After the trader reaches his post, his first object is to supply the Indians with such articles as are indispensable, or to furnish them with an equipment, as it is called. It will be observed that the Indians are at this time poor, the proceeds of their labor during the preceding winter having been paid to the trader, and exchanged or paid by him for previous supplies. Every family, therefore, must receive an advance, to prepare them for the winter's chase, and this must consist of ammunition and clothing, and is generally proportioned to the number of the family, and the character of the men for skill and punctuality. Without this credit the Indians would perish, and it varies in amount from fifty to two hundred dollars to each family. The loss sustained by the trader from this system may be easily imagined, when it is recollected that there is no means of enforcing the collection of a debt from the Indians, nor is it dishonorable by the customs of the remote tribes to refuse its payment; and after the first year their credits are termed dead debts, as no Indian ever considers it necessary to meet them. During the winter, the Indians are scattered through the country, employed in taking the animals which furnish them with food and furs. In fortunate seasons, they are enabled to take enough of the latter to pay the credits they have received; and they are generally willing to do this, unless rival traders interfere with each other, or the proximity of the British trading establishments induces the Indians to supply themselves at one post, and to exchange their furs at another. As early in the spring as the navigation is open, the traders depart for their place of supply, to renew the duties and cares of the preceding year; and during their absence some of their men remain to take charge of the posts and the property left in them, and, in the wild rice regions, to gather a quantity of that useful grain.
The engagees employed in this trade are generally Canadians and half breeds, and are hired by the year. Their pay is from 120 to 200 dollars a year, depending on the distance of the posts and the nature of the service. Five or six men are employed at each post; but in the interior, where danger is always to be apprehended from the predatory habits of the Indians, their number is considerably increased. Their subsistence is a heavy expense to the trader, and the privations they must endure can never be realised by any who have not passed through the country. Every winter many of the Indians perish from actual starvation; and when this is the case, the trader and his men must suffer severely, although not in an equal degree. At some of the intermediate posts, provisions are a regular article of trade. The improvidence of the Indians is well known. They seldom in a time of abundance provide for a time of scarcity. Labor is disgraceful among the men of those distant bands, and it is hopeless to argue with them upon the subject. They cannot work, but they can die.
The powerful current of the Missouri presents formidable obstacles to the ascending navigator; and unless the goods destined for the Indians can leave St. Louis early in the spring, they cannot reach the Yellow Stone the same season; and of course the capital is left unemployed, while the expenses of the trader are untermitted. The expeditions to the Rocky mountains generally leave the Missouri at or near the Council Bluffs, and from thence the goods are transported upon horses to the places of destination. They here supply the hunters and trappers who are found in that country. These regions abound with the beaver and otter, and the furs of these animals are almost the only articles which the traders receive. Great sacrifices have been made in the prosecution of this trade.
It is a moderate computation, that we have lost, in these abortive attempts, and in several minor ones, five hundred men, and at least five hundred thousand dollars. In the contests for superiority in those remote regions, between foreign traders and our own, the Indians are excited to take part; and to this day an influence is exerted, and measures pursued, not less injurious to our citizens than inconsistent with our rights. Within a year, twenty men have been killed by the same means which have heretofore been successfully employed. It is not probable that an efficient remedy can be applied, until we take military possession of the country, and establish such posts as may be found necessary - a measure equally demanded by our interest and safety.
From the review which has been taken of the course of this trade, and of the interchange of commodities between the Indians and the traders, it will not be difficult to account for the influence acquired and exerted by the latter over the former. The traders are generally married into influential families in the Indian country, and many of their men have Indian wives. The Indians look to them for supplies which are essential to their comfort and subsistence. The trader identifies himself with the band in whose country he is located, and in all disputes he espouses their cause, partakes of their prejudices, and feels his own interest involved in theirs.
There is a source of protection on one side, and of dependence on the other. The consequence of all this is, that no important measure is adopted without the knowledge of the trader; and if his advice is not formally requested, it still influences the determination adopted at the public council fire. And when a long established trader, who has treated the Indians justly and kindly, chooses to exert his influence for evil or for good, it may well be imagined that such exertion will not be in vain.
The actual cost of the goods sent into the Indian country in 1827, was $290,052.39. To this must be added the value of the investments we have stated, the wages of the men, and various contingent expenses, inseparable from such a business. One hundred and fifty-four posts are occupied by our traders, and probably not less than two thousand men employed in the trade; and it has required many years to train them to the business, and to fit them for its duties, its risks, and its fatigues. But this subject is more important as a measure of policy affecting our relations with the Indians, than as a branch of national industry and enterprise. We have stated the mode in which the trade is carried on, and we have succinctly shown the time which has been consumed, and the loss of capital and of lives which have been incurred, in securing the positions and forming the establishments now held by our traders. Most of our Indians are migratory tribes, roaming through the forests and prairies, and occupying a border country, divided partly by a natural and partly by an imaginary boundary between the United States and Great Britain. Along this boundary, and in many cases upon our side of it, the British traders are stationed, with ample supplies for the Indians: these traders are enterprising, active, and well acquainted with the habits of the Indians, and the course of the trade; and they are in the employment of a great company, wanting neither power, nor wealth, nor disposition to push any advantages which may be offered to them. Should any circumstances occur to induce our traders to withdraw from the business, the Indians would be immediately supplied by the Hudson's Bay Company; and whether this were done by sending traders into our territories, or by inviting the Indians into theirs, the effect would be the same. Our own establishments would be broken up, and we should lose the fruits of twenty years' exertions; an influence would be again acquired over the Indians, to be again exerted when most useful to one party and most injurious to the other.
The British traders have two important advantages over ours: they pay no duties upon their goods, and they are allowed a free importation of their furs into the United States. The former enables them, in similar situations, to undersell our traders, and the latter gives them a choice of markets. It is well known that the value of furs is very fluctuating. Accidental circumstances, such as a war in Europe, or a change in some prevailing fashion, will raise the price of particular furs; and these prices will decline as rapidly as they rise. The uncertainty in the state of the market constitutes one of the principal inconveniences of the trade. The supply is, from its own nature, uncertain, and the demand not less so. It has happened in the history of this trade, that shipments have been made to England, which have been sold there at such a sacrifice as to leave some of the charges unpaid, and to sink the whole capital embarked.
The Indians are peculiar in their habits; and, contrary to the opinion generally entertained, they are good judges of the articles which are offered to them. The trade is not that system of fraud which many suppose. The competition is generally sufficient to reduce the profits to a very reasonable amount, and the Indian easily knows the value of the furs in his possession; he knows, also, the quality of the goods offered to him, and experience has taught him which are best adapted to his wants.