Henningsen: Early American arms race

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(HOST)  All summer, we’ve been celebrating the quadricentennial of Samuel de Champlain’s arrival. But teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen is reminded that Champlain wasn’t the only European to arrive that summer.

(HENNINGSEN) Several weeks after Samuel de Champlain fought Mohawks near what is now Crown Point, New York, Henry Hudson, an Englishman in the Dutch service, sailed up the river that now bears his name as far as today’s Albany.  Champlain and Hudson were unaware of each other, but Native Americans knew of both and instantly understood the significance of the dual European arrivals. 

That significance may be stated in two words:  beaver and guns.  Europeans sought a steady supply of beaver pelts: not for the outer fur Natives used, but for the barbed underfur, which, when treated, made wondrous felt for fabulous hats. Fashion suffered because European beavers had been trapped to extinction. With North American furs available, demand for hats skyrocketed, as did prices – and profits for those who could supply the fur.  That’s mainly what Champlain – and Hudson’s Dutch employers – were after.  
Native Americans traded furs for Europeans goods.  As one explained to a French trader: "The beaver does everything perfectly well.  It makes kettles, hatchets, swords, knives, bread; in short, it makes everything."  What Indians particularly wanted was what Champlain used to win his battle with the Mohawks – guns. Champlain used an arquebus – an early musket – to deadly effect and both his Mohawk opponents and his Huron and Algonquin allies realized that those armed with such weapons could control the balance of power in Native America.

What resulted was a tragic free-for-all of mutual greed. The French sought to control the weapons market in order to preserve the bargaining power necessary to dominate the fur trade. They were undercut by the Dutch, operating out of the Hudson Valley, who happily sold muskets to Natives in the hope of cornering the fur market themselves. In turn, Native tribes competed to play Europeans off against each other. Tribes that otherwise might have allied against European incursion became economic rivals for European goods and went to war with each other.  Belated European efforts to control the arms race came to naught and soon the weapons trade spread well beyond the range of European contact.  

Mutual greed led to mutual dependency.  By mid-century, Algonquins had not only stopped using stone tools and weapons, but lost the skill necessary to make them – rendering them totally dependent on European trade. For their part Europeans needed Native American suppliers to meet increasing demand at home and to forestall other European rivals. But they found that allying with one tribe inevitably made enemies of others.  Although the tribes initially held the upper hand, their dominance proved temporary.  What became permanent was the violence that increasingly characterized relations between the two groups.

Sometimes events develop a momentum of their own, carrying humans along in a headlong rush.  The seemingly innocuous coincidence of Champlain and Hudson’s arrivals in summer 1609 was certainly such a moment – the beginning of a long downward spiral that would spell the end of Native America.

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