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Trade between Fur traders and Indians

A response to last week’s blog post, Write in on the Heart:

The sentiment behind this little poem [Fur Traders by Harry Robinson] is that the terms of trade between the fur traders (North West Company or Hudson’s Bay Company) and Indians were manipulated to favour the European traders. There is some evidence for this perspective.

The Indians did pay a high price for guns and other manufactured products and the fur trade companies did make a reasonable profit. However, this argument assumes that trade is a zero sum game, that if one party to the trade makes a profit, it must come at the expense of the other.

Trade is one type of transaction that can benefit both parties. In fact it always does, otherwise one or other of the parties would refuse to trade. One cannot just look at the relative price but also must consider factors such as transportation costs and losses of inventory or capital in the process of trading. The trade in British Columbia was almost always conducted at fur trader posts built near to Indian centres of population, posts that had to be constructed, maintained and rebuilt in the case of fire or the destruction. The costs of transport were all borne by the European company, which meant purchasing and transporting that gun or cast iron pot from London to a North American post and then transporting it by canoe or pack horse for sometimes thousands of miles to bring it to the place of trade. Following that the furs had to be prepared for transport, carried thousand of miles, mostly by canoe, held in a depot until picked up and then transported by ship to London, where they were sold at auction a few months later. In the process, many ships were lost, canoes loaded with furs or merchandise dumped in the river, and lives lost. Furthermore, the time elapsed between financing an “outfit” and selling the furs might be three years. One has to consider interest on that investment.

This poem reflects the sentiment of one side of the transaction decades after the trade took place. On the other side, how does one measure the benefit of a gun, knife, or axe to an Indian family in the interior of Oregon Territory? Ross Cox, a fur trader, described the arrival of the annual packhorse brigade in Spokane in 1814: “The trading goods had been exhausted long before and the Indians had been upwards of two months without ammunition. Our arrival therefore was hailed with great joy. The whole tribe assembled round the fort and viewed with delight the kegs of powder and bales of tobacco as they were unloaded from the horses.”1

Just saying.

1 Ross Cox, The Columbia River, or Scenes and Adventures during a Residence of Six Years on the Western Side of the Rocky Mountains Among the Various Tribes of Indians Hitherto Unknown, ed. Edgar I. Stewart and Jane R. Stewart (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957), 183.




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