Malachite’s Big Hole
Myths - Cheating Indians of Their Valuable Furs in Exchange for Worthless Trinkets:
It is an often held view today that the Indians were unscrupulously cheated of their valuable furs and skins by the White traders for mere trinkets of little value. It is true that cheating did occur, but the Indians were far from being naive consumers of anything the white traders put in front of them. The Indians were in fact very sophisticated consumers of trade goods which were moved through a global trading network that catered to the wants and needs of the Indians: the finest cutlery and edged tools from Sheffield, England or Solingen, Germany, guns and later rifles from Belgium, England, and the eastern United States, glass beads from Venice and Italy, textiles from England, tea, vermilion, and verdigris from China, Ostrich feathers from Africa, and so on. Products, such as pipe-tomahawks, which had no European counterparts, were produced specifically to fulfill the needs of the Indian consumer. The Indians, with the introduction of trade goods, often had a higher standard of living than white frontier settlers or urban dwellers of the time (Hanson James, 2005).
The Indians were also quite competent in distinguishing quality goods from inferior products. French goods generally did not compare to those produced by the British, and in the first half of the 1700's, a time when Indian alliances were often determined by the quality of the goods provided, the French regularly faired poorly if English goods were also obtainable. Again in the early 1800's British goods were generally superior to American produced goods, and the Indians had strong preferences as to which goods they favored in trade. This fact severely hurt the fur trade on the American side during the embargos of British trade goods prior to and during the War of 1812.
From John and Juliette Kinzie, (Wau-Bun: An Early Day in the Northwest) comes the following quote "Upon one occasion a lady remarked [to fur trader Joseph Rolette], 'Oh, Monsieur Rolette, I would not be engaged in the Indian trade; it seems to me a system of cheating the poor Indians.' 'Let me tell you, Madame,' replied he...'it is not so easy a thing to cheat the Indians as you imagine. I have tried it these twenty years, and have never succeeded.'"
Also from Father Louis Hennepin, a priest with La Salle in the 1670's: "As regards trade, [the Indians] are shrewd enough. They do not allow themselves to be deceived, but they consider everything attentively and study to know the goods" (Hanson, James, 2005).
Furs were not necessarily valuable items to the Indians. Only so many furs, skins and robes could be utilized for clothing or shelter, and the rest were simply abandoned or destroyed. For example, at the height of the Arctic fur trade white foxes became extremely prized and valuable. One Greenland trapper noted that the white men were foolish to pay so much for something that the Eskimos used only for napkins and baby diapers.
Here is an example of whites attempting to cheat each other. In early 1841 a trapper named Stephen Lee tried to sell 382 pounds of beaver fur to Charles Bent. Bent, who had been a trapper before he was a trader knew all of the tricks of the trade. Bent had the furs throughly dried and then beaten to shake free dirt and other foreign matter from the hides. He then paid for 365 pounds of beaver (Reference page 182 of The Taos Trappers by David Weber.)
However, as with all commercial endeavors, there unprincipled traders as well as unscrupulous Indian consumers.