The trade between the colony of South Carolina and neighboring Indian tribes officially began in 1674 when the proprietors directed Dr. Henry Woodward, an early inhabitant, to establish peaceful relations and regular trade with either the Cussitaws or the Westos. That fall Woodward elected to return with a visiting group of Westos to their village on the Savannah River. The visit opened a lucrative trade in skins and slaves provided by the tribe and English trade goods provided by the colonists.
Other early Indian trade partners included the Yamassees, who traded deerskins and later Indian slaves for such things as guns, cloth, rum, hoes, and mirrors. Over time, the trade goods most requested by Indians were guns, ammunition, hatchets, vermilion (red) paint, calico cloth, knives, and hats. Typical Indian traders were often Scots, Scots-Irish, or Irish, who got their start in the business by sending to Britain for trade items, paid for either by cash or on credit. Once shipped, the traders loaded the goods onto packhorses and then headed into Indian country in search of customers.
Indians hunted in the fall and winter, often skinning their animals at hunting lodges. Their exchange with the fur traders took place the following spring at their home villages. Here, Carolina fur traders awaited them to receive payment on trade items sold to Indians the previous year on credit. Current purchases from the traders were made on credit to be paid for with the next season’s hunt. Then the backcountry trader left Indian country for Charleston, where his own creditor awaited payment on the trade goods.
While the trade brought items desirable to Carolina tribes, there were also deleterious effects. Indians became dependent on the gun and, if unable to purchase enough in skins, found themselves without the means to hunt for pelts or defend themselves against other armed tribes seeking slaves. Native peoples also allowed certain craft skills to atrophy, such as the ability to fashion stone cookware or hunt with stone weapons, if English trade such as iron pots and firearms goods could provide superior substitutes.
Due to the gun, Indians were able to overhunt their animals. Tribes such as the Yamassees turned to war to obtain slaves from other Indian tribes, and thus intertribal conflicts increased. Perhaps most damaging to native culture was the rum trade. Greedy traders often intercepted warriors on their way back to their village with the year’s hunt. The fur traders offered a few friendly drinks to these men, and, once intoxicated, the trappers were easy targets for the traders, who would leave them empty-handed and subject to abuse when they returned to the village with nothing to pay their regular trader.
Although damaging to native culture, the trade was prosperous for Carolina. From 1699 to 1715, Carolina exported on average 54,000 deerskins annually. The greatest single year during that period for trade was 1707 when 121,355 skins were exported.
While lucrative, the Indian trade was also a contentious issue. In 1698 the Commons House of Assembly debated the Indian trade and found it to be “a grievance to settlement and prejudicall to the safety theroff.” Some participants in the discussion wanted the trade thrown open to all interested parties, who would then be strictly regulated. Others wanted the trade held in a monopoly. Finally the issue arose of who would regulate the trade—the Commons House of Assembly or the Proprietary Council.
By 1707 the Commons House had taken steps to regulate the trade when it created the Commission of Indian Trade. The act creating the agency outlawed the sale of liquor to Indians and the enslavement of Indians for debt. It required all traders to be licensed at a fee of £8 and to give a bond of £100 to obey trade guidelines. The act created the position of Indian agent, who was to travel through the homelands of major tribes handling any trade-related problems. Thomas Nairne was the first agent. He found it difficult to regulate the trade, and most sources acknowledge that many traders cheated and abused friendly tribes.
No tribe better illustrates the dangers of such conditions than the Yamassees. Plagued by excessive debt, they became angry with their traders. They also resented the Carolinians for allowing settlers to trickle into their lands. The Yamassees resolved to eliminate their trade debt (estimated to be worth at least two years’ labor by every adult male Yamassee) with a major strike against the Carolina colony. They attacked the colony’s southern frontier on Good Friday, April 15, 1715, and attempted to kill their traders, creditors, and most Euro-Americans in their area, including Nairne. Charleston became a refugee city until the Carolinians managed to divide the tribes and turn them against each other, using the Lower Cherokees to side with them against the Creeks. The damage to the deerskin trade was heavy. Shipments of deerskins did not reach their 1715 levels again until 1722.
Since the Yamassee War was a direct result of the problems of an unregulated trade, the Carolina government assumed a direct monopoly over the Indian trade in 1716, replacing private Indian traders with new government agents, called factors, who were strictly charged to obey stringent new trade guidelines. The new government factors were to monitor tribal activity, manage the trade, and act as diplomats enforcing laws. Larger tribes received one factor plus up to two assistants, and smaller tribes often shared one official.
By 1730 the Carolina Indian trade in skins entered a golden age of prosperity. In 1748 the colony exported 160,000 skins worth some £300,000. Gradually other products displaced the fur trade in both profit and prominence. Rice became an enumerated product with a guaranteed market, as did naval stores such as pitch and tar. Where the Yamassee War disrupted the fur trade, the timber-related industry was unaffected. Government bounties on naval stores alone in 1710 brought Carolina £60,000 sterling or $6 million. While the Indian trade brought the colony its first wealth, it could not keep pace with changing economic needs.
Crane, Verner. The Southern Frontier 1670–1732. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1928.
Edgar, Walter. South Carolina: A History. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.
Hudson, Charles. The Southeastern Indians. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976.
Morris, Michael P. The Bringing of Wonder: Trade and the Indians of the Southeast, 1700–1783. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1999.
Rothrock, Mary U. “Carolina Traders among the Overhill Cherokees, 1690–1760.” East Tennessee Historical Society’s Publications 1 (1929): 3–18.