Native American Fur Trade finds from Michigan

These items were all found by metal detector by Robert Bennett of St. Ignace, Michigan. They were found at early Native American village locations along the shore of Lake Michigan – mostly in the area of Good Hart, Michigan. They are an excellent representation of the types of European goods which were traded to the Indians as part of the Fur Trade. This area was used as a capital for the Ottawa people in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, and is known as L’Arbre Croche – or “Crooked Tree.” Ottawa war councils were held around a massive crooked tree which could be easily seen silhouetted against the sky from Lake Michigan. This tree became symbolic for the entire area.

In 1650, when the French first visited the capital of the Ottawa, they named the entire area, “L’Arbre Croche, meaning Crooked Tree. Thereafter, even the Indians referred to the area by that name. The crooked tree itself, was supposedly just West of the foot of the hill on Lamkin Drive in present-day Good Hart, Michigan.

These are fire strikers, or flint strikers, which were found in Good Hart, Michigan. A fire striker is a piece of iron or steel from which sparks are struck by the sharp edge of flint, chert or similar rock. It is a specific tool used in fire making – and was a predominant method of starting fires on the frontier prior to the mid 19th century, when matches were invented.

This is a fancy 18th century large-style shoe buckle, and I believe some sort of brass sash buckle, below that. Regarding the Indians wearing shoes with buckles, rather than moccasins, there is documentation for these being mass imported and traded to them. In the “Estimate of Merchandise wanted for Indian Presents at Detroit from 21st of August, 1782, to 20th of August, 1783,”, it lists 200 pairs of shoes, and 250 pairs of buckles.

Source: “The History of Detroit and Michigan or The Metropolis Illustrated A Chronological Cyclopedia of the Past and Present Including a full record of territorial days in Michigan and the Annals of Wayne County,” by Silas Farmer, City Historiographer, 1884. You just gotta love 19th century book titles….

These are broken pieces of fancy brass shoe buckles. The complete square buckle is common on 18th century sites. We’ve found multiple just like it at Willowbrook.

This is a mouth harp, or “Jew’s Harp,” which is a musical instrument played with one’s mouth. This was dug in Good Hart, Michigan. They are popular on Revolutionary War era sites. This one is brass. We found an iron one at Willowbrook. The aforementioned “estimate” document lists that they wanted “100 Gross Jews harps.” So I believe that would be 14,400…. is that right? That’s a lot noise in these villages…..

These are iron “awls,” which were used in sewing, and punching holes in leather. The large one at the bottom is called a “lightning bolt” design awl. Native Americans used awls in lieu of a sewing needle in order to create a hole in which to string sinew when making clothing and moccasins. Originally they would have been made from bone or antler. Almost immediately from the time the Jamestown settlers arrived in the early 17th century, natives realized the benefit of iron points, which made their work much easier. These examples date from the 1600’s and 1700’s and were likely traded to Indians as part of the Great Lakes area Fur Trade. The top set were dug in St. Ignace, Michigan. The big one on the bottom was dug in Good Hart, Michigan.

The “estimate” document notes “40 Gross awl blades” to be among the presents to the Indians. So, that’s about 5,760 awls…..

These are trade silver “ring brooches,” worn as jewelry by Native Americans on clothing or blankets – or whatever. Bling, basically. They were dug in Good Hart, Michigan. European silversmiths made them for the trade, and Indian silversmiths apparently copied the design as well. The “estimate” requested that, among the “Silver Works,” needed, they wanted “15,000 large Brooches,” and “7,000 small . . . .” I’m assuming these would fit into the small category.

This is a lead, or possibly pewter, bracelet – I’m guessing, dug in Good Hart, Michigan. Or it could be some other type of adornment or decoration.

This is a trade silver wrist band or arm band found in Good Hart, Michigan. The silversmith’s maker’s mark can still be seen, which looks like a “B.” The “estimate” requested “550 Arm Bands.”

These are trade silver “ear bobs,” or earrings found in Good Hart, Michigan. I guess they could also be hung from the nose, or from clothing. The “estimate” requested “1500 Prs Ear bobs.”

This is an early Jesuit ring, dug in Mackinaw City, Michigan, which were traded or given to the Great Lakes area tribes as part of the Jesuit attempts at converting and preaching to the natives. This may have had a design on it – sometimes a handshake, or sometimes a priest, or even Jesus. It’s possible that whatever was initially on this ring was scraped off, and a custom design was put there by its owner. I’m not sure what that is supposed to be….. The “estimate” requested “20 Gross Bath finger rings,” which would be 2,880. I’m not sure what “Bath” means – maybe that’s where they were manufactured in England?

And now, my favorite – these are trade knives, also known as scalping knives – or scalper blade knives. They were all-purpose and could have been used for everything from butchering, to of-course, scalping enemies. The “estimate” document requested “60 Gro Scalping Knives,” which amounts to 11,280 knives for trade to the Indians, for just August of 1782 through August of 1783…. And that’s just for use at Detroit! This is why I want to go do some scavenging in Michigan…..

I found a good blog post documenting these “scalping knives” using period documentation, here:

Aside from the leggings covered earlier, another interesting culture crossing commodity that shows up with our 18th century back country kit is the butcher or scalping knife. Some of these men were carrying imported cheap fixed blade knifes that seem to have mirrored what was commonly sold for the Indian trade, sometimes referred to as”Scalping” knives or “Butcher” knives. The line between a domestic kitchen and trade items may have been very blurry in this instance.

A wide variety of handles can be found in period documents including wooden ( frequently oval or faceted and in ‘yellow’ woods like box, ‘red’ such as cam or barwood and etc.) and bone.  Prices ranged a bit depending on which material was used.

An accurate and interesting account of the hardships and sufferings of that band of heroes : who traversed the wilderness in the campaign against Quebec in 1775 By John Joseph Henry

“The principal distinction between us, was in our dialects, our arms, and our dress. Each man of the three companies, bore a rifle-barreled gun, a tomehawk, or small axe, and a long knife, usually called a “scalping-knife,” which served for all purposes, in the woods.His under-dress, by no means in a military style, was covered by a deep ash colored hunting-shirt, leggins and mockasins, if the latter could be procured. It was the silly fashion of those times, for riflemen to ape the manners of savages.”

A tour in the United States of America 
J.F.D. Smyth

“They wore fringed hunting shirts, dyed yellow, brown, white and even red; quaintly carved shot-bags and powder-horns hung from their broad ornamented belts; they had fur caps or soft hats, moccasins, and coarse woolen leggings reaching half-way up to the thigh. Each carried his flintlock, his tomahawk, and scalping knife.” 

Here, one of them is placed into a contemporary neck sheath by Michael Galban. It fits perfectly.

This example fortunately has some of its original wooden handle still hanging on. This particular knife was dug in St. Ignace, Michigan, and is likely late 18th Century.

On this one, you can see the “Cross L” mark, common on many of these trade knives. This isn’t actually a maker’s mark, but rather,

These are folding knives, of the 18th century British design, dug in Mackinaw City, Michigan. These were also very popular among the colonial frontiersmen. The estimate included “10 Gro Clasp Knives,” which amounts to 1,440. So they apparently were handed out, or traded, in much less quantities than the scalping knife. These may have been more rare. But these are fabulous examples.

This may be the best recovered folding knife I’ve seen. It still has a portion of the original wood scales remaining, and even has a legible mark on it – though I haven’t researched it as of yet.

Here is an original dug scalping knife blade next to a contemporary replica with a quillwork handle by Michael Galban. I don’t recall who forged the blade. Possibly it was Ken Hamilton?

8 thoughts on “Native American Fur Trade finds from Michigan

  1. You have an excellent website with many artifacts that we can learn it’s History, great job on preserving these artifacts! I was doing research on a early “hoe” I found and came across this website. Keep up the good work!

  2. Friends:
    Hope this finds you well and in good spirits !
    I hope you might help me with question.
    I have a English Scalper marked Cutler &Stacey .
    All I have found is that the American Fur Co ordered English scalpers from them in 1838
    Can anyone tell me who or where I might find out who Stacey is

  3. Thank you John Bryan…amazing historical narrative and great photo’s. I recently purchased the fur trade silver wrist band dug in Good Hart, Michigan and believe after very careful analysis that the makers mark is VV which I believe is from my Great Great Grandfather Daniel Van Voorhis who in his young age and early career as a silversmith made fur trade items. I had purchased an 18th century shoe buckle and now this wrist/ arm band with the same makers mark and believe they are both from DVV. I could see where you believed the makers mark was a B, but upon closer study it matches the other VV (Van Voorhis) makers mark from the shoe buckle. Also, the wrist/arm band must have been mass produced, because it appears to be silver plated.

    • That’s great. I’m happy it went to a good home. I was actually disappointed to see it go, b/c it was the only one I had, but I can’t keep everything and continue work on the fort. And well buying other finds too, lol….. Bob Bennett found that piece. I always feel confident in buying things he’s found, b/c you know they’re the real deal. I just found a trade silver cross he dug in someone else’s collection I had to have.

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