Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Exploiting the Chickasaw Working Class

Many of my readers know that the wheels of academic writing and publishing grind slowly, but they can grind exceedingly fine. I began work on my book on the U.S. Indian factories, “Engines of Diplomacy” (now under contract with University of North Carolina Press) in the spring of 2004, and am just now completing one of the last (I hope) sets of revisions to the manuscript. One advantage of such a long period of research, writing, and revision is that an author can replace earlier, shallower analyses with much more mature insights before the book goes to press.

To take one example that has just come to hand: in a section on the trading factory at Chickasaw Bluffs (modern Memphis), I decided to use the post's price records to estimate the approximate compensation of an early-nineteenth-century Chickasaw hunter, measured in dollars and in merchandise. I determined that a skilled hunter could make between $25 and $50 per season if he caught between 50 and 100 deer, a realistic estimate according to Kathryn Braund's Deerskins and Duffels (Nebraska, 1993). Perhaps he might make a bit more if he also caught smaller animals like raccoons, whose furs made good hats. I then calculated what this could buy at C.B. Factory: 25-50 pounds of gunpowder (with about 10 shots per pound), 50-100 yards (a few bolts) of muslin or calico cloth, 50-100 tin quart cups, or a couple of hundred small broaches.

This seemed impressive to me when I first wrote this particular chapter in 2005, but I realize now that these were the entire returns of 3-4 months' labor for a hunter and additional work by his female relatives – Indian women accompanied hunting parties to feed their kinsmen and dress their furs and skins. To put it another way, Chickasaws earned no more than half a dollar a day from the federal trading factory for their labor as hunters and skin processors. And factory merchandise prices, while lower than those offered by private competitors, still equaled 150 percent or more of the prices charged by vendors in Philadelphia, which reduced hunters' wages still further. Small wonder that Chickasaws, like Indians elsewhere in North America, racked up large trading debts. My acknowledgment of the inequities of Indians' compensation, which derived from recent years' reflection on economic inequality in modern America (courtesy of David Graeber and Occupy), allowed me to replace this vague and spineless phrase from my original draft:

“As was commonly the case in the fur trade, the Chickasaws' demand for goods outstripped their ability to pay for merchandise in kind”

with what I consider a more nuanced, and accurate one:

“As returns from hunters' labor remained low, the Chickasaws' demand for trade goods outstripped their ability to pay”

and then discuss that nation's rising debts to both the federal factory and private traders. In my first draft of this chapter I assumed Chickasaws' indebtedness just sort of happened, and implied that their own profligacy may have been to blame. Now I see that it came from the systematic underpayment of workers in an extractive industry. Granted, other scholars, like Claudio Saunt, made this point over a decade ago, but sometimes it takes a little thought and a little engagement with the real world to catch up with better minds.

(Above images, of an unshaved deerskin and HBC-style point blankets, are from Wikimedia Commons, the latter courtesy of the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, NE.)

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