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Capitalism and Christianity: The Fur Trade through the Lens of Race and Religion

Updated on December 28, 2016
J Schatzel profile image

J. Schatzel works in healthcare administration in rural upstate New York and has a master's degree in history.

Race as a factor in commerce

Economic historian John C. McManus has used the works of H. A. Innis (1956) and E. E. Rich (1960) to construct an economic analysis of the Fur Trade entitled “An Economic Analysis of Indian Behavior in the North American Fur Trade.” McManus’s 1972 study surmises that beaver populations were sharply reduced after the introduction of the fur trade into Amerindian territories as a sign of the “rate at which they had been harvested by Indian hunters.”[1] While it is clear that a shift took place from an animistic reverence for nature to a capitalistic commoditization of nature by Native Americans, it is a source of contention among historians as to what caused this shift to occur. While some argue that interaction with European fur traders altered Amerindian economic perceptions, others argue that the Christianizing efforts of Jesuit missionary groups converted Amerindians to Capitalism through their use of western ideologies.

According to ethno-historian Richard White, “understanding change involves, not finding the invisible hand of economic interests, but rather finding the reciprocal influences of culture, politics, economics, and environment.”[2] Bruce Trigger’s 1965 study entitled “The Jesuits and the Fur Trade” noted the growing number of Christian converts by 1640,[3] signs of the success of Christianizing missions on the spread of European ideology that paralleled the fur trade, but whether or not Christian missionary success was the cause or the outcome of capitalistic fur trade activities is difficult to ascertain. Often using ethnic identifications of “Native American” and “Indian” to be synonymous with race and animistic religion, Historians over the past two centuries have recounted the Fur Trade through the lenses of race and religion in their search for the cause of the spread of capitalism in the New World during the fur trade.

Throughout Alan Taylor’s 2001 study entitled America’s Colonies: The Settling of North America, Taylor concludes that “living within an animistic conception of the cosmos, rather than a capitalist notion of economy,” Native Americans preceding Jesuit missions established in New France and extensive trade networks with the French, English, and Dutch, practiced economic systems based on moderation, sustainability, and reverence for nature. Through an analysis of the Fur Trade in New France and New Netherland, Taylor asserts that in contrast to the religious absolutism of the Christian Missionaries, the natives insisted that there were “multiple and relative supernatural truths- some intended for Europeans and others for Indians,” which echoed the Haudenosaunee animistic belief that all objects, both utilitarian commodities such as trade goods, and animals of the fur trade (seen by Europeans as commodities) have an internal spirit and thus deserve respect and reverence, and likewise should be reserved to conserved use. Using 1630s Jesuit reports of Iroquois hunting beavers near extinction, Taylor shows that upon interactions with the Jesuit missionaries, the Haudenosaunee adapted to the capitalistic economic beliefs that accompanied the lifestyle of their Christian neighbors.

According to Taylor, “just as the French adapted to Indian trade protocols, Indians began to think of the goods as commodities with negotiable prices.” This shift of Haudenosaunee economics from reverence of spiritual value towards the post-contact focus on economic financial value and utilitarian function is noted by Taylor’s analysis to equate race with a set of religious beliefs and practices within an idealistic realm of ideology, as Taylor uses “Indians” throughout his study to refer not only to the Native American groups participating in the fur trade, but as a religious group undergoing a religious revolution from animism to Christianity in their economic transformation. Using a timeline of the fur trade parallel to Jesuit missionary activities in the New World, Taylor contends that the spread of capitalistic views with Christianity replaced economic communalism and traditional “Indian” animistic beliefs even despite low rates of actual religious conversions upon interactions between Native Americans and Christian accompaniments to the Fur Trade. [4]

In agreement with Taylor’s argument that Christian influences altered Native American economic systems towards a more capitalistic understanding of commoditized natural resources, John Paramenter’s 2007 study entitled “After the Mourning Wars: The Iroquois as Allies in Colonial North American Campaigns, 1676-1760” articulates that large numbers of Haudenosaunee were exposed to Catholicism through the efforts of Jesuit Missionaries in the “Anglo-French struggle for empire during the final two decades of the seventeenth century.”[5]

Likewise, Bruce Trigger’s 1962 study entitled “Trade and Tribal Warfare on the Saint Lawrence in the Sixteenth Century” used the 1535 journal of Jacques Cartier, 1600 records of Mark LesCarbot, the 1603 account of Samuel De Champlain, Jean Francois de la Roque’s 1542 exploration journals, and Henry Hudson’s 1609 reports of the Hudson River region, to argue that there were extensive trade relationships between natives and Europeans in Haudenosaunee territory long before any successful Jesuit missions formed. These trade relationships were extensively documented due to their use of river transportation throughout New France, New England, and New Netherland. Trigger’s explanation of Jesuit activities in New France seems to argue such Christianizing attempts were used as a means of securing maintenance of peaceful trade in New France, not initiating the capitalist ideology of the fur trade among Amerindians.

Trigger contends that the appearance of European traders on the Hudson and Saint Lawrence rivers introduced a new dimension to the structure of Northeast Native American trade, and opened new capitalistic opportunities to the Iroquois. Through his analysis of seventeenth century documents and the monographs of more recent early-twentieth century historians, Trigger asserts that the wars engaged by the Haudenosaunee in the early seventeenth century, before significant Jesuit missionary influences abounded, were conducted as a fur trade participatory struggle for “access to the fur surpluses of the northern hunting peoples between entrepreneurial tribes” in the Saint Lawrence and Hudson River areas. These “entrepreneurial” tribes used capitalistic self-help and competition strategies to attain and maintain control of fur trade economic opportunities.[6]

In keeping with the ideology of Taylor and Paramenter’s later analyses, Cornelius J. Jaenen’s “Problems of Assimilation in New France, 1603-1645” argued that in the creation of a Huguenot Canadian-based trading monopoly in 1645, the French resorted to employment of assimilated “cultural confrontation” towards Amerindian societies through Christian conversions as a means of spreading capitalist ideology. Using such documents as Pierre Biard’s 1616 account of Jesuit ministry in New France among the Haudenosaunee entitled “Relation de la Nouvelle France,” Jaenen argues that Jesuit attempts at “evangelizing the Amerindians” was intended to spread capitalism through the spread of European associated Christian values. As stated by Biard and quoted extensively by Jaenen, the purpose of the Jesuit missionaries was to convert Native Americans to Christianity in the hopes that the Christian lifestyle would encourage capitalistic trade relationships with the French; “thus they become accustomed to act as Christians, and will become so.” Although the competitive nature of the fur trade seemed to replace former Amerindian notions of “collective ownership,” according to A. G Bailey’s 1942 study entitled “The Indian Problem in Early Canada,”[7] Jaenen uses evidence from F. Parkman’s 1899 The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century to argue that French Jesuit attempts to Christianize the Native Americans of New France was in an attempt to socially “civilize” them to spread European lifestyle habits such as capitalism.[8]

Throughout George Hamell’s 1986 study entitled “A New Perspective on Indian-White Contact: Cultural Symbols and Colonial Trade,” Hamell contends that Indian-white contact relations led to an exchange of ideals, including the Native American shift to a capitalistic economic system. Using evidence such as the writings of Paul LeJeune and Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, Hamell argues that Native American interest in European trade goods and subsequent participation in the fur trade of seventeenth century New France preceded Jesuit conversions of Native Americans.

Unlike the aforementioned historical studies’ extensive use of documented accounts of the fur trade from the European perspective, Hamell relies heavily on Native American perspectives such as William Wood’s 1634 New England Prospect, which detailed Native American interests in European trade goods for their utilitarian purposes. Hamell contends that the “cultural assumptions” of American Indians regarding the natural world as sacred and to be used in moderation before contact with European fur traders, were shattered upon exposure to capitalistic economic systems of “western civilization.” Hamell’s analysis of historical, archaeological, and ethnographic materials studies the rhetoric of assimilation to describe changing American Indian economic systems as a manifestation of Native American adaptation to and adoption of what European colonists of the fur trade believed to be “practical,” civilized, western ideals. According to Hamell, “Given this understanding, Indians need no longer be considered mad nor have their minds colonized by white motivations. Instead, they and we are liberated from the old stereotypes and can get on with the business of evaluating the historical and continuing cultural relationship between comparably complex, rational, and real human beings.” Hamell contends that due to the ideology that racial inferiority of the Amerindians was considered equated with a “cultural impediment” inherent within Amerindian communities’ religious conversion to Christianity was a necessary step in the transition between communal animism to competitive capitalism. [9]

As Amerindians incorporated increasing European goods into their daily lives, it became important to the new dependant Amerindians to maintain the trade relationships with Europeans of the fur trade, through which they could continue to acquire such goods. Replacing former “other world” understandings of animals such as beavers within “woodland ceremonial life,” with economic views of such animals, the cosmology of Amerindians of the fur trade was disrupted by the adaptation to capitalism the Amerindians underwent due to their desire to continue to participate in growing European trading opportunities amidst “Northeastern Woodland Indian material culture.”[10]

Using such evidence as well as examples from French primary sources detailing fur trade experiences, Hamell discusses the unreliability of all sources documenting the fur trade due to the biases of Social Darwinism underlying European outlooks on Native Americans, in an age even preceding the scientific explanations of such theories. Similarly, A. G. Morice’s 1928 study entitled “The Fur Trade in Anthropology: And A Few Related Questions” warns that ethnographers, anthropologists, and historians must be cautious in their use of European records of the fur trade, due to the racially based and often religiously influenced perspectives they portray. Morice contends that despite the predominant paternalistic view of Native North Americans as childlike and uncivilized by European fur traders, the Amerindians of the fur trade used capitalistic economic strategies to compete in markets of the fur trade as complex nations shifting their economic, political, and religious cosmology.

[1] John C. McManus, “An Economic Analysis of Indian Behavior in the North American Fur Trade” The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 32, No.1, (March 1972) Pp. 36-53.

[2] Richard White, The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change Among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos. (Lincoln, 1983), xv.

[3] Bruce Trigger, “The Jesuits and the Fur Trade” Ethnohistory, Vol.12, No.1, (Winter 1965) Pp. 30-53.

[4] Alan Taylor, America’s Colonies: The Settling of North America. (Canada: Penguin Books, 2001) 94, 96, 98, 105, 107, 109.

[5] John Paramenter, “After the Mourning Wars: The Iroquois as Allies in Colonial North American Campaigns, 1676-1760” William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. LXIV, No. 1, (January 2007) Pp.39-79.

[6] Bruce Trigger, “Trade and Tribal Warfare on the Saint Lawrence in the Sixteenth Century” Ethnohistory, Vol.9, No.3 (Summer 1962) Pp. 240-252.

[7] A. G. Bailey, “The Indian Problem in Early Canada,” American Indegena. Vol. 11, No. 3, (July 1942) P. 37.

[8] Cornelius Jaenen. “Problems of Assimilation in New France, 1603-1645” French Historical Studies, VOl.4, No.3, (Spring 1966) Pp. 265-289.

[9] George Hamell, “A New Perspective on Indian-White Contact: Cultural Symbols and Colonial Trade” The Journal of American History, Vol.73, No.2 (September 1986) Pp. 311-328.

[10] Ibid., Pp.312-323.

Religion in Trade

Morice’s analysis of the writings of seventeenth century Jesuits of New France lends validity to the assertion that through the adoption of European Christian practices, Amerindians of the fur trade adopted capitalism as religious transformations broadened Amerindian understandings of capitalism. Morice contends that “in the north, we cannot fail to remark that the representatives of that race are ever readily, nay eagerly, manifesting it in our own days by assimilating the religious notions of the whites and copying such of their manners as are consistent with the mode of life imposed on them by nature” in his discussion of the Haudenosaunee. Accompanying this statement is an analysis of sources of European participants in the fur trade stating similar opinions, as Morice warns that although the general claims of such reports may be correct, the details of such reports may be exaggerated. [1]

J. A. Brandao’s 1996 study entitled “The Treaties of 1701: A Triumph of Iroquois Diplomacy” argued Brandao’s thesis that Haudenosaunee shifts from animistic views of the natural world towards a commodified vision of capitalistic economy took place out of military necessity following contact with fur traders and other European arrivals in the New World, not out of a Christian and capitalist confluence trend as other historians such as Taylor and Paramenter have asserted. Brandao contends that “taking revenge against their enemies and seizing prisoners for torture and to replace Iroquois lost to raids and disease, remained important motives. But control of their territories was paramount. Beaver pelts and other furs were traded to Europeans for guns, powder, and lead needed to pursue their wars” in defense of their territories and populations. Although Brandao spends extensive analysis throughout his study on the influence of Christianity on Amerindians in the fur trade, he recounts that the Christian influence was used as a means of maintaining trade relationships, not initiating them. Contending that the use of missionaries to convert Amerindians to Christianity was a natural step to follow the capitalistic interactions between European fur traders and Amerindians.

Using the records of French officials of the seventeenth century in New France, including New France Governor Joseph Antoine Le Febvre de la Barre’s 1680s writings and personal correspondence, Brandao argued that the French use of Jesuit missionaries was intended to secure the already established trade relationships between Amerindians and French fur traders and secure Amerindians as peaceful allies through the use of Christian ideology. According to Brandao, “Peace between the Iroquois and the French was a reasonable price to pay if it provided ready access to the furs and markets of New France’s allies.”

Iroquoian participation in the fur trade in the region surrounding Lake Ontario reflected a capitalist shift in Amerindian economics throughout the seventeenth century. As shown through Brandao’s analysis of Jean Talon’s 1670s records of New France governmental correspondence, “the Iroquois having absolutely exhausted the side of Ontario which they inhabit… experience difficulty in finding even a single beaver there” due to the commoditization and resulting hunting of beavers in New France. Due to the extensive fur trade participation by the Haudenosaunee, talon remarked that “all this beaver is trapped by the Iroquois subject to the king of France.” [2]

Throughout Kit Wesler’s 1983 analysis entitled “Trade Politics and Native Polities in Iroquoia and Asante,” Wesler contends that the exchange of trade goods through the Fur Trade enabled the exchange of cultural ideals later experienced through Jesuit Missionary activities. Whereas Brandao argues that Christian conversions enabled the fur trade, Wesler contends that the fur trade enabled the Jesuit missions’ success in New France among the Iroquois and Huron. According to Wesler, “much of the incentive for European expansionism was supplied by the need to find new sources of capital and new markets for trade.”

Trading goods such as fish, skins, and game to the French, the Haudenosaunee hoped to gain from the increasing influx of European trade goods shown to parallel and precede the Jesuit missionary presence in New France. Using such evidence as the writings and records of Samuel de Champlain and other explorers and Jesuits, Wesler argues that early French explorers noted the existence of established trading contacts before the arrival of Jesuit missionary establishments in New France. Wesler contends that local Haudenosaunee economic practices became entangled within a “worldwide network of economic relations” through the exposure to European economic systems via the fur trade. The outgrowth of capitalism spurred by the seventeenth century’s focus on European expansion is argued by Wesler to have influenced Iroquoian economics through commercial, not religious means. Shifting their economic patterns from agriculture to trade, and expanding westward towards beaver hunting lands not yet exploited, the Haudenosaunee’s shifting settlement patterns reflected their embrace of European economics without Christian Conversion. Wesler surmises that due to the increase in military power provided by trade within European markets, the Amerindian proponents of the fur trade embraced capitalist economic strategies as a means of attaining and securing military and political dominance as other hostile Amerindian tribes competed for access to European trade, using economic power as diplomatic power in New France, New Netherland, and New England.[3]

Upon their arrival, Jesuit missionaries “recorded that trade was the chief occupation” of the Amerindians engaged in the fur trade, including the Haudenosaunee and the Huron. As shown through Wesler’s inclusion of analyses of the Covenant Chain agreement, Haudenosaunee-Huron trade and military relations, and trade records, Wesler contends that the primary resource for trade among the Haudenosaunee was beaver fur, upon the depletion of which the Haudenosaunee were shown to possess capitalistic values of competition and self-help even before widespread Christian conversions of the Haudenosaunee took place, breaking peaceful relationships with neighboring formerly allied tribes for the sake of continued access to European trade. Wesler’s thesis that trade of firearms and European goods in New France preceded the conversions of Jesuit missionary-exposed Amerindians is accompanied by ample evidence that the shift of Haudenosaunee tribal society towards a “market oriented commercial system” preceded the Jesuit influence among the natives of New France. Wesler surmises that the goods Europeans were using to trade with Amerindians were used through inter-cultural commerce as a means of communication of European capitalistic economic ideology, as well as a coercive force to participate in the economic web of cross-cultural exchange.[4]

According to Wesler, “relations of the indigenous peoples with the European powers were affected by the natives ability to organize diplomatically.” In the north eastern regions of North American colonization during the seventeenth century, Amerindians used capitalist ideology to secure military security through the acquisition of firearms and gunpowder, as well as diplomatic power among neighboring tribes; as shown through Wesler’s analysis of Iroquois use of strategic middle-man status in the fur trade to secure allied trading partners in the northeastern woodlands. Through a study of primary source documentation of English, French, and Dutch accounts of the fur trade during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Wesler shows that “the Iroquois held the edge over their Indian competitors” in martial strength and economic strategy in their fur trade engagements.[5]

Likewise, Daniel K. Richter’s 1983 study entitled “War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience” asserted that “trade with Europeans made economic motives central to American Indian conflicts for the first time.” Richter asserts his theory that iron tools, firearms, and other trade goods so quickly became essential to Indian economies due to their utilitarian function in protecting the territories and populations of Native American groups prey to tribal conflicts and European exploitation; not due to Christian influences which might have encouraged capitalistic ideologies.

Using the written evidence of the Beaver Wars spanning the 1620s, Richter contends that dependence on firearms and the trade in furs combined to produce a dangerous spiral in which epidemic diseases led to deadlier and more frequent mourning wars fought with firearms, the need for guns increased as well as the demand for pelts to trade for them in response, and the quest for furs provoked wars with other nations in competition for European trade goods. According to Richter, “at each turn, fresh economic and demographic motives fed the spiral.” Using such documented evidence as Baron De Lahontan’s 1703 account of New Voyages to North America, as well as Haudenosaunee Onondaga orator Otreouti’s 1684 explanation of the fur trade, Richter surmises that the fur trade served important functions for the Native Americans which participated in it, securing supplies, allied military forces, future trade access, and territorial access, thus securing the capitalist “importance of furs as an Iroquois war aim” without Christian missionary conversion forces in place.[6]

Throughout W. J. Eccles 1983 report entitled “The Fur Trade and Eighteenth Century Imperialism,” Eccles uses the documented evidence of French fur trade trading networks and Jesuit missionary establishments in the New World to contend that the Jesuit missionaries sent as emissaries of the Catholic Church were thought by New France to be a means of securing trade relationships with Amerindians, as opposed to the policy of military force taken by the English of the same period. Using evidence of Robert Cavelier de la Salle’s establishment of seventeenth century fur trade posts and noting the attempted French control of the fur trade, Eccles argues that the French used Christianity as a means of spreading European ideology, including capitalism, to their new Native American neighbors.[7]

Throughout Daniel K. Richter’s 1985 study entitled “Iroquois Versus Iroquois: Jesuit Missions and Christianity in Village Politics, 1642-1686,” Richter follows in the footsteps of Eccles earlier study to contend that for many Iroquois, political or religious interests in the missionaries grew into “a sincere commitment to the values the Jesuits preached,” including capitalism. Using the records of Simon LeMoyne, Joseph Francois LeMercier, Pierre Joseph Marie Chaumonot, and Rene Menard, among other seventeenth century Jesuit missionaries and fur traders, to argue that the Haudenosaunee and other Amerindians of New France embraced Christian principles of European lifestyles taught by the missionaries, including capitalistic economic endeavors.[8]

In contrast to Richter and Eccles’ analyses, Raoul Naroll’s 1969 article entitled “Causes of the Fourth Iroquois War” relies heavily on the writings of Samuel de Champlain (1609) and Cont Frontenac (1696), Naroll to contend that the Jesuit Christianizing attempts among the Haudenosaunee were unsuccessful, thus the capitalist ideology other historians have suggested sprung from Christian ideals was actually derived through extensive trade interactions. Using accounts of Jesuit missionaries including Father Lalemant’s 1663 account, as well as the accounts of Johannes Megapolensis (1644), Father Francois LeMercier (1666), Mother Superior Marie de L’Incarnacion (1661), Naroll details the unsuccessful attempts to impart Christian ideology to the Haudenosaunee.

Using the aforementioned resources upon which his study is based, Naroll contends that the Jesuit missionaries of New France suffered physical hardships in their New World homes “with no thought in mind other than the saving of souls,” and that the series of wars ensued by the Haudenosaunee due to the growth of capitalistic activities was “no more in the interests of French missionaries than it was of the French fur traders.” The missionaries, according to Naroll, intended to spread Christianity and save the Amerindians they encountered from a life without knowing Christ, not to create or otherwise encourage capitalistic economic ideologies. Naroll contends that the switch to capitalism allowed Amerindians to participate in the fur trade and consequently gain access to firearms and other weaponry that could contribute to such aspects of Amerindian culture as Haudenosaunee “Warrior Culture.” Naroll argues that participation in the fur trade’s capitalist ventures was an embodiment of Amerindian economic interests based upon territorial and defensive interests. When covenant Chains, peace treaties, Great Trees of Peace, and national confederacies could not protect Amerindian interests, perhaps access to firearms through capitalist means of acquisition of such materials might.[9]

Similarly to Naroll’s assertions, Allen Trelesse’s 1962 article entitled “The Iroquois and the Western Fur Trade: A Problem of Interpretation” uses the written records of those such as Samuel De Champlain and other explorers to contend that “the Iroquois, having developed a profitable fur trade with the Dutch,” partook in capitalist economic activities as a means of securing their rank among and resistance to other enemy tribes. Contending that “the colony of New France subsisted very largely on the fur trade,” Trelesse argues that such practices as capitalist economic ventures by the Amerindians of New France within the fur trade were not the outcome of religious conversions, but instead a protective measure taken to prevent enemy tribes from becoming too powerful through an economic transformation geared towards an objective of easy access to European firearms for provisions and protection against enemy tribes and groups. Trelesse warns the reader against failing to take into account “other well-established causes of Iroquois activity than the purely economic ones,” and offers a politically focused account of Iroquoian participation in the fur trade for protection against warring neighboring nations. According to Trelesse, exchanging beaver pelts for gun powder provided the Haudenosaunee with a means of protection from enemy groups amidst an increasingly competitive marketplace of European and Amerindian goods.[10]

Trelesse uses Jesuit and fur trade accounts of seventeenth century economic shifts among the Haudenosaunee to contend that capitalist economic patterns were being adopted by Amerindian fur traders due to their continual exposure and subsequent increasing reliance on European commercial ventures, regardless of religious contacts with Jesuit missionaries in New France. Trelesse makes no claims regarding the influence of Christianity on capitalism among Amerindians, and references no means by which Christian conversions of Amerindians would facilitate European commerce. The Amerindians of the beaver-hunting country throughout the Great Lakes region made hunting to provide pelts for European trade their “economic mainstay” in the seventeenth century regardless of religious influences of fur traders from Christianized Europe. Trelesse argues that an Amerindian shift to capitalism was enacted upon European contact in the fur trade, which “conferred an economic power and a strategic importance which enabled them to acquire more and better armaments than most of their Indian rivals.”[11]

Likewise, Peter Thomas’s 1981 study entitled “The Fur Trade, Indian Land, and the Need to Define Adequate Environmental Parameters” articulated Thomas’s thesis that the “exchange of commodities began and underscored social relationships” upon Amerindian participation in the fur trade; without any religious conversion attempts to influence it. Thomas contends that “the over exploitation of the beaver population” was a sign of the shift from animistic to capitalistic Christian behaviors, yet without having been induced through Christian conversions. Stating that “when the demand by European colonists for beaver pelts rose, native populations apparently shifted settlement patterns and altered annual exploitation cycles to accommodate the burgeoning inter cultural trade,” Thomas argues that extensive trade relationships and exposure to capitalism through the fur trade caused the shift from animism to commodification, with no influence of Jesuit missionary efforts.

[1] A. G. Morice, “The Fur Trade in Anthropology: And A Few Related Questions” American Anthropologist, Vol. 30, No.1 (March 1928) P. 60-84.

[2] J. A. Brandao, “The Treaties of 1701: A Triumph of Iroquois Diplomacy” Ethnohistory, Vol.43, No.2, (Spring 1996) Pp. 209-244.

[3] Ibid., Pp.70-84.

[4] Kit Wessler, “Trade Politics and Native Polities in Iroquoia and Asante,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol.25, No.4, (October 1983) Pp.641-660.

[5] Ibid., Pp.658-660.

[6] Daniel K. Richter, “War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience” The William and Mary Quarterly, VOl.40, No.4, (October 1983), Pp. 528-559.

[7] W. J. Eccles, “The Fur Trade and Eighteenth Century Imperialism,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol.40, No.3, (July 1983) Pp. 342-362.

[8] Daniel K. Richter, “Iroquois versus Iroquois: Jesuit Missions and Christianity in Village Politics, 1642-1686” Ethnohistory, Vol.32, No.1 (Winter 1985) Pp. 1-16.

[9] Raoul Naroll, “Causes of the Fourth Iroquois War” Ethnohistory, Vol.16, No.1 (Winter 1969) Pp. 51-81.

[10] Allen Trelesse, “The Iroquois and the Western Fur Trade: A Problem in Interpretation” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol.49, No.1 (June 1962) Pp. 32-51.

[11] Ibid., Pp. 47-51.

Capitalism and resource management

Using fur trade merchant records from the 1650s-1670s as well as land transaction records of the seventeenth century, Thomas argues that Native American “subsistence strategies and settlement patterns” showed signs of the “qualitative changes in the nature and function of land” that took place during the seventeenth century. Unlike pre-contact animism and moderated use of beaver and other pelt animals including deer, bear, fox, and other such pelts, exploitation of the respective animal populations reflects a shift towards capitalist approaches to nature adapted by Amerindians upon contact and extensive trading interactions with the Dutch, English, and French in north eastern North America. In an analysis of the effects of beaver exploitation on Amerindian societies engaged in the fur trade, Thomas contends that the “encroachment of Europeans onto Indian horticultural lands” was a “prime factor” in the Amerindian exploitation of beaver supplies due to the increasing access to fur trade commerce and simultaneous exposure to capitalistic economic systems. According to Thomas, a “multiplicity of socio-cultural needs” inherent within Amerindian-European trade relationships led to the exchange of socio-economic values that spurred the adoption of capitalism by Amerindians participating in the fur trade.[1]

Using documented evidence by fur traders of Indian communities of the middle Connecticut valley spanning the decades from 1620 to 1660, Thomas surmises that the interdependency “engendered by the Indian-White trade” was the outcome of the inter-societal relationship between European fur traders and American Indians. This relationship of interdependency is argued by Thomas to have encouraged capitalistic behavior by Amerindians due to their desire to “maintain a high level of beaver fur returns” to secure their trade relationships; even if it meant a shift in economic policy from reverent animism towards capitalistic commoditization of the natural world they formerly revered as sacred. Thomas argues that the dispersal of European manufactured goods among Amerindians led to the dispersal of European economic ideology without the assistance of European religious institutions.[2]

Jeanne Kay‘s 1984 analysis entitled “The Fur Trade and Native American Population Growth” contends that the “continuous negative trend in Indian population” was due in large part to the decimation of natural resources upon which Native American groups relied; causing a surge in warfare over territorial claims and populations among Native Americans, neighboring tribes, and European colonists.[3]

Was this depletion of resources such as beaver a sign of the shift from animism to Christianity, or was it instead the manifestation of the shift from communalism to capitalism among Amerindians? Using a variety of primary source documents from spanning the late sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries, historians, anthropologists, and economists, have used varying aspects of many of the same sources to reach either conclusion. Upon an analysis of each argument separately, it becomes clear that both Christianity and economic capitalism played a large role in the shifting Amerindian economic trends of the seventeenth century.

[1] Peter Thomas, “The Fur Trade, Indian Land, and the Need to Define Adequate Environmental Parameters” Ethnohistory, Vol. 28, No.4, Pp. 359-379.

[2] Ibid., 362-363.

[3] Jeanne Kay, “The Fur Trade and Native American Population Growth” Ethnohistory, Vol.31, No.4 (Autumn 1984) Pp. 265-287.

Special Thanks

Special Thanks to Hartwick College, Oneonta NY for the use of their beautiful library!
Special Thanks to Hartwick College, Oneonta NY for the use of their beautiful library!


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