Engines of Diplomacy: Indian Trading Factories and the Negotiation of American Empire

Engines of Diplomacy: Indian Trading Factories and the Negotiation of American Empire

Engines of Diplomacy: Indian Trading Factories and the Negotiation of American Empire

Engines of Diplomacy: Indian Trading Factories and the Negotiation of American Empire

Synopsis

As a fledgling republic, the United States implemented a series of trading outposts to engage indigenous peoples and to expand American interests west of the Appalachian Mountains. Under the authority of the executive branch, this Indian factory system was designed to strengthen economic ties between Indian nations and the United States, while eliminating competition from unscrupulous fur traders. In this detailed history of the Indian factory system, David Andrew Nichols demonstrates how Native Americans and U.S. government authorities sought to exert their power in the trading posts by using them as sites for commerce, political maneuvering, and diplomatic action. Using the factory system as a lens through which to study the material, political, and economic lives of Indian peoples, Nichols also sheds new light on the complexities of trade and diplomacy between whites and Native Americans. Though the system ultimately disintegrated following the War of 1812 and the Panic of 1819, Nichols shows that these factories nonetheless served as important centers of economic and political authority for an expanding inland empire.

Excerpt

Small and shaky as it was in the 1790s, the early American national government did not lack audacity. In 1795 it began an ambitious experiment in public enterprise: a system of federally funded trading posts that grew over the next dozen years into a far-flung network, extending from Fort Wilkinson in Georgia to Mackinac Island in the northern Great Lakes to Fort Osage on the Missouri River. The posts, known as factories, purchased Native Americans’ animal pelts and other wares at prevailing local prices, and sold them goods at lower prices than those charged by private traders. The founders of the factory system, in particular President George Washington, hoped that the factories would tie Indian nations to the United States with cords of economic interest, and at the same time drive unscrupulous private peddlers and scheming British traders out of business. Thanks to Congressional support, the system survived the embargo of 1807–9 and the War of 1812—though British soldiers and Indian warriors destroyed several factories during the war—and the last trading houses remained open until 1822, when Congress voted to shutter them.

The vote to close the factories came after a vitriolic speech by Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, an advocate for private traders in Saint Louis and a bitter foe of the factories. Benton laid it on thick, accusing the public agents, or factors, who ran the individual factories of “abuse” and “misconduct,” characterizing their merchandise as “the rubbish of Georgetown retail stores,” arguing that the system had achieved none of its goals, and branding it “worse than useless.” While other senators came to the defense of the factors and their superintendent Thomas McKenney, most found the American federal government ill-suited to administer an extensive business like the fur trade. In the end, the Senate voted 17-11 for immediate closure of the trading houses and liquidation of their stock. Three decades later, Benton’s hostility toward the factories still smoldered. In his memoirs, the former senator asserted that the history of the factory system conclusively demonstrated “the unfitness of the federal government to carry on any system of trade,” and “the liability of the benevolent designs of the government to be abused.”

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