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Indian Factories and the American Empire of Commerce

Today’s post was written by David A. Nichols, associate professor of history at Indiana State University. It is based on his new book, Engines of Diplomacy: Indian Factories and the Negotiation of American Empire (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

The American purchase of Louisiana had many consequences, but in the beginning it was mainly an affair of commerce. Thomas Jefferson and his partisans made their deal with Napoleon not to acquire land but to control the Mississippi River, conduit for one-third of the United States’ trade. Commerce also became the means whereby the Jeffersonians, leery of armies and large bureaucracies, planned to realign their new Trans-Mississippi domain’s Native American majority. The Corps of Discovery, one of several parties sent to reconnoiter the new territory, bore additional responsibility for opening peaceful trade with the northern Plains Indians. As Lewis and Clark approached the Continental Divide, another group of federal officers entered the eastern Louisiana Territory to turn vague promises of American trade into reality. These were the employees of the United States’ Indian factory system.

The factories already comprised a growing network of trading posts in the Trans-Appalachian West, selling manufactured goods at cost and buying Indians’ peltries and other wares at market prices. The public traders, or factors, who ran these posts sought to lure Native Americans away from foreign traders and make them economic clients of the United States. Economic clientage would then lead to political alliance. “Commercial connections,” as George Washington argued in 1784, “of all others are the most difficult to dissolve.” Washington would go on to champion a federal trading-house system, modeled on the “truck houses” operated by several British colonies, as a guarantor of peace after the Northwest Indian War (1790-94). His Jeffersonian successors built a dozen more factories, believing that trade and commercial debt would make Indians both friendly to the United States and pliant enough to cede their lands.

By 1802 federal officials, or at least some of them, had begun learning that Native Americans were not mere instruments of someone else’s policy. They were instead a diverse set of peoples with their own economic and social histories. The experiences of factors and their Native American counterparts in the Mississippi Valley drove this point home.

Many Indians living in the Louisiana Territory already had multiple private trading partners, like Bright & Morgan of Arkansas Post and Saint Louis’s Chouteau family. The Osages and Sauks and their neighbors used the federal factories as alternate business places, but still sold most of their peltry to their more familiar private partners. When Native Americans did come to the factories to trade, the exchange did not always go smoothly. Sometimes Indians wanted to sell things that factors refused to buy: in the late 1810s Comanches offered to sell horses (the economic base of their “empire”) to the trading house at Sulphur Fork, but the factor demurred, suspecting that his guests offered stolen property. More often, Indian hunters used the federal trading houses to dump wares that private traders wouldn’t buy, but the more conciliatory factors would. Deerskins were the most noteworthy example: in the early nineteenth century falling European demand for deer leather glutted the market with deerskins, but the Natchitoches factory at still bought 130,000 pounds of them between 1806 and 1811.

Native Americans also sold the factors goods for which there was only a local market: meat, wild rice, and baskets, for example. In this case they were not dumping a commodity but taking part in what James Carson calls a “hospitality economy,” offering food and housewares not only as exchange items but to maintain amicable relationships with the factors. The hospitality exchange was not unilateral: Indian visitors to the factories expected factors to offer them food, lodging, and gifts. One factor, George Sibley of Fort Osage, observed that he “frequently” prepared dinner for “an Osage chief or war captain” and his companions and daughters (“princesses”). Through such pleasantries Native Americans “naturalized” the federal trading houses and turned the factors into fictive kinsmen.

Indians did not hold a monopoly on agency. The factors and their superiors in the War Department made decisions that shaped the western factories’ relationship with their Native American trading partners. They closed trading houses at inconvenient locations, or which had too many private competitors, like Bellefontaine near Saint Louis. Bellefontaine’s two successor posts, Fort Osage in western Missouri and Fort Madison in modern Iowa, enjoyed a far higher volume of business: Sauks and Mesquakies annually sold the latter factory 35,000 pounds of lead, while Fort Osage’s factor George Sibley shipped about 60,000 deerskins and smaller furs over a five-year period. Factors turned both of these newer trading houses into diplomatic assets for their government. Sibley endeavored to connect the Osages, Kansas, and United States in what Andrew Isenberg described as a regional trading alliance, while Fort Madison became valuable enough to the Sauks and Mesquakies that during the War of 1812 federal officials encouraged a faction from these nations to move to central Missouri (away from British influence) by transferring their factory there. After 1815, the War Department continued to sustain advantageous alliances through its trading houses, using the new Spadre Bluffs factory to arm emigrant Cherokees whom the United States supported in their internecine war against the Osages.

In the aggregate, the Indian factories served as points of interethnic contact, reifying the borderland, the shadowy zone of contested influence, that the United States had projected across the Mississippi River. They also became places of dialogue between federal policies and Native American agendas, with the latter frequently superseding the former. Ultimately, though, the trading houses strengthened American influence and power by driving foreign competitors out of business and persuading Native Americans to become, if not clients of the United States, at least their allies. After the War of 1812 a growing white settler population would use that power to curtail Indians’ independence, offering Native Americans cash and goods not for their peltries but their lands, and threatening them with violent displacement if they refused. That those settlers no longer believed they needed to build their power through trade, that they felt the factories had served their purpose, became evident in 1822, when one of their political leaders, Thomas Benton of Missouri, led a successful campaign in Congress to shutter the trading houses. The Louisiana Purchase, or at least the eastern part of it, was changing from an empire of commerce into one of white settlement and Indian exclusion.

 

Sources:

James Taylor Carson, Searching for the Bright Path: The Mississippi Choctaws from Prehistory to Removal (Lincoln, 1999).

Kathleen DuVal, The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (Philadelphia, 2006).

Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven, 2008).

Eric Hinderaker, Elusive Empires: Constructing Colonialism in the Ohio Valley (Baltimore, 1997).

Andrew Isenberg, “The Market Revolution in the Borderlands: George Champlin Sibley in Missouri and New Mexico, 1808-1826,” Journal of the Early Republic 21 (Fall 2001): 445-465.