Shortly after establishing the colony of South Carolina in 1670, European settlers began trading manufactured goods for deerskins obtained by Native Americans. A leading economic activity during the colonial period, the skin trade provided an initial foothold along the frontier. Drawing Indians into the formative global economy of the period, the peltry trade was also a substantial source of social change that significantly restructured Native American culture.
In the late 1600s and early 1700s the deerskin trade comprised at least half of the colony’s export revenue. By the 1740s deerskins were second among leading colonial exports, behind rice, and by the 1760s the peltry trade ranked third in economic value behind rice and indigo. In 1747 deerskins exported from the colony were worth £57,143 sterling, but by 1769 their annual value had declined to £18,422 sterling. Charleston was the economic hub of the skin trade during the colonial period in South Carolina.
Charleston merchants, supplied by factors in England, maintained trade links extending from North Carolina and Virginia along the Atlantic coast, to East Tennessee and Georgia, and as far west as modern Alabama and Mississippi along the Gulf coast. Factors in England provided Indian traders with trade goods that were transported into the South Carolina backcountry along trade paths and the major river systems. The trade goods were in turn used to stock Indian trading posts that were located along major transportation routes. Indian trading posts, such as George Galphin’s at Silver Bluff on the Savannah River or Old Fort Congaree near present-day Columbia, were similar to frontier forts. Square or rectangular in shape, trading posts were often palisaded with wooden stockades and contained trade houses and residences.
At trading posts the Catawbas, Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, and Chickasaws exchanged dressed deerskins for blankets, firearms, shot, gunpowder, cloth, axes, hoes, and brass kettles. In 1763 a pound of dressed deerskins was worth six shillings. The dressed skins, eventually used to make clothes, were packed in barrels by traders and shipped to England to supply the formative garment industry. The deerskin trade encouraged settlement of the frontier, and yet it also had a deleterious effect on Native American groups. The peltry trade eroded Native American self-sufficiency and during the eighteenth century fostered material dependency on European trade goods. Further, unscrupulous traders advanced substantial credit to many Native American groups, which left them deeply in debt. As compensation for trade debt, Native Americans were eventually forced to cede lands to the colonial government. The Creeks and Cherokees in South Carolina relinquished millions of acres of tribal land in the early 1770s to pay their trade debts. By the third quarter of the eighteenth century, the deerskin trade had diminished in economic importance in South Carolina, although the peltry trade continued to be practiced on the edge of the frontier during the nineteenth century as settlement expanded across western North America.
Braund, Kathryn E. Holland. Deerskins and Duffels: The Creek Indian Trade with Anglo-America, 1685–1815. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
Dunaway, Wilma A. “The Southern Fur Trade and the Incorporation of Southern Appalachia into the World Economy, 1690–1763.” Review of the Fernand Braudel Center 17 (spring 1994): 215–42.
Sellers, Leila. Charleston Business on the Eve of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1934.