Preferred Citation: Comer, Douglas C. Ritual Ground: Bent's Old Fort, World Formation, and the Annexation of the Southwest. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.

Chapter 5 Ritual Trade

Native American Trade Goods at Bent's Old Fort

Virtually all the sorts of trade items mentioned were traded at Bent's Old Fort. Liquor, horses, gunpowder, tobacco, blankets, sugar, coffee, and knives were especially popular (and show up in account books, but only very, indirectly in the archaeological record). A passage from an early well-researched historical novel provides an idea of the range of items traded at Bent's Fort. All of the items mentioned here have since been corroborated by examination of Bent & St. Vrain Company account books or archaeological evidence:

Shelves were piled with fooferaw, boxes of beads, flints, buckles, finger rings, paints, silver, "hair-money," hawk bells, tubular bone Iroquois beads, steel bracelets, fire steels, hand axes, tin pans, awls, green river knives, pigs of galena, powder, powder horns, beaver and bear traps, looking glasses, combs, needles, thread, pins, ribbons . . . piles of blankets—both trade and Navajo—a few bales of buffalo robes . . . harness, ropes and saddelry, tobacco in great brown twists, chewing tobacco, fringed Spanish shawls, and State's doin's . . . bags of coffee, sugar, raisins, flour, boxes of water crackers, salt pork in barrels, bottles of pepper sauce, saleratus and spices of all sorts. On the lower shelves were stacked bales of calico flannel, domestic cotton, blue and scarlet shrouding, dressed buckskins, 3 point Nor'West blankets, kettles, saddles.


Hardware was in the middle of the room; axes, kettles, spare parts for wagons, horseshoes and ox shoes, hoop iron for arrow heads, lance heads, trade guns, Nor'West fusils, and many a short keg of Pass Brandy, rum and Taos lightening, and kegs of blackstrap molasses.[75]

The trading partners here were principally the Plains Indians; among them, especially, the Cheyenne and Arapaho. Occasionally, at Bent's Old Fort, but more frequently at one of the other, smaller forts of the Bent wading empire, trade would be conducted with the Kiowa, Comanche, Ute, Shoshoni, Gros Ventre, Apache, and other tribes. Early, in the history of the Bent & St. Vrain Company, trade was conducted with the Sioux, but, after the agreement with the American Fur Company in 1838, the Sioux trading ground was abandoned. Trading goods from Bent & St. Vrain Company probably made their way all over the Plains and beyond, however, as the groups that traded with the company would engage in trade with other tribes. Indeed, the position of middleman in the trade with the Anglos was a coveted one. It made the Cheyenne and Arapaho very powerful indeed among the Plains tribes.

As should be clear by now, the urgent desire for trade among traditional societies, Plains groups included, was initially not so much based in the desire for profit as for the social identity that such trade engendered. The fictive kinship relationships created by exchange, with its attendant ritual, supplied a more secure identity. One grew in prestige as one realized a larger role in such exchange. One's identity was determined by relationships with other humans.

In nineteenth-century Plains Native American societies, including those of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, it became necessary to amass wealth in order to secure this kind of prestige and a social identity. Wealth was required to outfit oneself with horses, firearms, lead, and powder for war and raiding. The charms and rituals needed to assure success in these endeavors had to be purchased. Unless all this could be supplied, warriors could not be obtained for the raiding party. Forms of wealth began to emerge that were closely tied to this system: first, horses—useful in themselves and readily accepted in exchange for anything else desired; as the trade in buffalo robes accelerated, wives also became a form of wealth, since more women could produce more buffalo robes, which could then be traded with the Anglos for the required items. Control of wealth brought more wealth—the essence of capitalism.

For exchange with the Anglos, buffalo robes became the currency. Prices, in numbers of robes, for trade items fluctuated, although they were


standardized to a degree. Some prices have been documented by National Park Service historians and the interpretive staff of Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site for the period between 1820 and 1850.[76] One buffalo robe could be exchanged for any one of the following: sixty loads of gunpowder and shot, two gallons of shelled corn, three to four pounds of sugar, two pounds of coffee, one pint of whiskey (raw alcohol diluted with three to six times as much water and variously flavored with tea, tobacco, ginger, red pepper, or molasses), one hank of beads, or one yard of cloth. A trade gun required from six to ten robes, and a blanket several. In this way quantification was imposed upon the exchange by the Americans. In time the way of life of the Plains Indians grew dependent upon the exchange and, even more importantly, the amassing of quantities of valuable items, that is, amassing wealth.

Competition for wealth was an important factor in intensifying conflict among Native Americans. Plains Indians no longer procured merely the resources needed by their own and allied group—now they were providing raw materials to an industrial system that serviced millions of people. Demand was practically limitless. As resources were depleted, competition for them became correspondingly more fierce.

Here again is a example of amplification of traditional behavior. It is easy but misleading to romanticize the past; thus it is important to bear in mind that conflict was certainly not unknown prior to European contact. George R. Milner, for one, has amassed evidence from numerous archaeological excavations that amply demonstrates Native American warfare in the time before Columbus' arrival in the New World.[77] Part of the traditional ethos, after all, is that if another group is unrelated—that is, if it does not share the same ancestors, gods, myths, and customs—then that group must not be as human as ours, and perhaps not human at all. Most frequently, the term by which bands and tribes refer to themselves translates to something like "the people," with the implication that other beings outside of these small social units might not fully occupy that status.

The alliance between certain Plains tribes and Anglo entrepreneurs also fits within the pattern of traditional behaviors, but this alliance had exaggerated consequences. In the traditional world, trade provided a way of establishing common humanity, of making alliances by which to cooperate, instead of compete in the procurement of resources. Accordingly, in the great social and cultural dislocations that followed European contact, competition for beneficial alliances increased. These alliances secured (at least temporarily) a favorable position within constantly shifting eco-


nomic, political, and ideological alignments. European trade objects became essential in this struggle—not only for their immediate, utilitarian value, but for their "medicine." The part of this medicine that is easiest for a modern observer to understand is that it demonstrated an alliance with powerful beings. It was, however, more than that: essentially it secured a position in a world that was changing too rapidly and unpredictably for comfort, a world that threatened to spin out of control.

A marriage, uneasy at times, was made between the Anglos and the Native Americans. This is an appropriate metaphor, in several ways. Earlier in this chapter I have suggested that a clear modern example of an item invested with meaning might be a wedding ring. The ring symbolizes a relationship with long-term reciprocal commitments, a symbol based upon a mythological past that sacralizes the relationship. In defining and legitimating the relationship in this way, it defines and legitimates the identities of the individuals involved in the relationship. Identities are always socially defined even in the modem world. Because this clashes with our modem mythology of individualism, this is generally not well understood. Nonetheless, it is basic to the social sciences, as Durkheim established one hundred years ago.

Figure 15 illustrates this point in a pertinent way. Shown here is a bride in a contemporary Osage wedding ceremony. (The Osage were occasional wading partners with the Bent & St. Vrain Company.) The bride is wearing items from a United States military dress uniform, one of several uniforms presented by President Jefferson to the Osage delegation to Washington, D.C., in 1803. He also presented the Osage with silver peace medals.[78] Osage chiefs gave the uniforms they received to their wives and daughters, who passed them on to their daughters. The wearing of the uniform by the bride in the Osage ceremony refers in a mythological way to the relationship forged in historic times between the Anglos and the Osage. The Osage, like other Native American groups, invested this relationship with their traditional values, expecting it to be not so much a business interaction but one that involved long-term, reciprocal commitments.

For the most part, trade items intended for the Native American market at Bent's Old Fort were much the same as those that had been traded to Native Americans elsewhere for the previous two hundred years. Many of these items—knives, iron, copper, and brass kettles, axe heads, blankets, and so forth—were eminently useful, but they were desired as much for their wakan, their "medicine," the commitment they represented on the part of the Great White Father, as anything else. In this sense, it



Figure 15.
An Osage woman, photographed in 1975,
wearing a bridal dress styled from a military uniform.
(From Anne Callahan, Osage Ceremonial Dance I'n-Lon-
Schka, copyright 1990 by University of Oklahoma Press.)


made little difference if the items were "fooferaw" or firearms. Each carried with it wakan. Thus, when the Cheyenne and Kiowa made their great peace in 1840, they signaled their commitment to it (and the peace was never broken) by exchanging gifts they had acquired from Bent's Old Fort. And when the Cheyenne camped at Sand Creek the night before the massacre there by Chivington's cavalry, they raised the American flag, sure as they did this that it would keep them from harm.


Chapter 5 Ritual Trade

Preferred Citation: Comer, Douglas C. Ritual Ground: Bent's Old Fort, World Formation, and the Annexation of the Southwest. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.