally taken as slaves, as were a few Japanese fishermen whose boats drifted too near the coast.
The trading markets of The Dalles were part of a commercial system maintained by the Chinooks along the lower Columbia River. Native people from as far away as Hawaii sometimes changed hands at The Dalles slave markets, where canoes and blankets, as well as horses, were the favored items of exchange. Some of the treaties signed by Isaac Stevens in Washington territory contained legal prohibitions of slavery, an indication that the practice was economically significant at the time. The clauses in question specifically referenced Native American slavery. After the Civil War, agents of the U.S. government actively tried to suppress the Native American slave trade, causing slave prices to rise. In 1830, the going rate for a young, healthy, male slave in The Dalles market was about ten blankets. Within a few decades, the Haida were paying up to 200 blankets per slave.
Into the 1860s, Native Americans who had been picked up by the Los Angeles police were "sold" to local farmers and ranchers as day labor. In 1850 and 1860, the newly established state of California enacted laws that allowed for Indian "apprenticeship," a state-approved form of near-slavery by which property owners could obtain the labor of as many Native young people as they wished, on stipulation that they feed and clothe them, and treat them "humanely." The measure was promoted as a means of teaching the Indians "civilized" habits. A debate rose over the terms of the laws, which in effect made several thousand Indian young people indentured servants at the same time that California had been admitted to the United States as a "free" state. In the 1850s, the "standard price for the Red-skin" was said to be about $50. The indenture law was repealed in 1863 (as part of the nationwide Civil War debate over slavery), but illegal kidnappings and sales of Indians continued through at least the 1870s, although at a reduced rate. Travel literature sometimes drew the attention of potential immigrants to the advantages of free Indian labor, which was not available in other states.
While some Indian groups traded in slaves, most Native American nations traditionally did not hold slaves as part of their societies. An exception was the peoples of the Northwest Coast culture area, whose nobility held slaves. Slave labor became so important in Tlingit society that women did little or no work. At puberty, an upper-class Tlingit woman was sent into seclusion lasting from four months to a year. The longer the period of seclusion, the higher the person's rank and the greater the necessity of having slaves to attend to one's everyday needs. A woman in seclusion was not allowed to engage in any economically productive activity.
Slaves were important commodities in the social economy of the Tlingit. Slaves might be killed or freed to give family and clan "crests" ceremonial value. Slaves were more often freed than killed, however; freed slaves (often captives from other villages) could then assume important positions in Tlingit society, sometimes because of their talents as carvers, dancers, or sorcerers. A skilled slave had some leverage in Tlingit society, and several families might vie for his or her services. In the richest villages, slaves were said to make up a third of the population; the richest of chiefs might own fifty slaves of both sexes. Slaves had no rights and owned nothing except their ability to work.
Some male slaves among the Makah were initiated into the Klukwali (or Wolf) society; during its ceremonies, they participated as equals with nobles and commoners. Members of this secret society also could lodge complaints against each other and discuss grievances regardless of social rank or class, thus allowing some degree of accountability and equality in what was otherwise a very rigid class system.
Indians living around Puget Sound were prime targets of their slave-raiding neighbors to the north, with the Makahs (some of whom held slaves themselves) notable as middlemen in the coastal slave trade. Occasionally, the Puget Sound tribes struck back. In 1810, Chief Sea'th'l (Seattle) gained influence among his people, the Duwamish (who lived on the site of the present-day city of Seattle), by leading warriors against tribes in the foothills of the Cascades who had taken some of his people as slaves.
Bruce E. Johansen
Albers, Patricia. 1993. "Synthesis, Merger, and War, Contrasting Forms of Intertribal Relationship Among Historic Plains Indians." In The Political Economy of North American Indians. Edited by John H. Moore. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Anderson, Terry L., and Fred S. McChesney. 1994. "Raid or Trade: An Economic Model of Indian-White Relations." Journal of Law and Economics 37 (April): 39–74.; Baily, L. R. 1973. Indian Slave Trade in the Southwest. Los Angeles, CA: Westernlore Press.; Calloway, Colin. 1997. New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.; Fixico, Donald L. 1984." As Long as the Grass Grows: The Cultural Conflicts and Political Strategies of United States–Indian Treaties." In Ethnicity and War. Edited by Winston A. Van Horne and Thomas V. Tonnesen. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.; Moore, John H. 1997. The Cheyennes. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.; Oberg, Kalervo. 1973. The Social Economy of the Tlinget Indians. Seattle: University of Washington Press.; Olexer, Barbara. 1982. The Enslavement of the American Indian. Monroe, NY: Library Research Associates.; Ruby, Robert H., and John A. Brown. 1993. Indian Slavery in the Pacific Northwest. Spokane, WA: Arthur H. Clark Co.; Snell, William Robert. 1972. "Indian Slavery in Colonial South Carolina, 1671–1795." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Alabama.; Trigger, Bruce G. 1996. "Entertaining Strangers: North America in the Sixteenth Century." In The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. Edited by Bruce G. Trigger and Wilcomb E. Washburn, 325–398. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.; Wishart, David J.1994. An Unspeakable Sadness: The Dispossession of the Nebraska Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.