WSW: Our Changing Picture of the Fur Trade

Dec 9, 2015

Excavation at the Fort St. Joseph site in June.
Credit John Cardinal

More than a hundred years after the once-thriving trade in North American fur wound down, Western Michigan University Professor says we’re still learning about the people who carried it out.


Nassaney is an anthropologist and the author of The Archaeology of the North American Fur Trade, published this fall by the University Press of Florida.

He is also one of the leaders of work at the Fort St. Joseph archaeological site in Niles, once an important fur trading post under French control.

Nassaney says he’s especially interested in understanding the relationships between Native Americans and Europeans within the trade. He says ongoing research and re-examination of the facts shows that the “dominant narrative” of the fur trade needs reworking.

For example, the idea that the Native Americans who gathered furs were more or less content with any goods Europeans exchanged for them.

In fact, Nassaney says, “They’re very selective in what they’re choosing to acquire. So they’re not interested in just any frivolous object that Europeans are looking to sell.”

Native traders expected the items they received to meet standards for quality. For example, they specified the gauge of metal for kettles.

WestSouthwest spoke with Nassaney about our changing understanding of the fur trade.

On the importance of the fur trade to the North American economy

I have argued in the book that there are no archaeological sites in North America, there were no groups of people who were not impacted by the fur trade for some four hundred years.

Even if people weren’t directly involved as fur traders or of course the Native peoples were the primary producers, they were the ones who were actually hunting the animals and processing the furs, to be exchanged to Europeans for imported goods like kettles and cloth and iron implements and so forth – in addition to those roles that people played directly in the fur trade there are all sorts of spinoffs, if you will.

For example, the Russell Cutlery Company in Massachusetts, founded in the 1830s, those knives were ostensibly used by the mountain men in the Western part of North America in the trade that they were involved in. The place settings of ceramics that were found on the tables of Boston, Philadelphia, New York elites before and after the Revolution were brought from China and those goods in China were ultimately acquired through the exchange of furs.

Credit Michael Nassaney

On the relationships between Native Americans and Europeans

This is what I try to focus on in the book, is the nature of the relationships, and this is what drew me into the work is trying to understand the relationships between Native peoples and Europeans. Simplistically, perhaps, it’s quite variable depending on whether one is English or French or Dutch or Spanish and if one is encountering the Cherokee, or the Potawatomi or the Narragansett or the Micmac, the outcomes were quite variable.

Generally speaking though, the English had more of a, sort of a businesslike manner to their view of the trade. They were hesitant to provide Native peoples with what they might have seen as unnecessary gifts. And so they saw the trade more as an economic, mercantilist transaction and that was partly because they were in some places numerically superior to Native peoples.

But in the case of the French, the French strategy because there was far fewer of the French people was to establish close alliances with people, often to intermarry and to provide gifts in advance of serious trading and so forth. And so in a sense you can say it was more of a social and a political relationship than it was an economic one, although the fur trade was the glue of the relationship that bound these two groups together in their alliance.

On how discoveries at Fort St. Joseph are informing research on the fur trade

One of the objects that’s quite provocative is a thimble. And we have found several thimbles, and most of your listeners know what thimbles were used for in sewing and so on. And they were certainly used that way. But we found one that was perforated. And so that suggests to us and the context that it was found in near these little pits that were used for smoking hides suggest to us that there was something else going on there.

And we have seen examples in museums of native garments from – for example from the 19th century where these thimbles have been attached to clothing, a whole series of them. And they would have dangled up against each other and made a pleasing sort of tinkling sound. And so this is a complete reconceptualization of the way in which thimbles were meant to be used. So that’s one of the specific artifacts.

More generally at the site, what we’re seeing is evidence of artifacts that are inspired by Native practices or are similar to objects that Natives had produced, even before the French were there, comingled with artifacts that were imported.

So that suggests to us that the area we’ve been working on the site probably represents – and we’ve identified four or five structures in that area – these buildings are probably the buildings of fur traders and their Native wives. So it suggests to us the very close relationships that existed between the French and the Native people.