Ceramic containers such as this one began appearing in the Manitoba Lakes, Great Lakes, and St. Lawrence region as early as 300 BCE. Their simultaneous appearance points to the rapid movement of ideas, techniques, and technologies across a vast area in the middle of North America. The individual styles, however, point to distinctive artistic cultures within relatively small areas. This one comes from the Rainy River corridor. Source: Kenora Office of the Ontario Ministry of Culture, Citizenship and Recreation, Exhibit Specimen 9, ceramic, ElKn-2, Canadian Museum of History, accessed January 15, 2019,

As described in the preface, commercial relations were a fundamental part of life across the Western Hemisphere. Commodities and merchants travelled great distances, and goods were passed along from one network to the next. Language skills and knowledge of the neighbours’ cultures were invaluable. In some instances, trade jargons—like Chinook—sprang up to serve whole trade zones, while in others sign languages evolved. These were means of greasing the wheels of trade and interaction, and they worked well. There was barely a landscape in the whole of North America that wasn’t permeable to trade. It is worth underlining that commerce itself had symbolic properties. To engage in trade is to engage in a social (and sometimes a spiritual) relationship. And from that relationship there might spring other relationships, such as marital and martial alliances. And where mutual intercommunity hostility existed and erected a barrier to commerce, there was always the possibility of falling back on raids for goods, plunder, and captives—and the consequent need for defense. “Trade” as a word minimizes the complex network of activities associated with the processing and manufacturing of goods and the technologies necessary for trade (like cloths and footwear), distribution of goods received, setting priorities, ensuring that trade participants are fed and equipped for trade missions, and so on. While paintings of traders typically show men, there were a lot of women, children, and elders involved in the commerce of Indigenous societies.

The Chapters of Part 1 explore examples of Indigenous commerce and diplomacy at a time when European goods were working their way into the continent’s economy. The focus is principally on alliances within the Indigenous world rather than conflicts associated with newcomer colonies. Likewise, the first priority in the study of Indigenous commerce is to find its meaning within Indigenous paradigms, not within the context of European goals and ambitions. We look, too, at four regional experiences. The first explores relations among and between the robust confederacies around the Great Lakes. The second considers and compares the experiences of members of the Wabanaki Confederacy with that of the Beothuk of Newfoundland. Both nations experienced some collaboration with Europeans and quite a lot of conflict, too, but the arc of their respective stories is strikingly different (and yet profoundly connected). The third takes us into the North and West, into the region dominated geographically and economically by the Cree and the Iron Confederacy. It is a region in which significant environmental and cultural changes occurred between the early 1700s and the 1870s, some of which we’ll consider in subsequent chapters. The final section looks at the Pacific Northwest, the most densely populated Indigenous space north of Mexico and the last region to experience direct contact with non-Indigenous peoples. The arrival of Europeans from several countries at once—as well as Asians and Polynesians—is only one unique feature of the Cordilleran and coastal history in the period before 1900.

The Chinook language was used throughout what is now British Columbia. In the 1890s Catholic missionaries developed a transcription that relied on French shorthand. Indigenous learners soon became teachers and the system acquired local popularity on the Interior Plateau.


The Marketplace

Every account of Indigenous societies in the Americas draws attention to the extent and vitality of trade. Items like wampum – beads made from shellfish shells – were assembled and configured to record life-events, historic events, and agreements of many kinds and they were highly valued for their aesthetic qualities as well. Europeans understood wampum to be a kind of currency, but the hemispheric norm was bartering. Even in the most urban communities in Mesoamerica, trade was conducted in goods and not coin.

What are some of the implications of this one fact? There are several, the first of which is specialization. Where there is a demand for corn, there will be maize growers. Where there is demand for feathers or hides, there will be those who gather, refine, and sell only these things. Localized and specialized economies thus develop levels of mutual dependence on their neighbours. Harald Prins describes the relationship between the various member groups of the Wabanaki Confederacy as complementary economies: some specialized in hunting and fishing while others tilled the soil.[1] In other words, while it is possible that some individuals or groups produced and sold a bit of this and a bit of that, most households/bands played to their strengths.

Doing so implies that Indigenous societies had the ability to process, stockpile, and transport goods in quantities that made it worth their while. We see evidence of large-scale production in extensive wooden racks used to dry fish on every coastline, riverbank, and lakeside. We see it in the harvesting and processing of bison across the Great Plains. We see long-term strategies for storage in the Mexica warehouses at Tenochtitlan, Pueblo granaries, food storage caches among the kekuli pits at Keatley Creek, bent cedar boxes used to pack oolichan grease on the Northwest Coast, and the large cellars developed by the Metepenagiag on the Miramichi. Clearly, all human societies produce and refine necessities, and they store a surplus against lean times. What is important to recognize here are millennia-old and varied practices in North America associated with the production and storage of larger surpluses of goods for commercial purposes.

Those goods, of course, had to be transportable. Networks of rivers and footpaths linked inland communities with one another and to coastal regions. Design skills and engineering provided the vessels and bridges necessary to bring goods and people to market. The extent of these tributaries of trade are visible in the Similkameen Valley, where traders from very distant communities obtained ochre paint (vermillion) and could not wait to try it out on nearby rock faces as they took the first steps back to their respective homelands. Their “graffiti” is a little like a tourist signing a guestbook, and from the distinctive styles involved, we can tell how far they came, albeit probably along very roundabout and indirect routes.

How did Indigenous peoples see trade in the period before 1800? Were their views of commerce static and unchanging, or did they evolve? What motivations lay behind generations of individuals, families, and whole communities gathering, processing, and often transporting resources across great distances for exchange? If there is one thing of which we can be certain it is this: trade is a social and cultural as well as an economic phenomenon, and its expression is bound to be different over time and space. Indigenous trade took place in Indigenous contexts first and foremost, which is our principal concern. There are obvious historiographic obstacles in that regard: for one, it is through the filtered accounts of foreign visitors, merchants, clergy, and warriors that historians have mainly perceived the Indigenous societies of the fifteenth and subsequent centuries. For that reason, we describe exchange commerce that involved wool blankets, metal tools, cooking implements, ceramics, firearms, alcohol, and a multitude of other goods as, simply, “the fur trade.”

The Northeast

Beginning in the sixteenth century, trade got underway between seaboard communities and the civilizations of the St. Lawrence River valley on the one hand, and parts of Europe on the other. At our end of the telescope in the twenty-first century, knowing what we know now, it might be tempting to look exclusively for the seeds of disruption, colonialism, and the loss of power and territory experienced by Indigenous peoples. But this is to fall prey to hindsight.

In the 1500s, the number of Indigenous people in the northeast who had even encountered a European was small. Viking incursions in the Arctic, Labrador, and Newfoundland around 1000 CE were limited in impact. Basque fishing and whaling expeditions around Newfoundland and into the Gulf of the St. Lawrence picked up in the early 1500s, and these introduced some new goods and ideas. French expeditions also appeared in the 1500s, and some trade took place. These voyages also mark the first documented incidence of abductions of Indigenous peoples and their transportation to Europe. Still, even with the rise of the French colonial presence in the 1600s and the takeoff of trade in the area around the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, European numbers remained low and the extent of their reach was entirely determined by the participation and permission of Indigenous communities. In 1720, after more than a century of settlement in the St. Lawrence Valley, the population of the French colony was fewer than twenty-five thousandless than that of Wendake Ehen (a.k.a. the Wendake Confederacy, Huronia) a century earlier.[2]

This is not to say that trade along the Atlantic coast, across the northeast woodlands on the St. Lawrence River system, and into the Great Lakes basin lacked almost immediate consequences. Indigenous peoples had experience with metals—including copper and small quantities of iron—but other materials served them well enough. European metal implements—everything from knives to sewing needles, copper pots to axes—rather suddenly transformed the toolkit. Guns had an impact, but one that is easily overstated: they were heavy, difficult to reload, impossible to use effectively in close-quarters combat, surprisingly delicate when faced with a harsh northern winter, and loud (a shock value in battle but one that could not be counted on indefinitely, and a liability in hunting birds and deer). Guns also required gunpowder and shot, neither of which were available except from European traders; this was an advantage in trade from a seller’s perspective but a downside for buyers. (Imagine, too, running out of powder several hundred miles from the nearest trading post and having, then, to carry an effectively useless gun for the rest of the season.) Imported goods moved swiftly through existing trade networks from the early 1600s on, but it is important to keep in mind that, although European products in the Indigenous marketplace proved to be attractive and, in some cases, revolutionary, it was nevertheless still an Indigenous marketplace. It was one in which older, pre-European commercial networks survived and mattered greatly. It was, as well, one in which gendered roles and needs mattered: most of the goods demanded of the European traders were of greatest value to Indigenous women who, in turn, were the individuals who processed pelts and hides to ready them for trade.

Complicating this picture is the impact of unfamiliar diseases and the disruption of diplomatic agendas. Well-armed Europeans were, at the very least, a wildcard in ongoing conflicts between neighbouring peoples. By the time the fur trade had spread deeply into the Prairies and the sub-Arctic, new social bonds and regional frictions had come into play. Imperial conflicts influenced and were influenced by Indigenous rivalries, at least in the lands south of the Canadian Shield; in the drainage basin of James Bay and Hudson’s Bay, however, there were no European colonies over which to fight, no imperial nemeses to battle, notwithstanding a few skirmishes between 1670 and 1713. In the sub-Arctic, then, Indigenous priorities can be perceived through a different lens.

In this long history of trade and troubles, commerce and continuity, it is possible to focus on any of several themes. Here, we look at the outlines of early trade and its motivations, impacts, and implications. In Chapter 2, we explore the ways in which trade was linked to diplomacy and conflict, and the extent to which economic and political relationships such as these led to transformations in Indigenous polities and priorities.


Histories of Canada have tended to lay a heavy emphasis on the fur trade. It attracted settlers from Europe, enriched merchants and empires, provided the rationale for a colonial administrative structure and a military presence, and led the French and English (and briefly the Dutch) inland from the places of first contact at tidewater. It is presented as the key element, the catalyst that led to full-scale colonization and dispossession. It is, in short, the sine qua non of Canadian history.

Repositioning the fur trade as an export business, one that allowed Indigenous suppliers to obtain imported goods and to exploit the desires of foreigners to advantage, obliges us to look at the history of North America differently. Colonialism is still there, but it need not eclipse all other stories.

The four chapters in Part 1 explore aspects of Indigenous histories in the Atlantic region (where one peoples disappeared entirely while another resisted invasion with remarkable persistence for centuries), in the Great Lakes basin (which saw confederacies and leagues attempt collective replies to their historical circumstances), in the North and across the Prairies (dominated here by the Cree and their allies), and on the West Coast (a culturally complex area on which global markets rather than mercantilism were rather suddenly acting).

Additional Resources

The following resources may help supplement your understanding of the topics addressed in this section:

Belshaw, John. Canadian History: Pre-Confederation. Vancouver: BCcampus, 2015. See esp. chap. 4, 5, 6.7, 6.8, 8, 13.1–13.5, 13.10.

Bragdon, Kathleen Joan. The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Northeast. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. See esp. pp. 37–61.

Delâge, Denys. Bitter Feast: Amerindians and Europeans in Northeastern North America, 1600–64. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1993. See esp. pp. 36–77.

Dickason, Olive and David McNab. Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, 4th ed. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2009. See esp. pp. 160–82.

Morgan, Cecilia. Travellers through Empire: Indigenous Voyages from Early Canada. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.

Moutsette, Marcel. “A Universe under Strain: Amerindian Nations in North-Eastern North America in the 16th Century.” Post-Medieval Archaeology 43, no. 1 (2009): 30–47.

Prins, Harald E., and Bunny McBride. “Discovering Europe, 1493.” World Monitor 5, no. 11 (November 1992): 56–59.

Ray, Arthur J., and Donald Freeman. “Give Us Good Measure:” An Economic Analysis of Relations between the Indians and the Hudson’s Bay Company before 1763. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978. See esp. pp. 19–25.

Thrush, Coll. Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016. See esp. chap. 2–3.

  1. Harald Prins, “Children of Gluskap: Wabanaki Indians on the Eve of the European Invasion,” in American Beginnings: Exploration, Culture, and Cartography in the Land of Norumbega, co-edited with E. Baker et al. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 165–211.
  2. “Wendake” means, simply, the home of the Wendat. Wherever there are Wendat, there is Wendake. “Wendake Ehen” refers to that region near Georgian Bay where, in the seventeenth century, we find a confederation of Wendat villages sometimes referred to as “Huronia.” The Wendat/Wyandot/Wyandotte diaspora extends across what is now Central Canada and the American Midwest with nodes in Québec, Oklahoma, and Kansas. See “Introduction,” in Thomas Peace and Kathryn Magee Labelle, eds., From Huronia to Wendakes: Adversity, Migrations, and Resilience, 1650-1900 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), p. 3.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Histories of Indigenous Peoples and Canada by John Belshaw, Sarah Nickel, and Chelsea Horton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book