Friday, August 30, 2013

The Trade Musket and America's First Consumer Culture

My Lovely Wife snapped this picture of my current project gun. It is a reproduction of a Northwest Trade Musket. I bought it for a very affordable price from Gun Broker online auctions. I knew from the pictures I was in for a project. The gun was only barely functional due to rust and neglect. The bore was solid, but the lock and all the screws holding it to the stock, were really rusted. Somebody also tried to remove most of the screws with a non gunsmithing screwdriver and damaged the heads.  Each night for four weeks I applied gentle squirts of PB blaster, got the lock off and dissembled,  and slowly got everything in working order again. It is now to the point it fires reliably.  I need to decide whether to further disassemble and clean it up, or leave some of the "patina".  In the photo it is missing the ramrod. When this shot was taken, a new ramrod from Track of the Wolf was drying in my incredibly filthy shop (I just can't seem to work on a gun, take care of livestock and homestead, earn a living, blog, shoot and fish, and clean the shop at the same time!).

The gun itself is a 75 caliber smoothbore flintlock. It shoots a massive lead round ball nearly 3/4 of an inch in diameter. It will also shoot shot loads. Most original trade muskets were around 60 caliber, but were equally versatile.  Trade muskets were meant to be cheap but durable firearms for trade to native American Tribes. Different variations were made by the French and English at different times. Googling Fusil de Chasse, Type G trade gun, and Northwest Trade gun will bring up information for the interested reader.  Of particular note, is the musket owned by Tecumseh which is similar in dimension to mine, and has been wonderfully reproduced by gun maker Larry Spisak

While working on this gun, I thought a lot about their unique history in America. At the time of European contact, the Eastern Woodland peoples were an agrarian people. They were very skilled at horticulture, and may be one of the ten or so worldwide areas where agriculture sprang up independently.  They did not raise domestic livestock but managed woodlands through burning to maximize deer browse.  They met most of their needs for food shelter and clothing within their community, but traded across North America for unique items, like copper and quality flint.

Europeans were eager to get the deer skins and furs that native peoples had to trade. The natives were equally eager to trade those skins for new and marvelous stuff. Deer hide clothing gave way to linen shirts and wool for skirts, blankets and mens leggings. Dependent upon the tribe, the locally made  bow and arrows were either relegated to a secondary role, or thrown aside in favor of a European musket. The clay cooking pots (which had to function like a slow cooker) were forgotten for copper, brass, and iron kettle. Stone axes gave way to steel. Soon the traditional skills to make clay pots and bows evaporated as well.

Within a couple of generations, the native people of the East became almost entirely dependent upon a technology they could not reproduce. They were not stupid people. In fact they were highly skilled at playing the French, English, and later Americans off against each other. Many of their leaders  recognized what their growing dependency was doing to their culture and economy. It was simply impossible for them to develop the infrastructure to mine coal, smelt iron, and forge on a large scale. They only had one product to trade for the things they now needed-hides. Initially, this caused the Beaver Wars, that I once blogged about. Men were forced to hunt not for food, but to buy stuff they now needed. They began hunting for skins alone, even leaving carcasses to rot. They found themselves working harder and even going hungry as they killed quicker than the critters could reproduce.  Many became indebted to big multinational fur trading companies. From a combination of necessity and desire, their entire culture changed in a couple of generations. Without the ability to make what they depended upon, they became consumer oriented, rather than production oriented.

When I think on this too much, I am tempted to trade the musket and stick with the bow made from an Osage tree on the farm.

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