Commerce by a Frozen Sea: Native Americans and the European Fur Trade

Commerce by a Frozen Sea: Native Americans and the European Fur Trade

Commerce by a Frozen Sea: Native Americans and the European Fur Trade

Commerce by a Frozen Sea: Native Americans and the European Fur Trade


Commerce by a Frozen Sea is a cross-cultural study of a century of contact between North American native peoples and Europeans. During the eighteenth century, the natives of the Hudson Bay lowlands and their European trading partners were brought together by an increasingly popular trade in furs, destined for the hat and fur markets of Europe. Native Americans were the sole trappers of furs, which they traded to English and French merchants. The trade gave Native Americans access to new European technologies that were integrated into Indian lifeways. What emerges from this detailed exploration is a story of two equal partners involved in a mutually beneficial trade.

Drawing on more than seventy years of trade records from the archives of the Hudson's Bay Company, economic historians Ann M. Carlos and Frank D. Lewis critique and confront many of the myths commonly held about the nature and impact of commercial trade. Extensively documented are the ways in which natives transformed the trading environment and determined the range of goods offered to them. Natives were effective bargainers who demanded practical items such as firearms, kettles, and blankets as well as luxuries like cloth, jewelry, and tobacco--goods similar to those purchased by Europeans. Surprisingly little alcohol was traded. Indeed, Commerce by a Frozen Sea shows that natives were industrious people who achieved a standard of living above that of most workers in Europe. Although they later fell behind, the eighteenth century was, for Native Americans, a golden age.


We therefore beg your Majesty to accept these two elks and
two Black Beavers which we now offer to You in terms of
the Charter and in the same manner in which they were
offered to your illustrious Father King George VI on the
occasion of his visit to these territories in May, 1939.

—Address of Hudson’s Bay Company governor William
Keswick to Queen Elizabeth II, Winnipeg, July 24, 1959

Visiting heads of state are routinely offered gifts. One unusual giftgiving ceremony took place on July 14, 1970, at Lower Fort Garry, the site of an old fur trading post, on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Manitoba. In the course of the ceremony, Queen Elizabeth was presented with a quantity of poplar along with a tank holding two live and very frisky beaver. When the Queen “bent over the tank to inspect her new possessions, she turned to the Hudson’s Bay Company governor, Viscount Armory, and asked ‘Whatever are they doing?’” In the best diplomatic tradition, the governor replied, “Ma’am, it’s no use asking me. I am a bachelor.” The incident, while amusing, was much more than that. The ceremony highlighted a relationship that spanned continents and centuries.

The gift to the Queen of England symbolized a commitment set out in a royal charter written three hundred years earlier during the reign of Charles II. The charter granted the “Company of Adventurers Trading into Hudson Bay” “sole Trade and Commerce” over what was then known as . . .

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