The Trader on the American Frontier: Myth’s Victim
Howard R. Lamar, 1977

In this short book (53 pages), Howard Lamar challenged not only the American stereotype of frontier traders as “despicable characters cavorting with Indians,” but the east-to-west determinism of the famous Frederick Jackson Turner “frontier thesis”. There was 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 said, “we have neglected a dual tradition of trade and mercantile capitalism by overstressing the mythic figures of explorers, pioneers, and settlers.”

One of the elements that Lamar found in native/native and native/white trade from very early, possibly pre-Columbian times was trade in human captives. Lamar contrasted 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.” A more interesting point, for me, was 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.” So rather than the west we’ve associated since Turner with “anarchic freedom, virginity, and democracy,” Lamar showed us a West filled with widespread, elaborate trade networks, and even some bondage.

We should make maps, Lamar suggested, that show “prehistoric Indian trade centers and routes, and then depict the Spanish, the French, the British, and the American ones.” He said, “The most successful trading post in the history of the United States was 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.” And we should better understand, Lamar said, 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 of settlement 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.