The maritime fur trade was highly volatile. Nothing about it remained the same for long. Prices that the traders paid for pelts differed from harbour to harbour and season to season. Trade goods that were favoured by the Aboriginal people one summer were scornfully rejected the next. Harbours that produced bountiful supplies of pelts suddenly were barren and abandoned. Villages that welcomed the traders with open arms turned hostile and violent for no apparent reason. In the end, the otter itself, the mainstay of the business, disappeared without a trace and the maritime fur trade passed into history.
Contrary to stereotype, the local people knew the worth of their furs and were not willing to exchange them for beads and trinkets. “The Natives totally dispising Glasses, Beads and other Baubles,” wrote Alexander Walker, supercargo aboard an early trading vessel, ”were only satisfied with Brass, Copper or Iron...” Iron was made into weapons and tools; copper was sold either as kettles or pans or as sheets that the people worked themselves. Once the traders had satisfied the demand for metal, blankets and cotton goods became the leading items on most Aboriginal shopping lists, along with foodstuffs such as molasses, bread, rice and sugar. Guns were traded for the first time by Captain John Kendrick to Chief Wickanninish in Clayoquot Sound in 1788, then spread quickly along the coast via intertribal trade. Liquor was also introduced by the traders. At first used mainly to “soften up” their customers before trading, Indian rum (a mixture of rum and water) soon became a popular trade item in its own right.
Beyond the principal items of trade, almost anything could be bartered in the right circumstances. Scissors, mirrors, buttons, keys, they all formed part of a trader’s stores at one time or another. Anything that wasn’t nailed down was available for sale, including the nails themselves and, on one occasion, the ship’s cat. Trade goods obtained from the interlopers had value to First Nations people independent of their use-value. They were symbols of prestige, implying a special relationship with this new outside power that had appeared in the territory. Items that may have seemed trivial to an American sailor--a button or a bead, for example--might have had significant value to a local chief wanting to prove he had influence with the pale-skinned foreigners. As the years went by, trade goods became more valued for what they were, as commodities, and less for their ceremonial or symbolic value.
It became customary for the ships to obtain products on one part of the coast that could be traded on another. Dentalia, or tuskshells --seashells that resemble small elephant tusks -- were used by the First Nations for ornamentation and as a form of currency. Occurring on the coast of California and the outer shores of Vancouver Island, they had been a staple of intertribal trade long before the arrival of outsiders. Elk hides, known in the language of the trade as clemmons or clemmels, were obtained from the Columbia Valley and taken north where the First Nations wore them as a form of armour.
Maritime fur traders also engaged in the slave trade. First Nations cultures on the coast were slave societies. Experts differ as to the extent of the practice -- some estimate that slaves accounted for as much as a third of the Aboriginal population at one time -- but all the different tribal groups were involved. Slaves, usually women and children, were abducted by war parties or purchased by their owners, who were members of the chiefly caste. They were considered the property of their owners, who could do whatever they wished with them, including killing them, though usually slaves were absorbed into the family structure as household servants. British and Yankee traders were no strangers to slavery in their own societies, and apparently they took advantage of opportunities to obtain slaves on the coast and resell them at villages along the way.
For their part, Aboriginal people offered a variety of products to visiting ships. The staple of the maritime trade was the sea otter (pictured above), but as it declined in number beaver and other types of “land furs” took its place. Visiting ships also took on timber and food provisions such as fish, berries and venison. In the Queen Charlottes, the Haida began making carvings from argillite, the black shale mined at Slatechuck Mountain near Skidegate, and selling them as curios to visiting sailors. Just as the Aboriginal people had an eclectic appetite for imported goods, so the traders were eager to obtain any product, from the mundane to the exotic, that they thought they could resell at a profit or take home as a souvenir.
For example, one of Vancouver’s officers, Thomas Manby, described a magical encounter at Nootka Sound with a party of Muchalaht who had come out to his ship: “An Indian in one of the Canoes had with him a live Humming bird, of very beautiful plumage...tied by the Leg with a single human hair. On seeing it, all on board became anxious to become the purchaser of this little curiosity, which enabled the owner to sell his little prisoner for something considerable. The Indians along side eyed with peculiar attention the avidity all on board express’d for this Bird, which apparently produced the greatest surprize. In an instant every Canoe left the Ship, and paddled with all their strength to the Shore.... However, in two hours, the little Fleet of Canoes again made towards us, paddling with all their might, on gaining us, the object of their flight and return, evidently bespoke the pursuit of the while, as every Man, Woman and Child, had three or four Live humming birds, to dispose of, which in a few Minutes so overstocked the Market, that a brass button was willingly received for two.”
The trade was conducted from the ships as they passed along the coast from village to village, arriving early in the spring and cruising until fall when they departed for Hawaii and China. They announced their arrival with a cannon shot, a signal for the people to come out in their canoes with their goods. Leery of Aboriginal intentions, early traders did not allow the people to board their ships, or did business with one or two emissaries who came on deck. Nets were strung out from the railing to discourage anyone from scaling the sides of the ship and armed sailors patrolled the decks during trading sessions. Trading was preceded by an elaborate process of socializing and negotiation. This was the Aboriginal way and it frustrated the traders, who were used to more straightforward business encounters. “A man ought to be endowed with an uncommon share of patience to trade with any of these people,” remarked one of the captains. As the number of sea otter declined and it became harder to fill their holds, vessels began spending longer on the coast, perhaps overwintering or returning for a second season after riding out the winter in Hawaii.
Next Time: the story of John Jewitt