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How Europe’s insatiable thirst for beaver hats drove trade between the Native Americans and colonists

Editor’s Note: For PBS NewsHour’s latest Making Sen$e segment, Paul Solman traveled to Plimoth Plantation, a recreation of the pilgrims’ 17th century settlement in New Plymouth, to report on the vital role economics played in the pilgrims’ journey to America. There, he spoke with Darius Coombs, the associate director of the Wampanoag Indigenous Program, about trade among the Native Americans and the pilgrims.

In 17th century New Plymouth, the pilgrims’ trade with the Natives focused on the three F’s: fur (beaver and otter pelts), fish and forests (wood, that is). The pilgrims would send these goods back to forest-barren England to repay their debts. The following conversation between Solman and Coombs has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. Watch the full segment at the bottom of the piece.

Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor


Paul Solman: It seems as if many of the colonists came for what we now call the American Dream. Did the Native Americans understand that? Did they know what to make of it?

Darius Coombs: Not at first. When the colonists arrived in 1620, they had a different way of thinking about living. We had European traders coming over here at least a hundred years before — we had Dutch, English and French — but they came and went. They came, did their trade and left. They didn’t care a whole lot about the land. But when the colonists got here, they did.

Paul Solman: But the Native Americans understood the notion of trading, profit and business?

Darius Coombs: Well, we had friendly trade going on. We had trade going on with what is now known as Canada among our own people, as far south as the Carolinas and as far west as the Great Lakes. We got metal and copper from around the Great Lakes. We had trade routes going up there. Now, did we need it for a living? No, it just added to the culture.

Paul Solman: Was there a sense of becoming rich in the Native American culture?

Darius Coombs: No, I don’t see that all that much in our way of thinking. You are rich by just being alive, by being part of the land and being part of the surroundings. You had your so-called royal families like all countries around the world, and normally you are born into leadership. Normally the leadership would be passed on from father to son, so the son would become chief. But you are born into your surroundings, and you have respect and enjoy your surroundings.

Paul Solman: What were the main items you traded with the colonists?

Darius Coombs: From us, they wanted a lot of otter pelts and beaver pelts. The thing about beaver and otter that make them different from deerskin is that all animals have these long hairs up here. But if you go by the felt, by the skin actually, they have fluffy stuff. That is what we call the felt. And that is what the Europeans wanted. This is what they made their hats out of over in Europe.

coombs

Darius Coombs, the associate director of the Wampanoag Indigenous Program, shows economics correspondent Paul Solman the beaver pelt that Native Americans would trade with the pilgrims. The Europeans would make hats out of the beaver pelts.

A lot of the beavers were decimated in Europe, so that’s why they were coming over here to get it. A brand new beaver pelt has long hair, so the Europeans would pluck the long hair to get down to the pelt. They would rather have a worn out beaver skin with the long hair missing already, because then they wouldn’t have to pluck the long hairs out to get down to the felt. A Wampanoag person wouldn’t have any use for it anymore, because without long hair, it wouldn’t, say, keep a baby warm.

But a native person might want, say, a broken brass kettle with a hole in it or they might want a European hatchet head. So you are getting something from one culture that you then fit in to your own culture. So each side is probably getting the better part of the deal.

Paul Solman: That’s how all trade works!

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