Friday, January 25, 2008

Relics of the Fur Trade #4

Should the Dumpdiggers unearth a forgotten fur trading post from the late 1700's, what kinds of relics could they expect to find?

Glass Trade Beads

Any glass trade beads found in Chester Huff's secret dig site on Lake of the Woods would pinpoint that historic fur trade company's European supply line. In the 18th century, Venice no longer enjoyed a monopoly on glass production, but this city was still one of the world's largest producers of beads. The Sun King, Louis XIV of France, through the genius of his first minister Colbert, employed master craftsmen to create glass windows and dishware for Versailles in the 1670s. Although some of these artisans no doubt came from Italy, many more were the apprentices of glassblowers living deep in the forests of Germany, where a determined craft had emerged in the early 1600s.

Glass trade beads have always been part of the exploration and colonization of the New World, and Dumpdiggers regrets that it cannot concern itself (in this post) with the yellow beads that traveled in the holds of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria when Christopher Columbus presented a necklace to the chief of San Salvador Island on October 12, 1492.

Over the next three hundred years, intricate hand-crafted glass beads become more affordable to European traders as glass making technology spread from France to Holland, and then to England in the early 1700s. This map shows the positions of the tribes in North America at the beginning of the Colonial Age. By following the paths of the explorers, a reader can imagine how the beads were traded among the First Nations.

While they were not entirely worthless in Europe, glass beads were not very valuable at their point of origin. They were however highly prized the forests and meadows of the New World. In the wilderness of New England and New France, these colorful beads brought wealth and prestige to the First Nations peoples who sometimes traded one beaver pelt each to obtain them for a necklace that would take a lifetime to assemble.

Venetian glass beads were particularly valuable as ‘status symbols’. Here are some examples of the most famous high technology beads that were frequently traded among the various tribes, following ancient Native American trade routes.


The journals of the 1804 Lewis and Clark Expedition document an extensive exchange of glass trade beads with the Indians of the American Northwest – indeed some of the rugged Mountain Men traded thousands of glass trade beads to amass vast personal fortunes in beaver pelts.

Elizabeth Bennet of Africa Direct travels into the interior of the Dark Continent once every three years to fetch out the last remaining Lewis & Clark beads. These beads shown here are part of a necklace that's currently offered for sale on eBay for eight hundred and fifty dollars. According to the information she lists on her auction page, these beads were made in Venice and vended through a broker named J.F. Sick. Germany and Holland and his firm was one of the largest bead brokers / importers in Europe in the 1850s - the end of the fur trade. After mentioning the name of Moses Lewin Levin, who was a bead importer / exporter in London England from 1830 to 1913, Eliza offers no insight on how these beads found themselves in Africa? or for what commodity they were traded?

The popularity of genuine 'African trade beads' was revived in the late 1960s when they began to be exported from Africa back into the United States and Europe. The term "trade beads" remained very popular during this time period and is still used today. The signature Venetian millefiori beads were called "Love Beads" in the 1960's and were used in necklaces with peace symbols during the Hippie days. The irony is that these beads were the currency of war, whiskey and disease in the fur trade.

Although these objects are not very pretty, this EBay Auction offers genuine 600 year old trade beads from Europe. At that age these relics were probably vended through Spain. There’s some information here on the subject of early European trade beads, and I’ve no doubt this Seller is an authority on the subject.

There exists some confusion over trade bead names and classifications and that’s because the whole history of the enterprise is just becoming known today; unfortunately some previous scholars have named their beads too randomly, based on where they were found, who traded them, and what tribes wore them. Some archaeologists reference the methods by which they were transported (i.e., the ‘pony’ bead), or by the various ports from which they were shipped and consequently there are a lots of discrepancies.

CHEVRONS are probably the best known, oldest and most interesting historic trade bead. Often called ‘star’ beads or ‘chevrons’ by Spanish traders, these artifacts are quintessential fur trade relics - but yet they are rarely found in Canada and North US. They were traded here, but very early in the game.

Chevrons were traded with African tribes for slaves and ivory, and Native Americans, primarily in southwest Arizona. Blue and red chevrons are listed among the supplies of Coronado and his conquistadors in the year 1540 in what is today Arizona. These are prized beads - but they are rarely found in the fur belt. Some authors believe they were bought and traded by the Hudson's Bay Company early in the history of that venerated company - before glass making became common in England. There's also an interesting story which details how the exact recipe and process for making Chevrons (all fifteen steps) was one of the great industrial secrets to escape the Republic of Venice when several highly skilled glassblowers escaped from the Island of Murano to migrate north to Germany in the early 1600’s. The mills of Bohemia made the manufacture of these complicated beads more practical as a single necklace required hours of grinding – remember the beads start life as long sticks of glass that are broken into bits and ground into small spherical shapes.

Glass beads are still sold today.

Today there’s still a demand for glass beads in North America. There are markets for new beads both online and in boutique shops in high culture shopping neighborhoods like Kensington Market, and the ever- fashionable Queen St West in the Canadian city of Toronto.

In downtown Toronto, Dumpdiggers had the good fortune to meet Claude and Anastasia at 446 Queen St WestThe Beadery sells all manner of beads, mostly mineral including jade, turquoise, ceramic, vinyl, kryptonite but no historic beads.

However when I asked to see his ‘Italian glass beads’ and I used the adjective ‘millefiori’, Claude was quick to fetch out the nicest reproductions I could have imagined.

When I asked the price, Claude said 'For you, three strands for fifty dollars.' And as I could count about thirty beads on each strand, I reckoned that would make them about fifty cents each; that's probably comparable to what European adventurers paid in the 1750s when they were outfitting their trade ships in the markets of London and Amsterdam.


Vic said...

Lots of fascinating posts on this blog. Will be back when I have more time to browse. Since my blog is all about Canada, more specifically BC maybe there will be something I can feature on my blog with a link to yours. I will subscribe so I can look later as I am a bit rushed now. Great stuff, going to look at the other blog now.Vic Grace

Cariboo Ponderer

Art Slob said...

Anastasia doesn't look too excited.