Fur Trade in the Rockies, 1800 to 1805

The fur trade was an important part of the economic history of North America and incorporated American Indian economies into a larger world economy. Furs were valuable, easily portable, and renewable resources. The prime furs—marten, otter, fox—were sold at high prices in the European and Chinese markets. Of less value, but still profitable, were pelts from buffalo, beaver, muskrat, and squirrel.

By the end of the eighteenth century, Canadian fur traders were opening up trade with the Indian nations along the Rocky Mountains in present-day Alberta. In 1799, the North West Company established the Rocky Mountain House to help facilitate that trade. The Blackfoot tribes dominated the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains and their relationships with the Indian nations to the west—Kootenai, Pend d’Oreille, Flathead—were not exactly friendly.

In 1800, fur traders with the North West Company met a party of Kootenai—26 men and 7 women—at the headwaters of the Red Deer River in what is now Banff National Park. On the way to the rendezvous, the traders were guided by He Dog (Cree) and Old Bear (Piegan Blackfoot). They stopped at several camps during their eight-day trip to the rendezvous  and many of the Blackfoot attempted to convince the traders that they would not be able to find the Kootenai.

The Kootenai chief presented fur trader David Thompson with a bow and quiver of arrows, a red foxskin cap, and a horse loaded with 50 beaver skins. Thompson told him to hold on to the horse and furs until they could trade properly at Rocky Mountain House.

During the night, the Piegan Blackfoot captured 5 of the 11 Kootenai horses. While the Kootenai wanted to return home west of the Rocky Mountains, Thompson convinced them to go to the trading post. Thompson wrote:  “They complained much & bitterly to me of what had been stolen & plundered from them … several of the principal of them went so far as to kneel down and swear by the Sun, the Skies, and Earth, that they would revenge themselves.”

Five days later the party of traders and Kootenai camp neared a friendly Piegan Blackfoot chief. The Blackfoot challenged the Kootenai to a gambling match and lost every game. In the morning, the Kootenai found that they had only two horses left. Thompson rode back to Rocky Mountain House and obtained fresh horses for them.

The Kootenai traded ten bear, two wolverine, five fisher, and more than a hundred beaver pelts.

That winter, North West Company traders visited the winter camp of Blackfoot chief Old Bear. When the traders mentioned that they were going to explore the western front range of the Rocky Mountains Old Bear warned them to be on the lookout for Flathead war parties looking to capture horses.

In 1801, fur traders with the North West Company together with Rook (Cree), his wife, and a Kootenai woman, embarked on a trading trip across the Rocky Mountains to the Kootenai. The traders had some reservations about Rook’s ability to guide them and made him swear an oath over his medicine pipe. The expedition failed to cross the mountains and Rook admitted that he was lost.

Four years later, the Nor’westers were establishing trading posts west of the Rocky Mountains in what is now British Columbia.

Cherokee Treaty Claims

By 1830, the American government had decided that American Indians had no place in the United States and passed legislation calling for their removal to lands west of the Mississippi River. As a part of this removal effort, the Americans negotiated a series of treaties with the various Indian nations in which the Indians ceded their lands and were given new lands in the west.

In 1835, the United States presented the Cherokee with a new treaty. The deal that the United States offered the Cherokee was simple: they could sign the treaty and move west, or the military would come in and they would be marched west at bayonet point. In either case, the Cherokee would have to abandon their ancient homelands, their farms, and the graves of their ancestors.

A few Cherokee leaders – primarily Major Ridge, John Ridge, Elias Boudinot, Andrew Ross, James Starr, Stand Watie, James Rogers, Archilla Smith, John A. Bell, Charles Foreman, George W. Adair, and Thomas Watie– signed the Treaty of New Echota in Georgia. None of those signing the treaty had been authorized by the Cherokee Nation to sign it. The signers would become known as the Treaty Party. Upon signing the treaty, Major Ridge said: “I have signed my death warrant” in reference to the Cherokee law which called for the death penalty for those who sold Cherokee land without the consent of the National Council.

Under the terms of this treaty, the Cherokee were to give up all of their lands east of the Mississippi and to move to Oklahoma and Arkansas. Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross repudiated the treaty because it was signed by a minority of the Cherokee leaders. However, the notice which had been sent to the Cherokee notifying them of the treaty council indicated that those leaders not in attendance would be considered to approve any document signed by the negotiators.

Most historians today view the Treaty of New Echota as a fraud. Cherokee historian Robert Conley, in his book The Cherokee Nation: A History writes:  “The entire procedure was illegal, but it was what the United States government wanted, and it was accepted by the U.S. Congress as legal and binding on the entire Cherokee Nation.”

In the treaty negotiations, the Cherokee were assured that the United States would respect the Nation’s right to self-government and that the Cherokee would never be included in any state or new territory without the consent of the Cherokee people. The Americans promised the Cherokee that they would respect Cherokee borders and they would remove all unwanted American intruders.

Under the terms of the treaty, the United States promised to pay the Cherokee $5 million.

As soon as the new treaty was ratified by the Senate, President Andrew Jackson issued a proclamation that the United States no longer recognized the existence of any government among the Cherokee in the Southeast. Furthermore, the Cherokee were warned that any resistance to removal would be met by force through the army.

Ten years after the treaty had been signed and ratified by the Senate, the Cherokee had still not been paid. In 1845, the Cherokee sent a delegation to Washington, D.C. to secure an adjustment of the claims and other unsettled business of the nation. The delegation, under the leadership of John Ross, included Richard Tayler,  John Looney, Aaron Price, David Vann, Joseph Spears, and Thigh Walker. The tribe was owed $5 million as a part of the Treaty of New Echota. Brian Hicks in his book Toward the Setting Sun: John Ross, the Cherokees, and  the Trail of Tears, writes:  “The United States government refused to live up to its end of the bargain, officials inventing any number of excuses. Some refused to recognize the tribe as long as Ross was chief.”

In 1846, the United States negotiated a new treaty with the Cherokee. All of the Western Cherokee groups—the Old Settlers, the Treaty Party, and the National Party—as well as the Eastern Cherokee were present for the treaty signing. Under the new treaty, the United States promised to reimburse the Cherokee Nation for sums which were unfairly deducted by the United States from their payment for their eastern lands. According to some accounts, the rivals Stand Watie of the Treaty Party and John Ross of the National Party shook hands at the end of the signing. Other accounts claim that this is just a legend stemming from wishful thinking.

The new treaty also declared that Cherokee lands in Oklahoma were to be for the use and occupancy of all Cherokee. The treaty guaranteed every Cherokee accused of a crime the right to a trial by jury.

Grace Steele Woodward, in her book The Cherokees, writes:  “After the Treaty of 1846 the Cherokee Nation enjoyed a golden era of prosperity and progress unsurpassed by its territorial neighbors. In the era that followed the treaty, education, building projects (both private and public), churches and missions, improvement societies, agriculture, domestic arts, and animal husbandry thrived in the Nation.”

With regard to the Eastern Cherokee, the new 1846 treaty upheld the rights of the Cherokee who had remained east of the Mississippi.

 

Virginia and the Indians, 1606 to 1608

Because England is a Christian nation, the Discovery Doctrine supposedly gave it the right to govern all non-Christian nations. In 1606, therefore, England was able to give a Royal Charter to the Virginia Company to develop a market in the New World for English commerce and for “propagating of Christian Religion to such people, as yet live in darkness.” In this charter, Indians were characterized as living “in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God.”

The Virginia Company, a corporation, was founded and directed by a group of merchants and gentry who were motivated in part by the promise of strong economic returns for their investment. Their Royal Charter gave them permission to exploit the riches of Virginia with little or no concern to any possible ownership of these riches by Indian nations. The Company planned to establish a trading post which would acquire valuable furs from the Indians and to sell the Indians manufactured goods and textiles. In addition, the Company planned to search for gold and to exploit the timber resources of the region.

In addition to seeking profits, the Company also indicated that it would seek the conversion of the heathen (that is, conversion of Indians to Protestant Christianity), the expansion of the English kingdom, increased revenues for the king, and employment for the English vagrant poor.

The following year, three English ships brought 120 British settlers into Chesapeake Bay who established a colony at Jamestown. At this time there were an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 Indians living in the area that would become Virgina. The major tribal confederacy in the area was the Powhatan (also spelled Powhattan), an Algonquian-speaking confederacy of about 30 tribes (some sources indicate as many as 43 tribes). These tribes included the Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Pamunkey, and Rappahannock. The alliance of these tribes had formed in the late 1500s, just prior to the English invasion, by a Pamunkey chief named Wahunsonacock. His capital was located at the falls of the James River in Virginia. This was called Powhatan which means “Falls of the River” and thus the allied tribes were known as the Powhatan. To confuse the matter a bit, Wahunsonacok was also called The Powhatan or simply Powhatan.

Captain John Smith led a small party up the Chickahominy River. The English were attacked by about 200 Pamunkey warriors who captured Smith and killed his companions. The Pamunkey, under the leadership of Opechancanough, were a part of the larger Powhatan Confederacy. Smith was taken before the dominant chief, Powhatan, and was eventually released. Smith, described by his contemporaries as a self-promoting mercenary, reported that he had been kept in a comfortable and friendly fashion. Many years later he would tell a story about being on the verge of being clubbed to death when a prominent woman intervened and saved his life. In one version of the story, he named Pocahontas (a nickname meaning the “spoiled child”) as the woman who saved his life (she was about 10 years old at the time). He told this story only after the death of Pocahontas and after she had gained some fame among the English.

While English writers often describe the Indians as hunters, they were actually farmers who had been planting crops in the region for several centuries. The English were delighted by some of the Indian crops, including strawberries (which were described as being larger and tastier than those in England) and persimmons. Persimmon bread was a common Indian gift.

The English looked upon the land as vacant, even when it had been cleared and planted with the Indian crops of maize (corn), beans, and squash. For the English, land was occupied only when it was laid out in neat rectangles, fenced, and used for a single crop. Since the Indians cleared their lands by burning and used intercropping—the practice of planting crops together—their lands did not look “neat” and “occupied” to English eyes. The English also seemed to be oblivious to the fact that the park-like wilderness was actually a well-managed ecosystem which the Indians maintained by regularly burning it.

One exploring expedition from the Virginia Company at Jamestown traveled up the James River. When the group encountered some Indians in a canoe, the group’s leader, Christopher Newport, asked them for directions. One of Indians sketched a map of the river, its falls, and two native kingdoms beyond the falls. When the English party reached the falls, Newport wanted to continue exploring on foot, but was told by Pawatah, a local village leader, that the Monacan would attack them for entering their territory.

In 1608, the English colonists at Jamestown found that most of their stores were rotten or had been eaten by rats. The countryside around them had abundant game, and John Smith encouraged the colonists to live off the land. Smith sent groups to different places to gather food resources. However, many of the colonists were unaccustomed to living off the land and found it easier to trade with the Indians for supplies. As a result, the settlement was stripped of items—particularly metal items—which could be used for trade. In addition, some colonists deserted to live with the Indians whose way of life they preferred.

With regard to trade, the English introduced a new trade item to the Powhatan: sky blue Venetian glass beads. The traders told the Indians that these were a rare substance and that they were worn only by kings.

The English soon realized that Powhatan led a confederacy of about 30 different groups and his cooperation would be vital to their continued existence. From a European perspective, leaders such as Powhatan needed to be kings and so they decided to conduct a coronation ceremony for him which would make him a king with loyalty to the British Crown. The ceremony was a comedy of cultural misunderstandings as the English attempted to choreograph a feudal ceremony in a society in which two key elements of the ceremony – the crown and the act of bending the knee – were unknown.

John Smith led a small group south on the Chesapeake Bay and up the Patuxent and Rappahannock Rivers. They had a short battle with the Mannahoac in which they wounded and captured Amoroleck. Amoroleck reported that there were four Mannahoac villages on the Rappahannock, each of which had its own leader. When asked what lay beyond the mountains, Amoroleck indicated that he did not know as the woods had not been burnt.

The English explorers made contact with an Algonquian-speaking group whom they called Tockwogh (possibly the Nanticoke?). With the help of the Tockwogh, the English then contacted an Iroquoian-speaking group, the Susquehannock and exchanged gifts with them. The English described the Susquehannock as a “giant-like people” because they were significantly taller than the English.

Later, a group of about 60 Susquehannock visited Captain John Smith and the English colonists.

Captain John Smith attempted to obtain corn from the Pamunkey who were under the leadership of Opechancanough. When the chief indicated that he was unwilling to trade, the captain held a gun to the chief’s breast and threatened to kill him unless the English boats were filled with twenty tons of corn. He also told the Pamunkey that if they did not fill his boats with corn, he would fill it with their dead carcasses.

English colonists heard rumors about an Indian mine in the interior. Lured by the possibility of gold, John Smith and six others set off to verify its existence. They employed Potomac guides who they placed in chains during their march. They found a great hole which had been dug with shells and hatchets. The mine, developed by the Indians to obtain minerals for making body paints, failed to yield any gold.

Carolina Indians in 1700

Part of our knowledge of the Indian nations of the Carolinas during the early colonial period comes from the reports of European explorers. One of these was the British naturalist John Lawson, who led a small exploring expedition out of Charleston in late 1700. Traveling by canoe and by foot, he travelled about 600 miles through what the Europeans considered a wilderness, making many observations about the vegetation, wildlife, and the Indian nations.

John Lawson began by journeying up the Santee-Wateree-Catawbee River. He noted that the Sewee were once a populous nation, but European diseases, such as smallpox, had greatly reduced their numbers.

Among the Santee Lawson found a powerful Indian ruler. He reported that this chief had absolute power and could sentence any of his people to death. When the chief died, his body was placed on top of a pyramidal mound.

Lawson next encountered the Congaree and again noted that their numbers had been greatly reduced by smallpox. He noted that the main town had less than a dozen houses.

The Wateree Chickanee were the next group that Lawson visited (about 60 miles from the Congaree).  He noted that they spoke a language (probably Catawban) which was different from that of the Congaree. They were a numerous people but they lacked English trade goods. They were using bows and arrows rather than guns for hunting. The ancestors of the Wateree Chickanee were probably the Guatari.

About three miles from the Wateree Chickanee, Lawson encountered the Waxaw. Among the Waxaw, Lawson noted that there was a “state-house” which was distinct from domestic structures and was intended for use by the chiefs.

The party then visited the Esaw (a Catawba people) and the Sapona.

Lawson’s observations of the Indians at this time show that they are already undergoing many changes due to their contact with the European colonists. Some of these changes were due to epidemic diseases, such as smallpox, which were brought in by the colonists; some of the changes were brought about by the manufactured goods, such as guns and knives, which they got from the European traders.

The tribes which Lawson observed would later become known as the Catawba Nation or the Catawba Confederacy. The Catawba Nation (or Confederacy) was composed of several tribes: Catawba (also known as Issa, Iswa, Ushery, Ysa, Usi, Esau, Esaugh, Esaw), Cheraw (also known as Carrow), Saraw (also known as Sara), Sugaree (also known as Sugari, Suttaree, Shuteree, Sittari, Sugaw, Sugar), Waxhaw (also known as Waxaw, Wisack, Wisacky, Weesock, Flathead), Congaree, Suteree (also known as Sitteree), Waccamaw, Santee (also known as Seretee, Sarati, Setatee), Pedee (also known as Pee Dee), Saxapahaw, Wateree (also known as Watery, Watteree, Guatari), and Wateree-Chickenee.

In 1709 Lawson returned to England where he published an account of his adventure, A New Voyage to Carolina. The book proved to be successful and attracted more colonists to the region.

Lawson returned to the Americas in 1710 to help establish the colony of New Bern for German refugees. In 1711, he was captured by the Tuscarora Indians, tortured, and killed. Following this incident, the conflict known as the Tuscarora War broke out between the colonists and the Indians.