Lesson Three: The Deerskin Trade

Lesson Three

Traders and Deerskins

The establishment of trade with the English allowed for white traders to live among the Cherokees in their most strategic towns. In Europe, deerskins had become the material of choice for the “designer jeans” of the day.  Fad and fashion in the streets of London fueled the demand for deerskins. From the late 1690’s on there was fierce competition between the French and the English to monopolize the trade of the Native Americans. The valleys and mountains of western North Carolina were rich hunting grounds that had been the mainstay of the Cherokees for thousands of years. Charles Town, South Carolina became the trading capital of the Eastern Seaboard. An ancient Cherokee trading path led from the strongholds of the mountains across South Carolina to the coast. It became known as the Charles Town Trading Path or simply the Cherokee Trading Path.

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The demand for deerskins would seduce the Indian tribes of Alabama and the Southeast into a dependency on manufactured European trade goods. The traditional industries and crafts that were the foundation of native economic freedom began to be abandoned. Pack trains leaving from Charles Town, South Carolina delivered manufactured European goods such as metal pots, cloth, knives, blankets, guns, powder balls, and rum. Traders returned laden with deer, beaver, bear, and other animal skins. Deerskins served as currency, and the value of a traded item was measured in deerskins. In 1732 a pistol traded for five buckskins or ten doeskins, and a knife for two buckskins or four doeskins.

Trader winds his way across the Carolina swamps

White traders who traded with and resided within the Cherokee Nation since the late sixteen hundreds played a significant role in the military defeat of the tribe in time. What began as a few trade goods brought over the mountains by pack horse became the impetus to widen the principle trading paths to accommodate wagons and larger pack horse trains.

British Indian trader James Adair wrote in 1775:

“In the lower and middle parts of this mountainous ragged country, the Indians have a convenient passable path, by the foot of the mountains: but farther in, they are of such a prodigious height, that they are forced to wind from north to south, along the rivers and large creeks, to get a safe passage: and the paths are so steep in many places, that the horses often pitch, and rear an end, to scramble up. Several of the mountains  are some miles from bottom to top, according to the ascent of the paths: and there are other mountains I have seen from these, when out with the Indians in clear weather, that the eye can but faintly discern, which therefore must be at a surprising distance.”

An Old TraderThe alteration of the ancient, narrow mountain trails to would later be used by both the British and American Armies to invade and burn the towns and crops of the Cherokee Nation. The traders who live among the Cherokee people betrayed them and served as guides for the armies. A people who lived free for millennia would have their mountain paradise ripped from their hands. The simple widening of a Cherokee trail became a “Trojan Horse” that would lead to catastrophe.