THE INDIAN TRADE
On the Upper Ohio Frontier
A Costly Era of Peace and Prosperity
The dawn of the eighteenth century saw few human inhabitants in the Upper Ohio River watershed. By the 1720s eastern Pennsylvania Shawnees and Delawares had created seasonal hunting camps in the Allegheny Valley. By 1731 they had left the east due to Pennsylvania’s use of the Iroquois to conscript their lands, and established new towns on the Allegheny and upper Ohio. The earliest towns included Kittanning, Shannopin’s, Kiskimenitas, Assunepachla, Black Leg’s, Conemaugh, and James Letort. Other villages were founded from that time to the mid-century, such as Log’s Town, Kuskuskies, Beaver’s Town, Custaloga’s Town, Murdering Town, and Chartier’s Town, Alliquippa’s Town, etc. While the principal inhabitants of these towns, now spread throughout the Upper Ohio Valley, were either Delaware, Shawnee, or Seneca, a variety of other tribal affiliations (e.g. Wyandot, Mohawk ) were represented as well.
The Pennsylvania traders had earlier enjoyed the convenience of trading at their posts in the Susquehanna Valley to which these Indians brought skins and furs. Now they were required to purchase horses and gear to form large pack trains to travel the trading circuits in the Ohio Valley to secure the same items from the hunters. Indian towns on the trade routes planned their seasonal routines so as to be prepared for the arrival of the traders’ periodic visits with an expanding array of colorful and comfortable clothing, exotic accessories, and practical items (cooking utensils and weapons), which the Indians were eager to possess and upon which they became highly dependent, including alcohol with its disastrous effects upon them. Perhaps one hundred and fifty years had already passed since the earliest traders among the ancestors of these same Indians in the east had been Dutchmen from New Amsterdam (later New York), and traders came among them from Virginia and the Carolinas. But the Pennsylvania traders dominated the Indian trade in the Ohio Valley and to the west. Chief among these traders was the “king of the traders,” George Croghan, a Scotsman from Northern Ireland. Croghan, and other traders, employed white indentured servants and black slaves as laborers and servants at his posts and on the trade routes. Virginia traders in particular complained that those from Pennsylvania were informing the Indians about their greater interest in taking the Indians’ lands, especially after the formation of the Ohio Company of Virginia (1749) and twice sent its agent Christopher Gist to scout the Ohio watershed (1750-1752).
While the Pennsylvania traders, especially Croghan and his colleagues, were attracting French allied Indians from the Great Lakes region and from the west, France’s overseas shipping declined due to naval losses suffered during the War of the Austrian Succession (1739-1748). French suppliers provided Canadian merchants very little for several years. At the same time numerous western and Great Lakes’ Indians were attracted to the English trades like a magnet in the Ohio Country. A faction of Miami Indians founded a new town on the Miami River and under their old chief Memeskia declared themselves British allies. Many Piankashaw and Ouiatanon Indians joined them over the next several years, leaving their towns near the French forts of Ouiatanon and Vincennes. Only with the expedition of Celeron in 1749 to assert France’s ancient right to the region did the French begin to realize the extent to which these traders had penetrated the region. But the era of peace and prosperity that the Indians and the traders enjoyed would soon come to an end. In spite of the conference at Log’s Town in 1752, the Indians’ longtime request of Pennsylvania and Virginia. for a fort at the Forks of the Ohio to protect their traders and counter the the threat of French invasion still went unheeded.
To control the Ohio Indians through fear, in 1752 the French sent Charles Langlade who with 250 Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Potawatomie warriors attacked the Miami town of Pickawillany, exchanging the Indian women they had taken captive for white traders, one of whom they killed and ate his heart, and plundered the town. Subsequently they killed, ritually dismembered, boiled, and ate the old chief Memeskia, thereby symbolically reclaiming the loyalty of the Miamis to the French. It was but one step of the French to control the lucrative trade in the region. However, by September the Pennsylvania traders returned, brought guns, three cannons, and hundreds of horses. With the assistance of Indian allies, they built two small forts on the Wabash River, hoping to deal more successfully with any French assaults in the future. A new period of mutual hostility had just begun.
The following year the French military under Saint-Pierre descended to build forts below Lake Erie and either murdered, captured, or drove out the Pennsylvania traders. bringing to a near end the colonial Indian trade and by and large the relationship between the Anglo-American traders and the disillusioned Ohio Indians. It would require counter-military action on the part of British colonials to halt the efforts of the French to seize control of the Forks of the Ohio and thus restrict the British occupation to the sea board east of the Appalachians. The Indian trade was the least of the concerns of the two beligerents who were about to embark on an unprecedented clash of empires, fueled largely by events in the Upper Ohio Valley. On both sides, the Indians were now viewed more as military allies purchased by gifts than partners in the trade.