7 Year Tea Party Winners: Susan Craft's winner of her trilogy novels - The Chamomile, Laurel, and Cassia is: Lucy Reynolds, The winner of a copy of The Backcountry Brides is: Tammy Cordery, the winner of a silver quill charm is: Kathy Maher, Choice of one of three books by Carrie Fancett Pagels in paperback: Joy Ellis, A Bouquet of Brides Collection by Pegg Thomas winner is: Becky Smith, Janet Grunst's Selah-Award winning novel, A Heart Set Free, is: Sherry Moe.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Furs: Trading and Bartering

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
Flints;   1
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 
Gartering;   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.


  1. I love this post. That list will come in very handy, Susan. Thank you.

    I happen to be writing a scene in an Oneida winter hunting camp today, circa 1763. I was just wondering what time of year beaver were usually trapped before I came over and found your post. I know about dear and the winter fur animals. Do you happen to know when was the best time for trapping beaver? Were they lumped in with the other winter fur animals?

    1. Hi, Lori. So glad you like the post. I don't know for sure, but every mountain man movie I've ever seen showed the hunters walking through the snow and frozen river water to set the beaver traps. I read an article that explained that beavers start building dams in September and October and then become locked into the lakes in the winter.

    2. I've done further research today on the hunting, and yes, it is over the winter months that beaver are trapped. I'm also researching what came after the animal was caught. Ugh. Glad it's my character having to deal with it and not me! One woman dealing with all the furs two men are constantly bringing in to her to cure (tanning can wait till later) while keeping them fed and looking after her two small children. In a bark hut. Enough for one woman to be getting on with, I say. :)

  2. This like this are so fascinating!

    Thank you!

    1. Thank you! I love to do research. It's like going on a treasure hunt. When I discover what I call my "historical treasures," I try to share it with others. So it's exciting for me to find someone else who appreciates the information. There's so much to explore and learn and not near enough time!

  3. SUSAN, as usual, an excellent article! Thanks so much! My BIL is a hunter and trapper and he has helped me out with information. In my first MS, I had my hero hunting and coming back and I needed to know if he could set what he caught aside. Chris asked me a bunch of questions so he could give me the right answer because what is done is dependent upon a number of factors such as time of year.

    1. Thank you, Carrie. I met with the Ridgeway Readers group today to talk about The Chamomile, and one of the ladies (in her 70s) talked about her grandfather and how he supported his family by hunting and fishing. I know a lot of people who hunt for sport, but can't imagine relying on it for your main food source.

  4. Thanks Susan for a very interesting post. I have some gloves that were made from a deer my dad bagged back in the early sixties. They are still really soft and comfortable. My brother and sister-in-law in MI get their meat for the year every deer season. I stay away when the deer are hanging in their garage. Guess I'm a suburban girl at heart.

    1. Me too, Janet. My husband used to hunt when we were first married (we'll be married 43 years this year). I remember cringing at the site of dove in the sink lying there with their feet sticking straight up in the air. Almost tossed my cookies. After a while, he learned that he had married a suburban girl and quit bringing stuff home. Now, when he started going to turkey shoots and bringing home hams, turkeys, and slabs of bacon--that made me smile.

  5. Great info, Susan:) I remember how surprised I was when I learned about the origins of "the buck" through research. It made that old dollar seem much more significant somehow! Wonderful list, too, of how much was required for bartering and trading, etc. Makes me want to return to the frontier!

    1. Thank you, Laura. I thought the list was interesting too. I thought of a scene where a trapper would purchase a looking glass for his wife. I tried to research "looking glass" to see what it must have looked like at that time period, but couldn't find anything.

  6. Thank you, Susan.. simply fascinating! I never knew that about the "buck". :-)

    1. Thanks, MaryLu. I enjoyed researching it.

  7. This is so interesting, Susan! Thanks for all the research you put into this. It gets complicated and you have helped to simplify the understanding of it!

    1. Thank you, Elaine. I love doing research. As for simplifying the research, part of my responsibilities when I worked in mental health for 28 years was to take the complicated information about mental illnesses and write it in a way that the patients and their families could understand.

  8. This great information Susan! Thank you so much for sharing.

  9. Great stuff! I've skinned more than a few deer (native rural Michigander - we still do these types of things) and I can tell you, it's not an easy job. Each "buck" was well earned.


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