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Manitoba History: Review: N. Jaye Frederickson, The Covenant Chain: Indian Ceremonial and Trade Silver

by William Eccles
University of Toronto

Manitoba History, Number 5, Spring 1983

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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This will not be a book review since the work under scrutiny cannot be considered to be a book. The volume is, in fact, an expensive, illustrated catalogue for an exhibition of silver objects used in trade and political negotiations with the Indian nations circa 1763-1821.

The Foreword, consisting of some 25 pages of text, liberally interspersed with illustrations, briefly defines the Covenant Chain, discusses the cultural significance of the fur trade, the role of silver in the trade, and concludes with some comments on Iroquois silversmiths. What is astonishing is that so many misconceptions could have been compressed into so few pages. The author is obviously unaware of the amount of silverware manufactured in New France or imported from France for secular domestic use: cutlery, bowls, mugs and platters. A woeful lack of understanding of Indian culture, economics, politics and demography is also displayed. A recent paper by Toby Morantz, “The Fur Trade and the Cree of James Bay” (Third North American Fur Trade Conference), makes plain that the Indians were not as dependent on European goods, and that the fur trade did not have as much impact on Indian culture, as has been maintained. Iroquois relations with both the British and the French in the 18th century are not understood by the author. The expansion of the fur trade into the north west occurred long before the end of the 18th century.

The catalogue section of the work consists of photographs of the various types of silver objects in the exhibition, small ornaments, head bands, arm bands, pendants, brooches, gorgets, and medals. The way they are displayed and the photography are excellent. This section does, however, make plain that the work of these silversmiths was not quite up to Cellini’s standards. The overwhelming majority of the exhibits are British or American. French regime trade-silver receives a mere mention in passing, and no description is given of the enamelled medals awarded to important chiefs by the French, and craved by them far more than the silver variety.

All in all, a useful catalogue, but a disappointing explanatory text.

Page revised: 27 October 2012

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