Native American trade

Trade between Native Americans and white settlers enabled the newcomers to develop ways to survive and to profit from the rich resources of North America. However, the settlers depleted many of these resources, and contact with whites ultimately destroyed the traditional lifestyles of many Native American tribes.

Trade was occurring among Native American tribes long before Europeans set foot on the North American continent. The need and desire for food, shelter, and tools drove tribes to travel long distances and establish trade with neighbors. Trade provided tribes not only with new resources but also with opportunities to observe new patterns of behavior, new tools, and new techniques and later to incorporate them into their lives. The transformation brought by intertribal trade, however, was insignificant when compared with that brought by trade with whites.Native Americans;U.S. trade withTrade;U.S. with Native Americans

First European Contacts

When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth (later in Massachusetts) in November of 1620, they were ill equipped to establish a life there. Winter loomed ahead, and they feared that their supplies would not last. When they discovered several bushels of maize buried in a rush basket, they took it, intending later to provide recompense to the owner. When they subsequently “paid” the Native Americans for the maize, they began the process of trade that would enable them to survive and prosper and would transform the Pokanokets, the Narragansetts, and other tribes in the region. Although the Pilgrims had brought wheat, barley, and peas to plant in the New World, they soon made maize, a vegetable introduced to them by Native Americans, a staple part of their diet. It grew much better in the New World than the seed that they had brought with them.

The Pilgrims arrived in the New World indebted to those who had financed their voyage. Therefore, trade with the indigenous people in the region was indispensable not only for their survival but also for meeting their financial obligations. By the early 1630’s, the Puritans had established trading posts up and down the eastern shores of New England, extending from the Connecticut River to what is now Castine, Maine. From the Dutch, the Pilgrims learned to use wampum, white and purple beads made from shells, as a medium of exchange. In his book Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (2006), Nathaniel Philbrick estimates that the Pilgrims exported several million dollars worth of pelts (mostly beaver) to England between 1631 and 1636. This was a part of the product of trade with Native Americans. Fur tradeThe Pilgrims also used wampum and English goods (such as clothing and firearms) to trade for land. There was a clear intent among the early settlers to be sure that the indigenous people were fairly compensated in trade, whether it was for land or beaver pelts.

Despite this early example of goodwill on the part of white traders, the outbreak of Metacom’s WarMetacom’s War (1675-1676) a generation later demonstrates the ultimate outcome of trade between the English colonists and the Native Americans. The overhunting of beaver had brought about its near extinction in New England and eliminated one of the prime sources of pelts to be traded. Furthermore, the English had acquired more and more Native American land, so that the tribes in the region were beginning to feel crowded. Finally, Native Americans had come to rely so much on European goods, including firearms, that they needed desperately to maintain trade with the colonists. The war was in part an attempt by some Native Americans in New England to rid themselves of the English. However, by the end of Metacom’s War, all the tribes in the region had been transformed. Native American culture in the region had been decimated. In his book, Philbrick estimates that the indigenous people in the area lost 60 to 80 percent of their population as a direct or indirect result of the war. This pattern of contact, trade, and transformation continued across the country as the United States developed.

The Nez PerceNez Perce, whom the Lewis and Clark expeditionLewis and Clark expedition encountered in 1805 near the Columbia River in the northwest portion of what is now the United States, helped the expedition, as did the Nez Perce’s eastern neighbors, the Shoshone. Sacagawea, a Shoshone, guided the group and was a vital resource for them. When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark encountered these tribes, both of these tribes had developed a lifestyle based in part on trade. The Nez Perce had the largest Horseshorse herd on the continent. They were able to establish such a herd partly because of their homeland, which had a wide expanse of grasslands and meadows along the Grande Ronde and Wallowa streams. However, the horse was not indigenous to this area or even to North America. The horse herds owned by the Nez Perce were the product of trade.


Navajo at a trading post in Cañon Diablo, on the reservation in Arizona in 1903.

(Library of Congress)

Horses initially came to the Nez Perce through trade with the Cayuse, a neighboring tribe. The Cayuse had acquired these horses from their neighbors, the Shoshone, who had sent a trade expedition southward to trade for horses. There would have been no stock for them to acquire had the Spanish not left horses and cattle in what is now Mexico during the sixteenth century. The descendants of those horses spread northward and beyond, becoming a dominant feature and resource for many Native American tribes in the West and enabling tribes such as the Sioux and the Kiowa to establish large patterns of trade with whites and other tribes. It also enabled these tribes to establish a largely nomadic existence that depended almost entirely on hunting buffalo on the Great Plains.

Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition opened the way for trade in the West. The first whites who came to the Great Plains after Lewis and Clark were in search of furs, in particular beaver pelts, which were in great demand in the East and in Europe. They trapped beavers and other animals, and they often lived among, traded with, and eventually intermarried with Native Americans. These trappers quickly discovered other resources–in particular the buffalo–in the course of their contact and trade with Native Americans. The demand for buffalo hides and tongues (a delicacy in the East) became so great that within a mere fifty to sixty years, the herds on which the Plains Indians had depended were gone, and their whole way of life was transformed. This happened not because whites traded with Native Americans for buffalo hides but because whites saw in the vast herds of buffalo something the indigenous tribes did not: an opportunity for a quick profit.


To the Native Americans, the buffalo herds were a resource they lived among, one that provided them with food, shelter, and even spiritual support. Many tribes on the plains incorporated the buffalo into their religious traditions. The reaction of the white frontiersmen to this vast resource can be characterized in a phrase that became a virtual mantra of those who settled the West: Get in, get rich, get out. With gold, with the buffalo, and even with land speculation, “getting out” occurred after the resource was depleted. Because the buffalo was the center of Native American life, the depletion of this resource transformed tribal life in previously unimaginable ways. Native Americans were placed on reservations and forced to adapt to a life sustained by farming and inadequate government rations.

The promises made to Native Americans as they were forced onto reservations exemplify the unfair trading that sometimes occurred between whites and indigenous tribes. In exchange for their land, the tribes were promised reservation life and government rations. However, most of them were given no option other than to take the trade. This pattern was repeated across the country, with the end result that Native Americans lost access to resources that had previously sustained their lives and their cultures. The Nez Perce, who had helped Lewis and Clark, suffered the same fate as the other Native Americans in the West, ultimately losing their homeland.

Negative Influences

Trade brought other threats to Native American life. Trading posts became a fixture in frontier existence, and all too often, alcoholic beverages were among the items traded. Native Americans were introduced to alcohol by whites. Their reaction to it was pronounced, leading some scientists to subsequently conclude that Native Americans are genetically more susceptible to alcoholism than whites. What this meant to traders was that alcoholic beverages became not only something to trade but also an inducement for Native Americans to rely on trade. Paul H. Carlson, in The Plains Indians (1998), states that trading was a time of celebration on the plains. Carlson quotes a British trader:

At a few yards distance from the gate (to the Trading Post), they salute us with several discharges of their guns. On entering the house, they are disarmed, treated with a few drams and a bit of tobacco. Indian leaders related the yearly news, relaxing in proportion to the quantity of rum they have swallowed, till at length their voices are drowned in a general clamor.

Although alcohol was banned in some regions and at some trading posts, no one could keep alcohol from playing a significant role in the relationship between Native Americans and whites. All too often, the trading post was the place where this impact was most pronounced. As trade with whites became a common feature of Native American life, it created divisions within tribes. Tradition-following tribe members stood in contrast to what was called the commissary Indian, a tribe member who frequented trading posts for easy access to alcohol and other goods that the whites offered. In the mid-1800’s, Native American leaders, including Crazy Horse of the Lakota Sioux and Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Sioux, attempted to persuade their tribes to maintain independence from the whites and the goods that they provided, and to live in traditional ways. These leaders and their followers defined themselves in opposition to those Indians who had succumbed to white influences. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful. Nonetheless, in twenty-first century Native American culture, this division still exists. Those Indians who resist the influence of white culture are called traditionals, while those who succumb to the temptations of mainstream culture are known as “apples,” red on the outside but white on the inside. The American Indian Movement (AIM), well known for its protests and demonstrations during the 1970’s and 1980’s, is the modern-day embodiment of the movement for a separate, traditional way of life.

In his book, Carlson argues that trade between whites and Native Americans was embarked on with different expectations, creating a disadvantage for Native Americans. Tribal cultures in general emphasized sharing wealth, even to the point that citizens acquired status in the culture according to the amount they gave away. The philosophy that undergirds such an understanding of material wealth is circular: What a person gives away comes back to that person. Black Elk stated to John G. Neihardt in Black Elk Speaks (1932) that everything that Native Americans do is circular; even the houses they build are circular. In some respects this reflects the circularity of the cycles of nature. A culture that reflects the cycles of nature would clearly take a different view of material wealth than a culture that reflects the “mastery” of nature through industrialization.

The whites who traded with Native Americans sought material gain in whatever way possible. The Industrial Revolution in Europe bequeathed to the British culture a sense of respect for those who accumulated goods, not those who gave them away. Thus, the whites who traded with Native Americans by and large sought profit, not merely an equal exchange. Ironically, one theory of the origin of the pejorative expression “Indian giver” underscores the difference between the Native American and the white European understanding of trade. Indians gave and took back because they considered wealth something that passed from one person to another and then back again: What a person gives away will come back to the giver and then back to the recipient in a continuous cycle. However, to whites, trade did not work this way. Their view was that what is gained in trade is kept, never to be returned.

Native Americans were also disadvantaged in trade because of their failure to view land ownership in the same way that whites did. Native Americans inhabited land; whites owned it and profited from it. Philbrick describes the process by which, in 1642, Massasoit, sachem of the Pokanokets, sold to the Pilgrims the land that would become the township of Rehoboth. The deed reports that he “chose out ten fathoms of bead . . . and put them in a basket, and affirmed that he was full satisfied for his land . . . , but he stood upon it that he would have a coat more.” What Massasoit could not know was what the Pilgrims would ultimately do with the land. They would raise not only food on it but also cattle. Furthermore, they would clear the land, driving away game that the Pokanokets relied on for food. Finally, more and more settlers would come, driving the price of the land up and crowding the Indians out of the very land they had occupied for generations. Ironically, what the Indians had sold for beads was finally worth much more than that because the whites did with the land what Indians would never have thought to do: turn a profit.

Further Reading

  • Black Elk. Black Elk Speaks. New York: W. Morrow, 1932. A holy man of the Oglala Sioux describes his life to poet and writer John G. Neihardt.
  • Carlson, Paul H. The Plains Indians. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1998. Presents a very detailed overview of the Plains Indians, including an excellent chapter on trade.
  • Josephy, Alvin. The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Josephy’s account of the opening of the Northwest is rich in detail about the culture of the Nez Perce, their contact with whites (particularly Lewis and Clark), and Chief Joseph’s brave struggle to maintain their way of life.
  • Lewis, Meriwether, and William Clark. The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Abridged by Anthony Brandt. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Adventure Classics, 2002. Lewis and Clark’s journey west not only involved trade with the Indians but also was instrumental in opening the West to the hordes of traders that would come after them.
  • Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York: Viking, 2006. Philbrick’s study of the first century of life among the Pilgrims and their descendants and their Native American neighbors is carefully researched and consequently is a storehouse of information about how trade with Native Americans started in the United States.

Alcoholic beverage industry

French and Indian War

Fur trapping and trading


Indian removal

U.S. Department of the Interior

Lewis and Clark expedition