Traders beyond the Frontier

Howard R. Lamar
The Trader on the American Frontier: Myth’s Victim

In this short book (53 pages), Lamar challenges not only the American stereotype of frontier traders as “despicable characters cavorting with Indians,” but the east-to-west determinism of the Turner thesis. (16) There is a “trader’s point of view” that we know little about; “indeed, a trader’s world that lasted from 1600 to 1850” in the west. “In re-examining the main determinants of frontier history,” Lamar says, “we have neglected a dual tradition of trade and mercantile capitalism by overstressing the mythic figures of explorers, pioneers, and settlers.” (17)

One of the elements that Lamar finds in native/native and native/white trade from very early, possibly pre-Columbian times is trade in human captives. Lamar contrasts this to familiar Southern slavery, suggesting it was more like ancient European slavery, where “captives were incorporated into households and often became a part of the tribe or nation that had captured them.” (19) A more interesting point, for me, is Lamar’s claim that “the Plains tribes traded with whites from 1700 to 1850 without a notable deterioration of their culture and strength except by disease after the smallpox epidemics of 1837.” (21) So rather than the west we’ve associated since Turner with “anarchic freedom, virginity, and democracy,” Lamar shows us a west filled with widespread, elaborate trade networks, and even some bondage. (26)

We should make maps, Lamar suggests, that show “prehistoric Indian trade centers and routes, and then depict the Spanish, the French, the British, and the American ones.” (28) “The most successful trading post in the history of the United States,” he says, was St. Louis (1764), “located almost on the site of one of the most elaborate and densely populated prehistoric Indian trading centers in the continental United States: Cahokia Mound.” (30) And we should understand, Lamar says, the bicultural, multi-generational, familial nature of the North American fur trade. Stretching from Canada to Mexico, west of settled America, this forgotten phase of history lasted nearly twice as long as the more familiar period that followed it. There are probably some great stories in it, in addition to the opportunity to see different relationships among places and people that cast doubt on the inevitability of the outcome.

One of the people it would be fun to look into someday is
Charles A. Siringo, “Cowboy Detective,” who denounced his employer in a pamphlet called Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism, 1915.

Public Land and the frontier

Malcolm J. Rohrbough
The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public Lands, 1789-1837

A mostly administrative history of western expansion, that offers some interesting hints at culture, mostly unintentionally and between the lines. “The distribution of the public domain had a profound effect on the economic life of the nation,” Rohrbough says. Not only in the “great agricultural empire” of the early twentieth century, but because “In the first fifty years of the Republic’s history, citizens spent much time devising ways to get something for nothing from the public domain.” (of course, this may not have been the Indians’ perspective. 238) As time passed, “The politicians who increasingly administered the public domain did not do so out of a feeling of service but to make a profit.” (229) This is an odd statement, as Rohrbough showed that appointees as early as Gallatin were heavy speculators. “Land speculation,” he says, “was part of the American scene from the first settlements;” and so, it seems, was the tendency to mix the public and private domains.

A recurring issue in distributing public lands were “pioneer families [who] defied the Indians [and] challenged the authority of entrepreneurs,” speculators, and bureaucrats. (3) Pre-emption deals had to be made throughout the period of western expansion, to accomodate those who squatted on frontier lands. But the land and money expended on this seems like a drop in the bucket, compared with the fortunes and political power that accrued to the well-connected. “Congress...sold one million acres to the Ohio Company of Associates in the same week that it passed the Northwest Ordinance.” And “John Cleves Symmes (a territorial judge and William Henry Harrison’s father-in-law) concluded an arrangement with the Treasury Board for one million acres.” (11, 18-9)

Public officials dominate Rohrbough’s story. “As a Congressman, Gallatin...constantly supported the sale of small tracts to individual settlers.” (24) Perhaps, given the size of the western wilderness, this did not seem at odds with his speculations, in Gallatin’s mind. “William Henry Harrison, Governor of the Indiana Territory, made a series of extensive purchases from the Indians” in the first decade of the 1800s. (30) The terms of these purchases are not elucidated, so it’s not surprising that the Indians next appear as “two thousand
infuriated Hell Hounds” (quoting a settler, 49). Chances are, both Rohrbough and the settlers knew what had infuriated the Indians, but chose not to think about it.

The War of 1812 “had broken the grip of the Indian on the western lands,” Rohrbough says. And “Altho you say the Ohio feever is abated in Vermont--the Missouri & Illinois Feever Rages greatly in Ohio, Kentucky, & Tennessee and carried off thousands.” (quoting a letter from a son to his father back east, 74) Indeed, “Old America seems to be breaking up, and moving westward,” wrote a contemporary traveler. “We are seldom out of sight, as we travel on this grand track, towards the Ohio, of family groups, behind and before us, some with a view to a particular spot; close to a brother perhaps, or a friend, who has gone before, and reported well of the country.” (103) In 1819, the eastern half of Michigan was contained in a Land District whose office was at Detroit. (map, 104-5) By 1834, a new District had been formed for the western half, centered on Bronson (Kalamazoo), est. 1831. The towns of White Pigeon and Bronson were “strategically placed on the Chicago Road.” June 1835 land sales in Bronson totaled $138,000; in October, White Pigeon’s sales exceeded $194,500. (193) Much of this purchasing was speculative and based on shaky credit, as shown by the experience of Allegan, “One of the paper cities that vanished beneath the waves of the panic of 1837.” (194)

Around 1816, Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford complained that many “Banks have been incorporated, not because there was capital seeking investment; not because the places where they were established had commerce and manufactures...but because men without active capital wanted the means of obtaining loans, which their standing in the community would not command from banks or individuals having real capital and established credit.” This is an interesting chicken-egg statement. To some extent, it could be seen as a desire to limit economic access to the “haves.” But it also seems reasonable that when “bank capital increased from $65,000,000 to more than $125,000,000” between 1813 and 1819, some bad credit decisions may have been made. (111) The Second Bank of the United States’ “loss of regulatory power...following Jackson’s veto of the bill for recharter and the removal of deposits led to the rise of innumerable state banks which expanded loans at a dizzy rate.” (178) As a result, “In the thirty months from the fall of 1834 to the spring of 1837, the American people generated the largest land office business in the history of the Republic. From the timberlands of Maine to the Cotton Kingdom of Mississippi, in city lots of Chicago, and in the wilderness of central Michigan, the dimensions of the land boom touched people of all stations and locations.” (187)

“The desire for lands,” Rohrbough says, “was not dampened by Andrew Jackson’s declaration that after September 1 only specie would be received in payment for public lands. The Bank of Michigan in Detroit quickly ordered specie from the East, acquired $500,000 in hard money from New York in October alone, and supplied land office money to continue the Michigan boom.” (197) Perhaps the Panic of 1837 and the subsequent ongoing scarcity of cash in places like upstate NY can be attributed in part to the fact that hard money continued to be found on the frontier. Rohrbough mentions James Fenimore Cooper’s satirical
Home as Found -- this is probably worth a look. In spite of the continued Michigan boom, Rohrbough concludes that “The specie circular...and the panic of 1837 marked the decline of the land office business as a dominant force in American life...The depression marked the passing of a period in which the land business dominated the thoughts and dreams of the nation. A new world was emerging. It was a world in which people would be drawn to cities rather than the land, in which the rise of the factory system would sharply distinguish a laboring class, in which great industrial complexes would attract the investment capital of the nation.” (238)

This conclusion seems to raise more questions than it answers. These are the central issues, but why did they happen? Did changes in access to land, or the administration of the land office, dampen the speculators’ enthusiasm? Why did people flock to cities? Was there a difference between the German immigrants of the later 1830s and people who had preceded them? Did a reduced interest in the west by speculators diminish the flow of real settlers? Were there no longer “fabled tracts of rich land, fertile beyond all imagination,” just over the next hill? (4) More needs to be said about this change. Rohrbough has made a good start -- now a social and cultural history of the people who came west, and the communities they formed, needs to take the next step.

Books to check into:

R. Carlyle Buley,
The Old Northwest, Pioneer Period, 1815-1840, 1951

Bray Hammond,
Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War, 1957