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

By Ann Carolos and Frank Lewis

Review By Theodore Binnema

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 173 Spring 2012  | p. 143-45

This may be the most important book on the history of the fur trade in the Hudson’s Bay Company Territories published in a generation. Although its purview does not include British Columbia, all historians of the fur trade, and anyone who lectures on fur trade history should nevertheless take notice. Those familiar with the authors—both are economists who have been publishing in fur trade economic history for decades—will not be surprised to learn that this book is based on a sophisticated analysis of the quantitative records of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). But those for whom long mathematical equations are inscrutable will be relieved to know that the quantitative analysis is relegated to four appendices. The chapters are easy to read.

Commerce by a Frozen Sea deals with the portion of Rupert’s Land west of Hudson Bay during the eighteenth century. Some of its conclusions confirm or expand upon prevailing wisdom. The authors come down firmly on the side of those scholars—best exemplified by Arthur J. Ray and Donald B. Freeman in Give Us Good Measure (1978)—who have argued that HBC traders and aboriginal people were sophisticated traders who well knew how to seize opportunities to secure advantageous trade terms. But Carlos and Lewis elaborate on the older literature. For example, they are able to show that the degree to which the HBC had to compete with French traders (depending on time and place) had a marked influence on the prices aboriginal people could get for their furs. The authors also use quantitative analysis to argue that aboriginal people hunted beavers unsustainably, as early as the eighteenth century. Their conclusions are based on some questionable assumptions. For example, they erroneously assert that beaver have “no significant non-human predators” (115).  However, their findings conform with those of the literature published by the last generation, which is summed up well in Shepard Krech’s Ecological Indian (1999).

Carlos and Lewis also undermine some longstanding assumptions about aboriginal behaviour. Even those scholars who have portrayed aboriginal traders as strongly motivated by economic needs have accepted the qualitative evidence that aboriginal people had relatively fixed demand, and therefore responded to more advantageous trade terms by reducing their trapping activities. Carlos and Lewis provide compelling evidence to the contrary: that aboriginal people increased their trapping efforts when they were offered better prices for their furs. They further explain that as the eighteenth century went on the percentage of Native expenditure on “producer” goods (the most important being guns and ammunition) and “household” goods (dominated by kettles and blankets) declined, while expenditure on “luxury” goods (with tobacco being more important than alcohol) grew.

The authors also put forward entirely new arguments. Reminiscent of Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s controversial attempt in 1974 (in Time on the Cross) to compare the standard of living of African American slaves in the antebellum American south with white labourers in the North (Carlos and Lewis thank Engerman in their acknowledgements), Carlos and Lewis argue that “the real incomes of Native Americans and low-income English families were not very different” (182). In fact, although they concede the difficulty of comparing standards of living in contexts so different from one another, they argue that the diet of aboriginal people was far superior to that of English workers, their clothing of somewhat higher quality, while their housing was inferior.  It is difficult to know what to make of such comparisons, but their assertion that the average Native American consumed fewer luxuries—including considerably less alcohol—than his counterpart in England is noteworthy.

Although Carlos and Lewis do not discuss the region west of the Rocky Mountains, the implications of their work are significant for our general understanding of the history of the fur trade. It seems as though the images of the aboriginal people as unaffected by economic motives, and as “environmental conservationists” during the fur trade era—already questioned in recent literature — can now be retained only by those who are willing to ignore the overwhelming evidence, qualitative and quantitative, to the contrary. Furthermore, this book offers fascinating insight into the HBC as a business—something that has received little attention over the last several decades.

Ann Carolos and Frank Lewis
Commerce by a Frozen Sea: Native Americans and the European Fur Trade 
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010  cloth:  $49.95