Local amateur Archaeologist and Native American researcher Leon Pope recently penned a report concerning the tribes which roamed and hunted across the plains. This item concerns the societal makeup of several of those tribes and discusses their customs and trading practices among those differing bands. Pope relied upon his extensive knowledge and also uses several comments from an essay by Marie F. Wade.
Native Americans engaged in raiding, trading, agriculture, diplomacy, politics, religious innovation, warfare, migration, lawsuits, lobbying, and gaming. Using these adaptive strategies, the Plains peoples worked to protect and enhance their political power, land, and their ability to sustain themselves economically, and to maintain their cultural distinction.
These neighboring cultures assimilated various traits while trading both material goods (agricultural products, dried meat, flint, and animal hides). They also shared their songs and dances with each other.
Europeans entered the trading picture and brought with them some wanted goods unavailable otherwise including horses and guns. These visitors from across the sea also brought with them diseases which were not native and became real problems for the tribes. Cholera and small pox plagued the natives who had no natural defense against them.
The tribes were proficient in several areas of their natural surroundings and used for their own consumption different food crops they grew. They also bartered these items with other tribes. Some of these food stuffs included Maize (corn) which was the dominate crop, squash, beans, tobacco, sunflower seeds, plums and many wild plants which were also cultivated or gathered in the wild. The most important were probably berries used for pemmican and Prairie turnips. Another item of value was Prickly pear tuna, which was an excellent source of carbohydrates.
The tribes were also industrious and manufactured many products, again for their own use and to trade with other tribes across a wide area.
These goods included pipes, flint, musical instruments (flutes, whistles, drums and rattles). Other trade goods such as pottery, blankets, baskets, metates, mano, bead work, hides, skins, and cloth were among the more valued items.
These exchanges also had weaponry such as axes, knives, bows, arrows, and in the later periods guns and ammunition were included.
The areas the tribes lived in provided differing natural assets and these, too, were bartered and included animal bladders, wood, sinew, hematite, feathers, ocher, turkeys, pelts of fox, beaver, wolf, dogs, and the seaside groups brought shrimp and turtles. Other animal products saw trades using snakes, lizards, shells, pearls. A highly prized item was salt. Many other animal, mineral and vegetable items made these events including: lard, mesquite beans, mescal, and of course liquor.
Wade in his essay had this to say. "Trade between the farming and the nomadic hunting Indians was important on the Great Plains. The Mandan and Hidatsa villages on the Missouri River in the Dakotas conducted a large trade with the non-agricultural hunting Indians.
"In the fall of 1737, the French explorer La Verendrye found a group of Assininboine planning to undertake their annual two-month long, thousand mile round trip south to the Madan villages to trade bison meat for agricultural goods.
"The trading expedition was conducted on foot with dogs as draft animals as neither the Assiniboine, nor Mandans, yet possessed horses. There is abundant evidence of similar long-distance trading between farmers and hunters among other tribes.
"The groups always had leaders who were very skilled as traders and diplomats. The problem was most of what they had to sell, or trade, was stuff they had stolen. They sold stolen horses, also women and children they had kidnapped. The relatives of the women and children would come to these fairs to buy them back.
"This kidnapping for ransom would later get the Comanche in big trouble. After that the Comanches had a hard time trusting the word of any European.
"It is incumbent to recall in all of this that the Comanche had been taking captives from everyone around them and then negotiating for trade goods to return the captives to their relatives, this was standard procedure for 200 years. The Texans either knew this or should have known. The Texans probably would have gotten the captives back without bloodshed if they had just negotiated in good faith. Slave raiding was expensive and dangerous," Wade concluded.
Trade fairs provided a centralized source of information such as where to find many items, who was in the areas, why those people were in those areas, food sources, shelter and the always important location of water resources.
Wade also included in this writings information concerning interactions between the European explorers and traders with the tribes. "The fur trade was the source of earliest contact between the Indians and the white man. These trades became the focus of federal regulatory policies by the 1790s. The Intercourse Act of July 23, 1790 mandated the licensing of anyone wishing to trade with the Indians. Despite these laws, there were numerous instances of violations, particularly with British traders who undersold American traders and plying the Indians with strong drink. Debauching and defrauding the tribes threatened the peace of the frontier and the security of the white settlers as Indians retaliated against these unjust trading practices and the continued expansion of the white settlement into their lands.
"Countering these violations, the United States government created a system of trading houses or 'factories,' first advocated by George Washington as a means of supplying Indians with white men's goods. The hope was to gain the Indian's friendship and to force out illegitimate traders, thereby winning the allegiance of the Indians away from other foreign powers.
"These trading posts combined diplomatic, economic, military, and humanitarian motives for improving relations between Indian and white. Later, Thomas Jefferson saw this system as a means of civilizing the tribes, of convincing them that the domestic comforts and lifestyles of the white 'yeoman farmer' were far superior to native life. Early reports on the factory system were positive. However, after the removal of the British following the War of 1812, there was a growing challenge to the government-operated trading program by private traders, including John Jacob Astor and his American Fur Company.
"In mid-1822, Congress disbanded the factory system, returning the domain to private traders. Even then, government efforts continued to ameliorate poor conditions and trading practices with the Indians. A new law implemented in 1834 forbade trade in the Indian Country 'except at certain suitable and convenient places, to be designated from time to time by the superintendents, agents, and sub-agents.' (Prucha, American Indian Policy, 1011). Despite this attempt violations persisted."
*Resource acquisition and the trading of those items were not always friendly. M. Wade
Story edited by Leon Pope, Past President, South Plains Archaeological Society, Archaeological Steward Texas Historical Commission.
(Editor's note: Pope has collected numerous items including: arrowheads, spear points, clay shards and uncovered several coins dropped by Spanish explorers when Coronado made his historic expedition to find the Cities of Gold. He has donated many of these items to area museums for the public's viewing pleasure.)