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] Continue reading