By: Susan F. Craft
Early American trappers, frontiersmen, and Native Americans traded the fur of many animals -- buffalo, bears, coyotes, wolves, mink, and rabbits, but mostly deer and beaver -- for the goods they needed.
Deerskins were used to produce buckskin, as well as a chamois like
leather, used for making gloves, moccasins, and bookbinding.
From about 1709 to 1720 a plague infected European cattle herds, and half of France’s cattle herds died. The plague spread throughout Europe, and, as a result, England banned all imports of cattle and cattle hides from Europe. This caused major shortages in the English leather trade, causing an increased demand by England for colonial deer hide. The two major ports for deer hides were Charlestown, South Carolina, and Augusta, Georgia.
In the early 1700s, The Cherokee mainly traded their deerskins to the French and Spanish, and the Shawnee traded deerskins with the English colonies to the north and east.
By 1750, deer were becoming harder to find in the Cherokee territory. So large was the scale of the trade that deer became nearly extinct in the southeast.
How big was the trade in deerskins? In his book, A History of Appalachia, Richard B. Drake states that, between 1699 and 1715 about 54,000 deerskins were shipped from Charlestown, S.C. annually. Between 1739-1761 which was the height of this deerskin trade, an estimated 1,250,000 deer were killed to supply the leather trade. The book, An Environmental History of The Southern Appalachians, states that from 1739 to 1761, Charlestown S.C. records show exports of 5,239,350 pounds of deerskins, and between 1755 and 1772, 2.5 million pounds of deerskins were shipped from Savannah, Georgia.
The transactions at the trading post were simple, but always open to negotiation. The tribes and frontiersmen brought in the furs that they hunted and trapped over the winter months. (Animal furs in the winter were superior to those obtained during the summer months because they were thicker and smoother). The trading post owner would determine the quality of the furs and give each fur a buck value. A high-quality deerskin was equal to one buckskin. It would take two doe skins or two inferior skins to equal one buckskin. Six high quality beaver pelts equaled one buckskin and twelve high quality rabbit pelts were equal to one buckskin. Goods available at the trading post were also given a buck value.
Beaver furs resisted water and were used for men’s hats. A high quality skin
weighed almost two pounds and was priced between four and six dollars.
Here’s an actual list of items, each followed by the number of buckskins or doe needed for bartering. Each doe skin was not to weigh under 1 pound, and each buckskin needed to weigh at least 1 ¾ pounds.
A white Blanket; 5 buckskins or 10 doe.
A Blanket blue, Duffils; 3 or 6 buckskins
A Gun; 10 or 20
A Pistol; 5 or 10
A Gun Lock; 4 or 8
4 Measures of Powder; 1 or 2
60 Bullets; 1 or 2
A white Shirt; 2 or 4
A Knife; 2 or 4
3 Yards Cadiz; 1 or 3
1 Yard of Strouds (cheap kind of cloth made from woolen rags; 5
1 Yard of Playnes (all wool clothing); 1
A broad Hoe; 3 or 6
A narrow Hoe; 2 or 4
A falling Axe; 2 or 4
A large Hatchet; 3
A small Hatchet; 1 or 2
A brass Kettle; per lb. 1 or 2
2 Yards brass Wire; 1
A Looking Glass; 1 or 2
A Hat; 2 or 4
A leather Belt; 1 or 2
1 Dozen of Buttons; 1
Large Beads; 1
Beaver skins were known as "plews." Freshly caught beaver were skinned and "hooped" on willow branches to dry, taken off the hoops, and folded in half. Then they were pressed into pack that weighed 80 to 100 pounds for transport.
Some trappers compiled a variety of furs called a standard pack, usually made up of ten buffalo robes, fourteen bear, sixty otter, eighty beaver, eighty raccoon, one hundred and twenty foxes, or six hundred muskrat skins.
|A trapper's camp, curtesy of the Museum of the Mountain Men, Pinedale, WY|
A single Native American hunter would have exchanged hundreds of skins with a single American or European trader for trinkets or tools. The amount of furs a single Native American might have traded on average would equal up to $15,000 (modern price market) and they would have exchanged this for roughly $7000 in trade goods. Alcohol and firearms were the two most sought after items by Native Americans in exchange for their furs.
How a Buck became a Dollar:As the United States grew as a nation and the forts containing the trading posts became villages and towns, the buckskin was replaced by the dollar as the main currency. The word buck was still used as a name for the currency, but it was no longer the buckskin but the United States dollar that bore the name. It continues to be called a buck to this day.