Fur trade between Algonquian Native Americans in the North East, and early European settlers can be seen as the beginning of the end for the Algonquian way of life, both culturally and physically. As European tools and weapons were introduced to these Native American peoples, Algonquians began to abandon there their own specialized methods of hunting, harvesting, and garment making. As seen in the film Ikwe , just as beaver furs were popular with Europeans, rifles became popular amongst the Algonquians.
During the 1500 and 1600’s, spring fur trading amongst European settlers and Native Americans began to take off. With the help of trading posts and middlemen, usually Native Americans themselves, European settlers traded mass-produced goods such as rifles, clothing, tools, and food with the Algonquians. In turn Europeans would receive a predetermined amount of furs and hides which Algonquian tribes had hunted and collected over the previous winter. Trade between tribes and settlers weren’t without their share of double-dealings. In Ikwe, the viewer is enlightened as to how the middlemen would use the language barrier between the Algonquian and the settler to their own advantage. Since the middlemen were usually the only people who could speak both English and the Native American tongue, they would often negotiate the trade to benefit themselves more than they had originally planned.
Algonquians were not necessarily always taken advantage of. If they were offered a better deal by a different group of settlers, then they were free to end the trade with the previous group in order to trade with the better offer. The fur trade era also perpetuated competition between tribes for European goods and led many tribes to distrust one another.
In Salisbury’s “Manitou and Providence”, the reader learns of the “virgin soil epidemic”. As the settlers migrated from Europe to the Americas they also brought along their diseases. In the case of the Algonquians, they came in contact with small pox in a variety of ways. Small pox spread through transmission by a sneeze, cough, sexual contact, and even through garments and blankets that were contaminated upon trade. Since the natives had no previous exposure to such diseases their immunity to them was virtually null. The spread of small pox was rapid and seeing as there wasn’t a cure many Algonquians perished. Tribes were decimated as elders, and children fell ill, and eventually succumbed to the pox. The settlers on the other hand were not as susceptible to the pox as the Algonquians. The spread of small pox had a negative effect on the fur trade. With fewer tribesmen to perform the hunting and skinning during the winter months many tribes lost out on trade with the settlers. This also meant fewer tribesmen and women to gather food and preserve the culture and heritage of the particular tribe, which may have eventually led to the demise of the tribe as a whole. On the other hand, settlers were able to find other Algonquian tribes to trade with.
As the years went by, the language barrier between the Algonquians and settlers began to diminish, and so did the need for “middlemen”. Trading posts began to spring up and down the river valleys of the North East U.S. and Montreal. Eventually the trading posts began to give way to small towns and villages of settlers. This did not bode well for the Algonquian natives, as the towns were in close proximity to the occupied Algonquian territories. Relationships between the natives and the settlers were strained. Puritans saw the natives as savages that lacked Christian belief, and the ability to live within the confines of law and order. As the fur trade industry began to die down in the late 1600 and early 1700’s, so did the settlers tolerance for the natives. Minor skirmishes amongst the two cultures eventually turned in to full-fledged battles/ bloodbaths as seen in the “Mystic River Massacre” , in which several hundred Pequot, mostly women, were slaughtered by British troops.
Over the course of roughly two centuries, the Algonquian natives were robbed of their culture, land, and heritage. This was the product of what early on appeared to be a friendly, mutualistic relationship with early European settlers. Once the settlers had little use for the natives, i.e. the demise of the fur trade, they began to acquire their land usually through force. With the onset of small pox and no steady supply of guns and ammunition the natives were doomed. Through the course of the fur trade natives had become too dependent upon European goods for survival, which led to their eventual demise and displacement.