Saturday, June 17, 2017

Chicago’s Earliest Industry – the Fur Trade

You never know where you will end up when you start researching some aspect of Chicago history, but it will certainly surprise you. This phenomenon happened to me when I was researching James Carney, an early Chicago (1820s-50s) Irish ancestor. I saw a listing in the 1839 ChicagoDirectory for James Carney, grocery and provision store. I wanted to find out what early grocery stores carried and what determined their choice of inventory.
In order to understand what kind of goods a merchant in early Chicago offered, one must first understand what his customers needed and wanted. And who were these customers? The Indians, living in the northeastern part of what was to become America and Canada, had long been trading furs and other items with each other.  The French were the first Europeans to enter the fur trade in the New World in the early 16th century and the Indians became their trading partners.

The trappers camp-fire. A friendly visitor,  
Published by Currier & Ives, 152 Nassau St., c1866,  
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Washington, D.C. 20540 USApga.00935/ 

The French traders realized that in order to gain access to the knowledge and the experience of the natives and to gain access to the fruit of their hunting grounds, they had to earn their trust.  Part of their outreach was for some of them to join the Native American community through marriage. 

Another reason for marrying into the Native American culture was that Indian women were used to life on the frontier unlike European women.When the English came into the fur trade after the French, some English traders also married Indian wives for the same reasons.

Since there were few Europeans other than traders and a native population eager to trade in northeastern Illinois and eastern Canada, the Indians formed the customer base of early trading posts and small grocery and provision stores.  It was the traders who started these stores as they knew the Indian through business and social connections. Most likely James Carney began his grocery with the Indian trade.

Fur trading with Indians,  By William Faden -
 Library and Archives Canada - originally from: Cartouche
 from William Faden, "A map of the Inhabited Part of Canada
 from the French Surveys; with the Frontiers of New York
 and New England", 1777, Public Domain,
We know that the Indian was the main customer for the early grocery stores, but what made him a very good trading partner?  To find out the details of the fur trade in and all around Chicago, I consulted four scholarly texts. The original source was one Alfred H. Meyer, who provided the first in chain of citations:

Dr. Meyer made an exhaustive study of the history of northeastern Indiana and northwestern Illinois from the time of the Native American through pioneer settlement in 1850, gives more detail on the Indian customer:
“Indians were the most profitable customers prior to 1840, for many of the white settlers ran accounts which some of them were slow to pay or sought to default. The Indians, on the other hand, most of whom were Potawatomi, periodically brought in large quantities of cranberries and bundles of furs which they traded for articles of food, clothing, or ornaments.”2
I now had some general idea of what the Indian customer desired when he came to trade.  But Dr. Meyer goes on to list the inventory of the “leading store (he doesn’t give us the name) in Chicago, at the corner of West Lake and West Water”:3

Three challenges appear with this inventory list. First, the large number of items in the inventory (108) makes it necessary to organize them in some way. I came across another inventory of the North West [Fur]Company in Grand Portage, MI from 1797 in a publication by Dr. Bruce White. The items were divided by function/material according in these categories: “Adornment, Alcohol, Ammunition, Amusement, Animals, Blankets, Cloth, Clothing, Food, Garden, Guns, Medicine, Powder, Tobacco, Tools, Utensils, and Writing.”4

The second challenge to the inventory list is the number of items that are unfamiliar to most modern readers. I researched each item and made a chart of definitions:

The third challenge to this list of inventory is locating the original source. Where did the list come from? My research path led me through the chain of citations, starting with Dr. Meyer. When I reached Charles Cleaver's research, I struck gold:
“After crossing the bridge,” [the bridge across the Chicago River at Lake Street called Lake Street Bridge] “at the corner of West Lake and West Water Streets, Bob [Robert A.] Kinzie …kept the largest store in town, though chiefly filled with goods for the Indian trade. There was beside Kinzie’s on the West-Side, but that would be about all, some three or four small groceries where liquor was retailed.” 12
I had now identified the owner of the large grocery store. I still had another challenge – locating the original source of the inventory list.
By the time I found Hurlbut’s research, I was worried that I might never find the source of the list.  On p. 28 Hurlbut began a section called “TheAmerican Fur Company” where he discusses how some old records (including account books) of this company now held at the Chicago History Museum.)

American Fur Cos. buildings. Fond du Lac (back view), 
1827, Library of Congress Washington, D.C. 
20540 US Am LC-USZ62-2087

Hurlbut  quotes several items from these records and at the end of the section, he prefaces the inventory with these words:
 “We will close this article by giving a catalogue of goods furnished for the trade of the Chicago country, fifty-three years ago." (Hurlbut wrote this in 1875, so 53 years past would have been 1822.)13
But Hurlbut gave no specific source within the American Fur Company documents. The closest that I could get to the actual source was an inventory of these records written for the Chicago Historical Museum by Robert D. Kozlow, American Fur Company records, 1816-1947. A search was done for me in the records at the Chicago History Museum but nothing came up except a similar inventory from another trading post, Lac du Flambeau of the North West Company in Wisconsin. More on-site search of the records must be done.

I have been very intrigued by the tastes of the Native American consumers at the early trading posts ever since I came upon the inventory for Robert Kinzie’s store in Chicago in 1833-34. Remember my ancestor James Carney had a grocery just a few years after (1839) in the same commercial area.

You can learn about the needs/wants of a people (a subject of great interest today to all the online retailers who track our purchases with cookies) by looking at what they purchase. How did the Indian traders prioritize the items they bartered for? According to E.E. Rich (see section “The fur trade and economic anthropology”) noted scholar on the fur trade in the Americas wrote:
“…the Indian would always supply himself first with powder and shot. After that would come what the trader would call ‘necessaries’ and what we would call luxuries—tobacco, spirits, gay cloth of different kinds, beads and caps with articles such as ice-chisels, snow-glasses, and hatches varying in  priority.”14
By Unknown artist from 1800 According to Getty Images - 
Historic image from the Hulton Archive, 

There has been much research and discussion of the effect of alcohol on the Indian tribes. In many sources one reads of how the fur traders took advantage of the Indian customer by plying him with alcohol. But this has been questioned by other sources:
“Perhaps surprising, given the emphasis that has been placed on it in the historical literature, was the comparatively small role of alcohol in the trade. At York Factory, Native traders received in 1740 a total of 494 gallons of brandy and “strong water,” which had a value of 1,976 made-beaver. More than twice this amount was spent on tobacco in that year, nearly five times was spent on firearms, twice was spent on cloth, and more was spent on blankets and kettles than on alcohol. Thus, brandy, although a significant item of trade, was by no means a dominant one. In addition, alcohol could hardly have created serious social problems during this period. The amount received would have allowed for no more than ten two-ounce drinks per year for the adult Native population living in the region.”15
Professor Rich mentions the difference between European perspective and values and those of the Native American throughout the article. Much of the tension between the fur trader who wanted more furs and the Indian (who was usually not the hunter but the middleman) who provided them came about because of a difference in culture. The Indian was interested in the here and now and would only bring sufficient furs to satisfy current needs, a prevailing view of the Europeans involved in the fur trade and expressed by Andrew Graham, who began working for the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1749:
“…the Indian annually could get hold of between seventy and a hundred made-beaver in furs without effort. For seventy made-beaver he could fully satisfy all the wants which he would anticipate before he next came down to trade  and the other thirty for waste and dissipation were all that he had time to spend before he had to leave the plantation and begin his journey inland again. ”16  
From this research project to find the source of the inventory list, I learned how ethnocentrism can cloud even scholars’ eyes as they analyze records and draw conclusions about different cultures. I was fortunate to find Dr. Rich’s study on how the Native American culture differed from the European and how this influenced the trade between them.

I also learned how much the fur trade played in the economic beginnings of northeastern Illinois (including Chicago,) northwestern Indiana and Canada. Before the railroads, the meat packing industry and the factories built the Chicago we know today, there was the fur trade that laid the foundation for the future economic blossoming of the city.

By Arthur Heming  

National Archives of Canada,
images/large/20061.jpg, Public Domain, 

Thirdly, I learned about a pitfall of research and citation. It is very important for a writer to include the original source of a record that he/she cites. In his 1881 publication, Henry Hurlbut gave the original source of the Chicago store inventory as part of the American Fur Company accounts. But researchers that came after him did not include the provenance of the inventory in their publications.

Finally, from the inventory list, I learned what my grocer ancestor James Carney may have carried in his store around 1839. But he wasn’t in the grocery business for the long haul. In 1840 he opened a brewery, one of the earliest Chicagoans to do so. He probably faced two facts in making this decision: 
  1. the fur trade with its profitable and reliable Indian customer base was coming to an end
  2. beer was a popular product with the growing number of European immigrants and American-born persons flocking to Chicago 

1A.Gottfred,  “Art. II. Femmes du Pays: Women of the Fur Trade, 1774-1821” (Northwest Journal, p. 12
2 Solon Robinson, Solon Robinson, Pioneer and Agriculturalist; Selected Writings, ed. By H.A. Kellar, 2 vols. (Indiana Historical Bureau, 1936) quoted in Alfred H. Meyer, “Circulation and Settlement Patterns of the Calumet Region of Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois: The Second Stage of Occupance – Pioneer Settler and Subsistence Economy, 1830-1850.” Annals of the Association of Geographers 46 (3): 312-356, 1956, p. 349.
3 Alfred H. Meyer, “Circulation and Settlement Patterns of the Calumet Region of Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois: The Second Stage of Occupance – Pioneer Settler and Subsistence Economy, 1830-1850.” Annals of the Association of Geographers 46 (3): 312-356, 1956, p. 349.
4Bruce M. White, “Grand Portage National Monument Historic Documents Study,” (Turnstone Historical Research, March, 2004), pgs. 83-101.
5John Splinter Stavorinus, Voyages to the East Indies, 3 volumes, (London. G.G. and J. Robinson, Pater-Noster- Row, 1798) I: 519 (
6The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary: Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically. Oxford [England: Oxford University Press, 1971. Print. 1:1833)  (
7Ibid., 1:1230
8Ibid., 1:334
9Ibid., 1:1178
10"Appendices to 'The History of Fort Langley, 1827-96, Canadian Historic Sites No. 20, Appendix E, 1973, Mary Cullen, Parks Canada, Dept. of Indian and Northern Affairs, Ontario, Canada, p. 72
11Carolyn Podruchny, Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade, (Lincoln, NE, University of NE Press, 2006), p. 124.
12Dena Evelyn Shapiro, dissertation “Indian Tribes and Trails of the Chicago Region: A Preliminary Study of the Influence of the Indian on Early White Settlement” (Master of Arts dissertation, The University of Chicago, March, 1929), p. 53.
13Charles Cleaver, Early Chicago Reminiscences, 1833 (Chicago, Fergus Printing Company, 1882) p. 27.
14Henry Higgins Hurlbut, Chicago Antiquities: comprising original items and relations, letters, extracts, and notes, pertaining to early Chicago (Chicago, IL, privately printed, 1881) p. 36.
15E.E. Rich, “Trade Habits and Economic Motivation Among the Indians of North America” The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Feb., 1960), pp. 35-53 (Ottawa, ON, Canadian Economics Association) p. 45.
 16 Ibid., p. 53
 17Carlos, Ann and Frank Lewis. “Fur Trade (1670-1870)”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL

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