Manitoba History: Book Review: Ann M. Carlos & Frank D. Lewis, Commerce by a Frozen Sea: Native Americans and the European Fur Trade
by Scott P. Stephen
By way of proactive disclosure, I should confess at once that I have been waiting nearly 20 years for Ann Carlos to write this book. She has been one of the relatively few scholars of the last 30 years to study the early Hudson’s Bay Company as a business entity, and her work has frequently overlapped with my own. After reading several of her articles, I have been anxious to see what she could do if she had a chance to really sink her teeth into the original documents and make the most of them in a book-length monograph.
Carlos and her collaborator Frank Lewis have tackled the much-neglected 18th century on Hudson Bay. They set out to examine how the commercial relationships between various First Nations and their European trading partners were influenced by economic, institutional, political, and environmental factors. They bring economic theory to bear on the subarctic fur trade and analyse patterns of Aboriginal trade and consumption.
Chapter 1 sets the European background with a discussion of felt-making and hat-making in Britain. Chapter 2 brings readers to North America and looks at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s organization of the fur trade. Here they get some of the details wrong, but the overall picture is sound. Chapter 3, “Indians as Consumers,” is very much in the tradition of Arthur J. Ray. Carlos and Lewis have certainly mined the HBC’s account books and correspondence, but the trade goods and the Company men feature more prominently in this chapter than the Aboriginal consumers. Chapter 4 examines the declining beaver population, but does so based on an unimaginative grasp of possible Aboriginal motivations, and on the assumption of a predictable relationship between the numbers of furs being traded to the HBC and the numbers of animals actually being trapped.
Aboriginal traders in this book appear as economic creatures. Carlos and Lewis reject the image of First Nations as “indolent” people who responded to rising fur prices by lowering their output. Instead, they describe Aboriginal behaviour as “characteristic of the industrious workers emerging in Europe, who too were increasing their work effort in response to greater market opportunities” (p. 11) – a statement that sounds somewhat naive on both sides of the Atlantic. They tackle this issue head-on in Chapter 5 by estimating the “labour input” of First Nations trappers and traders. They suggest that Aboriginal consumption of “necessities” (producer goods like firearms, and household goods like kettles and blankets) remained constant, while consumption of “luxury” goods increased with rising fur prices. However, these conclusions are based on a series of estimates: the volume and share of trade taken by French traders, the declining beaver population, and the time and labour needed to trap beaver.
Chapter 6 is the most subtle and nuanced in the book. The authors explain the over-exploitation of fur-bearing animals like beaver by examining Aboriginal property rights and the long-term goal which those rights sought to protect, namely the survival of the band through conservation of big-game food animals. Chapter 7 compares the living standards of Aboriginal trapper-traders and English working-class families. Although they admit that “any conclusions about relative living standards depend on how one weights food, clothing, housing, and luxuries,” one cannot escape the feeling that apples are being compared to oranges here — and using an incomplete (even biased) data set in the process.
The authors exert a great deal of analytical energy and statistical effort in this book: it contains more mathematical equations than most fur trade scholars are used to seeing in a month of Sundays, and that might just do us a bit of good. Carlos and Lewis “show their work” in appendices and footnotes, but some previous knowledge of statistics is very useful in approaching this book. How readers respond to the numbers will depend on how comfortable they are with mathematical and economic modelling in general, and on how confident they are that sufficient data exist for such modelling to accurately reflect reality.
The authors are very comfortable handling the raw data of trade numbers, but are less adept at handling textual sources like correspondence. Aboriginal trapper-traders emerge only as an aggregate, with little differentiation according to ethnicity, gender, or other factors; their motivations are limited, and their lives outside the fur trade are too much in the background. In chapter after chapter, the authors embark on valuable and interesting avenues of inquiry only to leave the reader (this reader, anyway) unsatisfied. The book is littered with minor details which are wrong, or at least not quite right: names, dates, occupations. Lewis’ past work has dealt more with the trans-Atlantic slave trade than with the fur trade, but Carlos has been working with HBC material long enough not to make these trifling mistakes. More important, their editor, proof-reader, and peer reviewers have manifestly failed in their supporting roles.
This book injects a healthy dose of American commercial history into the discourse on the HBC’s trade, but there are gaping holes in the bibliography. For instance, Elizabeth Mancke’s work on the early HBC and Victor Lytwyn’s work on the Muskego Cree of the Hudson Bay Lowlands are conspicuous by their absence. In fact, this book makes a lot more “sense” if we read it from an American perspective: although in many ways it seems to be behind the curve of Canadian fur trade studies, south of the border it injects a useful northern perspective into the scholarly discourse. At the end of the day this may be where the real value of this book is to be found: it does not tell us very much that is new, but both its strengths and its weaknesses get us talking about a time and place that deserves more attention than it gets. Let us hope that it can also succeed in getting Canadian and American students of cross-cultural trade reading each other more often.
Page revised: 2 January 2017Back to top of page