Roundtable: Of Records and Rituals: Native Americans and the Textile Trade

Roundtable: Of Records and Rituals: Native Americans and the Textile Trade

This Colonial Couture post is by Laura E. Johnson, associate curator at Historic New England. The exhibition Mementos: Jewelry of Life and Love from Historic New England, which she curated, will open at the Eustis Estate Museum in Milton, Massachusetts, in May 2017.

“Echatillons Etouffes d’angleterre a l’usage des Espagnolesen Europe y en Amerique,” (Samples of English stuffs in use by the Spanish in Europe and America), Joseph Downs Collection, Winterthur Museum and Library

I’d like to build on Kimberly Alexander’s question from last week, “How can we write history when we do not have the original object?” There are many ways to examine a textile and its context without the physical object, as she demonstrated so ably. Much of my research on Native peoples, identity construction, and the Atlantic textile trade is based by necessity on a combination of archival resources, rare portraits, and archaeological evidence. Trade records, price lists, descriptions of treaty meetings, and other archival sources offer a wide range of evidence about textiles and how Natives consumed them, even in the absence of the pieces themselves.

Textiles were among the most lucrative and desirable of imported objects in the early Atlantic economy.[1] The French, Dutch, and British all relied heavily on textile production for a substantial portion of their national revenue. Woolens and linens raised, spun, woven and finished in these areas drove international commerce from the 13th century.[2] Native Americans presented an enormous potential market for their products as the domestic market became increasingly saturated. As one scholar has stated, it could have been termed the “cloth trade as easily as the deerskin trade.”[3]

Broad comparative analysis of available materials for southeastern regional exchanges with Native peoples confirms the importance of textiles to colonial trade networks and cultural interactions as early as the sixteenth century (See chart, below).[4]

Textiles were far more than an economic medium for Native/European interactions. Clothing was at the heart of the earliest recorded interactions between Spanish explorers and Native peoples. From 1521, when Pedro de Quexo met Chicora Natives near present-day Winyah Bay, South Carolina and dressed them in Spanish linen shirts and woolen caps, clothing formed a primary cultural exchange medium in the American southeast.[5]


Comparative percentages of major trade good categories for Spanish, English, and French colonies in southeastern North America, 1520-1750

Woven goods, flat textiles and constructed clothing alike, could be used both within Native communities and between Natives and Europeans to build and confirm relationships. Cloth and clothing were given as gifts between brothers and allies, offered to “wipe the tears” of a survivor’s grief, re-clothe and transform an adoptee, and encourage conversion to the Christian faith. Reception of certain items such as treaty coats and hats could cement one’s place as a go-between, diplomat, or trader. [6] Native demand for textiles by the eighteenth century was built on centuries of ritual interactions.

At the forefront of many eighteenth-century Council meetings and treaty discussions between the groups lay the fair pricing and accurate measure of trade goods, primarily cloth and clothing. Exchange rates of pelts for shirts, coats, blankets, hats and other woven goods topped the list of Indian complaints against traders. Entries in the few extant trader accounts indicate textiles played at least as important a role in daily trade as guns and alcohol (and were sometimes more important than either). Trade and treaty exchange were often interwoven in the southeast, where a large gift to the right leader at the right moment might win or keep allies and trading partners.

In 1738 French governor Bienville feared deficient cloth and clothing would cost the French their Choctaw allies, allowing the English to solidify their hold on the region’s trade, “…the lack that we are in almost every year of everything that is suitable for this trade, with the exception of munitions of war, gives the English a great advantage over us…We did not have two pieces of limbourg [a French version of desirable English strouds] in the warehouses.” The governor, aware that his own traders had to turn away three hundred Choctaws for lack of cloth, feared that the six English warehouses stocked with goods would woo the Choctaws away from their long-standing French allies.[7]

British Indian traders and their merchant suppliers apparently dominated the supply-end of the question. Natives, French, and Spanish alike all mentioned English superiority of stock from New York to Louisiana. In 1743, the Comte du Maurepas, French Minister of the Marine, received a letter containing a series of textile swatches entitled “Echatillons Etouffes d’angleterre a l’usage des Espagnoles en Europe y en Amerique [Samples of English stuffs in use by the Spanish in Europe and America].” (See swatches, above). Not all of the textiles snipped and stuck on the page were “stuffs,” despite the document’s title.[8]. But they all had one common trait: they represented English market dominance that the French hoped to challenge and the model of which the Spanish eventually adopted.

The history of contact throughout North America had cloth and clothing exchange, fashioning of self and other, at its core. Most analyses of Native dress focus on images and materials produced at or after the Seven Years’ War, when many of the processes that felted European wovens firmly into Native lives were already fully developed.


[1] Robert DuPlessis, “Cloth and the Emergence of the Atlantic Economy,” in The Atlantic economy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Organization, Operation, Practics, and Personnel (Columbia, S. C: Univ of South Carolina Press, 2005), 72-94; Peter C. Mancall, Josuhua Rosenbloom, and Thomas Weiss, “Indians and the Economy of Eighteenth-Century Carolina,” in The Atlantic economy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Organization, Operation, Practics, and Personnel (Columbia, S. C: University of South Carolina Press, 2005); Dean L. Anderson, “Merchandise for the Pays d’en Haut: Eighteenth Century Trade Goods and Indian Peoples of the Upper Great Lakes” paper presented at the Canadian Archaeological Association Annual Meeting, April 24-17, 1986, Toronto, Ontario, reprinted in White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, 138.

[2] Carla Rahn Phillips, Spain’s Golden Fleece: Wool Production and the Wool Trade from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); Robert Brenner, “The Social Basis of English Commercial Expansion, 1550-1650,” The Journal of Economic History 32, no. 1 (March 1972): 361-384; Julia Mann, The cloth industry in the west of England from 1640 to 1880, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971); Herman Wee, The Low Countries in the early modern world (Brookfield Vt.: Variorum, 1993), 115-126.

[3] Kathryn E. Holland Braund, Deerskins & Duffels: The Creek Indian Trade with Anglo-America, 1685-1815 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 122.

[4] For additional analysis and details, see Laura E. Johnson, “Material Translations: cloth in early American encounters, 1520-1750” (University of Delaware Department of History, unpublished dissertation, 2011).

[5] Juan Ortiz de Matienzo and Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon, (Archivo General de las Indias, Justicia 3, No. 3, 1526, fol. 40v-41); Paul E Hoffman, A New Andalucia and a Way to the Orient: The American Southeast During the Sixteenth Century, 1st ed. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 11.

[6] A small sample of the work done on Native dress, textile use, and identity includes Sophie White, Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); Wendy Lucas Castro, “Stripped: Clothing and Identity in Colonial Captivity Narratives,” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 6, no. 1 (2008): 104–36;.Jane T. Merritt, At the Crossroads: Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700-1763 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 55–57.; Timothy J. Shannon, “Dressing for Success on the Mohawk Frontier: Hendrick, William Johnson, and the Indian Fashion,” The William and Mary Quarterly 53, no. 1, Third Series (January 1996): 13-42; Nancy Shoemaker, “Body Language,” in Janet Lindman, A Centre of Wonders : The Body in Early America (Ithaca N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001); Peter Thomas, In the maelstrom of change : the Indian trade and cultural process in the middle Connecticut River valley, 1635-1665 (New York: Garland Pub., 1990); Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Cloth, Clothing and Early American Social History,” Dress 18 (1991): 39-48; Linda Welters, “From Moccasins to Frock Coats and Back Again: Ethic Identity and Native American Dress in Southern New England,” in Dress in American Culture, ed. Patricia Cunningham and Susan Voso Lab (Bowling Green OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993); Linda Welters, “European Textiles from Seventeenth-Century New England Indian Cemeteries,” in Historical Archaeology and the Study of American Culture, ed. Lu Ann De Cunzo and Bernard L. Herman (Winterthur Museum: Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1996).

[7] De Bienville to Maurepas, April 28, 1738, MPA vol. 3, 716-717

[8] “Stuffs” refers to a broad category of worsted woolens used for everything from coats to cushions from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

Figure 2 “Echatillons Etouffes d’angleterre a l’usage des Espagnoles en Europe y en Amerique [Samples of English stuffs in use by the Spanish in Europe and America].” Joseph Downs Collection, Winterthur Museum and Library.

Figure 1: Comparative percentages of major trade good categories for Spanish, English and French colonies in southeastern North America, 1520-1750

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Before Crazy Horse, Was There a Clothes Horse? – Social Studies for Grown-Ups

  2. Pingback: Before Crazy Horse, Was There a Clothes Horse? – Social Studies for Grown-Ups


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