Friday, June 10, 2011

The Best-Kept Secret in Chadron, Nebraska

During the past ten years I've visited three first-rate museums: the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle, and the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska. The latter is a compact but richly-endowed and ably-interpreted archive of materials from the North American Indian trade: animal pelts, Indian handicrafts, European trade goods, models of pirogues and trade canoes, and restored 19th-century trading post. I had thought myself an expert, of sorts, on this subject, but I quickly learned that the museum's designers curators had much to teach me. Here are some of my more intriguing findings:

1) Deerskins, which I thought Europeans used primarily for breeches and gloves, could also be used as water-resistant coverings for bags and trunks.

2) When Indians bought tobacco from traders, they purchased it in highly-processed units: large spun ropes of "twist" tobacco and pressed bricks of "plug" tobacco, both commonly flavored with spices and molasses.

3) Point blankets, the large, water-resistant woolen blankets sold by the Hudson's Bay Company, whose vertical stripes (or "points") indicated their cost in beaver skins, were commonly sold in pairs. I had no idea why this was so until I actually saw a display of point blankets: each "pair" was actually a single double-sized blanket that storekeepers subsequently cut in half. British weavers supposedly made the blankets this way to minimize export duties on individual items.

4) Indians sometimes wore padlocks as pieces of jewelry, rather than using them as actual locks - a point one might remember when trying to view padlocks as evidence that Indians had abandoned the concept of communal property.

5) By the 19th century, the American fur trade had become not only an extension of the Atlantic economy, but the global economy. Plains Indians bought cowrie shells from the Indian and South Pacific Oceans, to decorate their clothing, and Northwest Indians sometimes bought Chinese camphor-wood boxes or coins ("cash") from European traders. This is a subject that I suspect (or at least hope) will generate a growing amount of research over the next couple of decades.

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