‘Deerskins and Duffels’ by Kathryn E. Holland Braund

This history of the Creek Indian trade with Anglo-America, 1685 – 1815, in print since the first edition in 1993, has reached a wide audience with its ethnohistorical approach. Creeks are seen as active participants in relations with colonial settlements, rather than as “bit players or victims.”

The book studies how trade between Creek and colonists was intertwined with cultural and political identities on both sides. Colonial empires sought raw material for their leather industries and peace on their frontiers; Creeks sought finished trade goods and advantage over their indigenous rivals, especially the Cherokee and Choctaw. Each side to the trade worked from preexisting social contexts to come to terms with new conditions presented by trans-oceanic relationships.

The central focus is the way Creek consumption of colonial trade goods – hardware (guns, axes, cooking pots) and cloth (duffels) – undermined Creek independence. The influx of trade goods displaced homegrown manufacture and related knowledge, while increased harvesting of deerskins – the raw materials traded for finished goods – depleted the major natural resource of Creek hunting economy.

These twin dangers of displacement and depletion occurred simultaneously with two opposing developments on the side of their trading partners: A decline in imperial markets for deerskins, and a strengthening of domestic colonial economies and political structures. It was, as we say today, a “perfect storm” for the Creeks: Their abilities to sustain themselves were undercut by demographic and ecological changes within their own sphere, while their ability to survive as trading partners was undercut by economic and political changes within the colonial empires.

The author makes clear the Creeks were not simply victims of the storm, but active participants in its creation. This is not to say the Creeks intended their own demise; they acted out of their best understanding of their own self-interest. Unfortunately for them, that understanding was not big enough to encompass a world market, nor prescient enough to foresee the consequences of sociological and demographic changes in their own world.

Colonial participants also had limited understanding. They knew little about Creek society and the complex interactions among Creeks and other indigenous nations, and were prey to machinations of competing imperial powers – English, French and Spanish jockeying for influence. The limited colonial knowledge of world markets was offset by their position as intermediaries in that market and by their increasing ability to achieve economic independence on a local scale through manufacture and agriculture.

The combined factors and forces in this complex situation tended in one direction, to the disadvantage of the Creeks and the advantage – and eventual independence – of the colonial settlements. When trading relationships took shape in the late 17th century, Creeks and colonists treated one another as separate nations. The Creeks were even in a privileged position: South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida depended on Creek trade more than Creeks depended on the colonies. By the time the colonies were strong enough to revolt against their imperial ties in the late 18th century, the Creeks had lost their privileged position and became technologically dependent on their colonial partners.

One might ask how the trajectory of Creek relations with the colonies was affected, if not foreordained, by the holocaust of disease and depopulation that followed 16th century imperial explorers like Hernando de Soto. This is only hinted at in “Deerskins and Duffels,” when the author refers to the “displacement” brought about by the loss of “political, social, and economic features” of indigenous peoples who suffered diseases and depopulation.

From a perspective informed by a detailed study of these events – the subject of a different book, “1491,” by Charles C. Mann – one must say the Creeks and other indigenous nations, whatever their powers and privileged status vis-à-vis the colonies, were hampered at a deep level by the need to regroup, salvage and reorganize themselves in the century prior to the rise of trade relations.

As the Creeks entered the 19th century, so much had changed in so many ways, “it was often hard to tell exactly who was an Indian and who was not.” Nuclear families had encroached on matrilineage and clan structures, and “progressive self-interest” pushed against “community spirit.” Tensions increased to the point of civil war in 1813, which provided an opportunity for United States intervention, resulting in a decisive loss for the “traditionalists” at the hands of Andrew Jackson’s army of Anglos and “friendly” Creeks and Cherokees. The 1814 Treaty of Fort Jackson dispossessed the Creeks of nearly one-half their homeland.

A reader of this book will learn much about Creek history. With one eye on the past and another on the present, the reader will also have food for thought about how trade affects, if not determines, the course of relations among world powers and their “tribal” partners in the 21st century.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968, was a staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, and taught legal studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is now a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.