Introduction of Alcohol Through the Fur Trade:  A Brief Overview





“The  people traded anything they owned for alcohol, which left them destitute and defenseless against winter temperatures.  This was not quality alcohol.  The so-called whiskey given out by traders for buffalo robes and other furs was a lethal concoction of alcohol mixed with anything that would give it colour and substance—bluestone, burnt sugar, castile soap, Jamaica Ginger, Perry Davis Painkiller, tea, ink and sometimes, horrifically, strychnine (a poison).” –Margaret A. Kennedy  The Whiskey Trade of the Northwestern Plains


“The drovers (traders) had mixed capsicum, molasses and tobacco before leaving Fort Benton; then they had filled the tins up with river water and whiskey.  There was enough whiskey to make the Indians drunk and enough water to make it profitable.” –James Welch Fools Crow


“You take one barrel of Missouri River water, and two gallons of alcohol.  Then you add two ounces of strychnine (poison) to make them go crazy—because strychnine is the greatest stimulant in the world—and three plugs of tobacco to make them sick—an Indian wouldn’t figure it was whisky unless it made him sick—and five bars of soap to give it a bead, and half a pound of red pepper, and then you put in some sagebrush and boil it until it’s brown.  Strain into a bottle, and you’ve got Indian whisky; that one bottle calls for one buffalo robe and when the Indian got drunk it was two robes.”--“Teddy Blue” Abbott in We Pointed Them North.






          Many might think that the alcohol or whiskey trade was just that—a trade of alcohol for furs. In reality, the use of alcohol was but a small part of a large cycle in the interactions between the different tribes and the white traders. 

One should not think of the alcohol trade by itself but more like a basketball in a basketball game.  A good game of ball has more than just one player. These players work with each other, or against each other affecting the outcome of the game.   Each team manipulates or handles the ball to their own advantage.  Without the players, there is no game; without the ball, there is no game, and without a hoop, there is no game.  During the 1800’s, the fur trade was similar.  The players were the fur traders and the different tribes.  The government was the ref but it wasn’t a very good one.  Alcohol was the ball and the hoops/court were Montana and Canada.

Alcohol itself was introduced to the east coast Native Americans from the time of the first European settlers.  The French/Canadian fur traders went farther and farther West and brought with them alcohol. In 1821, the British Parliament required that Hudson’s Bay Company (trading company) slow the trade of liquor and then stop trading liquor permanently (Kennedy). Unfortunately, this allowed the American trading companies to take over the business of trading alcohol for furs, and it made those companies bigger and greedier than ever.  In 1834, the US government passed the Intercourse Act which made it illegal to sell liquor in “Indian Country” without a permit.  However, by the late 1860’s there was so much boot-leggin’ going on that the government couldn’t control it.  Boot-leggin’ is the slang term for bringing in alcohol and selling it illegally.

Not only were these companies trading/selling liquor to Indians but they were also selling liquor to the various mining camps and miners traveling through the Montana- Canadian area. Miners in this area created a lot of conflicts between the white man and Indian leading to many deaths on both sides.  It would be like the corporate sponsors of one basketball team becoming so big and powerful that they have the power to affect the outcome of the game; either by rigging it or influencing a favorable outcome by extreme pressure.

          Alcohol was only a part of a cycle of events that occurred during those times.  Here is a summary of the cycle in a nutshell.  A native would go to a trader and trade buffalo robes for guns that could then be traded for horses.  These horses could be exchanged for wives who then were greatly needed to tan more buffalo robes so that those robes could be sold for more guns. It is very much like that old cycle of, “I work so I can pay for my car, and I have a car so I can go to work.”  More wives meant larger tipis and more horses equaling a higher social status for the man. 

Trading furs with the white traders allowed a native man who didn’t have a lot of status within his tribe to increase his wealth and by doing that increase his status within the tribe.   Introduce alcohol into the picture and elements of that cycle are irreversibly affected.  The traders take advantage of the native man.  He loses all he has, loses status and respect, he becomes depressed and or violent.  When many in the community followed this path, the community itself became depressed.

Unfortunately, the pattern of alcohol abuse has changed little over the years.  Boot-leggin’ still occurs at all the “dry” reservations, where the presence of alcohol is illegal.  The story stays the same, only the times have changed.  A man works every day in town.  It may start out with only a couple of beers with friends after work but then it evolves into going to work still drunk.  He falls behind and is fired so he sells his family land to support his family.  But instead, he ends up drinking up most of that money.  His wife leaves him taking their kids with her.  His family is shamed and doesn’t want him around, as he is always drunk.  He may become depressed and or violent.  When many in the community follow this path, the community itself becomes depressed.

The difference today, however, is that the white traders are no longer an excuse for continuing to be an active alcoholic.  Before there was no help available to those afflicted with alcoholism.  Today there is help available at the touch of a phone, or at any hospital or treatment center.  The quotes above are startling.  The fact that poison was used to water down the alcohol is shocking.  But think of it this way, alcohol by itself is a poison yet few are shocked when we see people drinking it.   Too much alcohol at once can kill you, and too much over a long period of time can kill you.  Why is that?  Alcohol is a poison. 

The cycle of alcoholism that the white fur traders helped to create is a cycle that can be broken!  If you see yourself slipping into this cycle, have the courage and the strength to escape this cycle of self-destruction.