The Algonquians subsisted on hunting and fishing as well as agriculture; harvesting primarily corn, beans and squash. The streams and forests of New England were abundant with fish and game and the ocean provided mussells, scallops, clams, and oysters. In essence, the Algonquians practiced a seasonal economy. But the Algonquians were not nomads. They lived for most of the year in regular, settled communities; one in summer and another in winter. In summer, families gathered to live in villages near fertile agricultural land; in winter, they moved closer to hunting grounds, returning to the same places for as many years as the land could sustain them. Algonquian settlements were mostly small and consisted of a group of wigwams - sturdy buildings constructed of woven mats that could be easily disassembled and transported. By the middle of the seventeenth century, some wigwam construction included English hardware for door frames and windows.
During a bad year, Algonquian communities moved more often and, during war they moved a great deal. Swamps proved to be an ideal and favorite hiding place for whole villages during time of war. Villages tended to be composed of several hundred people with strong family ties. Labor was divided by sex with women involved in agriculture and the men in hunting and fishing.
|Ninigret - sachem of the Niantic - painted in 1681|
During the first years after the first European settlements in Massachusetts, New England was a land wracked by change and dislocations. The Southern Algonquian- speaking Indian tribes had been so wracked by diseases imported into their lands by European settlers that, by best estimate, only 20,000 Algonquians remained of a population that had once numbered perhaps three or four times that number. Along New England's eastern coast where contact with Europeans had being going on since the early 1500s, and the impact of European microbes the longest, the impact was the most profound. The Europeans found cleared fields, abandoned villages, and a demoralized Indian population willing to make any kind of treaty with the Europeans that would give them peace and protection.
|Native Indian Tribes in New England in the early 17th century|
By the mid 1600s New England started to change; an increasingly powerful and expansionist Puritan community was matched by a newly invigorated Indian population, rebounding from the diseases that had decimated it in the previous decades. The old balance between needy settlers and plague ravaged natives had been replaced by what some historians have characterized as a "golden age" of mutual prosperity. Yet this short-lived era was also a time of corruption. Many of the old agreements, such as the treaty between the Pilgrims and Massasoit of the Pokanokett had been set aside for more pragmatic relationships. The Puritans and their Pilgrim neighbors (between whom cross-denominational marriages began to occur in the mid-1600s) began to focus on trade, turning away from Utopian innocence and towards commercial profit. But this was economic necessity. New England had been part of the international trade world since the 1630s and commercial, rather than religious life, had become an integral part of their existence.
It was the beaver that changed everything.
The beaver trade was stimulated by the need of the European colonies to find a commodity that would repay the debts they owed to European merchants. European settlers and traders were quite aware that they were not as efficient as native hunters in capturing beaver, so often they hired natives to hunt for them. Traditionally, northern Algonquins had traded with their southern brethren on the southern coast of New England, exchanging pelts for corn. Europeans inserted themselves into the traditional network, initially using "wampum" (shell beads) as currency. Although the beaver trade began in New England, similar trade networks existed later in all areas of North America where beaver were found, from New England to the Pacific Coast. The trade in furs in the seventeenth century revolutionized American Indian trading economies, building on the old forms of gift-giving and kinship networks. European traders created a regional economy from what had once been a local network as they shuttled between corn-growing Algonquians and settlers of southern New England, wampum producers along Long Island Sound, and Indians of the rural north who hunted. European trade goods such as metal kettles also figured in the trade. Trade linked these groups with an abstract set of values measured in pelts, bushels of corn, fathoms of wampum, and price movements in sterling on the London Market.
The term "wampum" may be derived from the Wamponoag word, Wampumpeag, which means white shell beads and refers to the white and purple sacred shell beads of the Algonquian. Wampum was woven into belts and was used by all of the Indian tribes to mark exchanges for personal social engagements such as betrothal and marriages, to commemorate treaties or other historical events, and for other ceremonial purposes. The introduction of European tools revolutionized the production of wampum and by the mid seventeenth century it measured in the millions of beads. It was the Dutch who first realized the importance of wampum to the Natives and their colonists were soon mass producing wampum belts. While the Indians did not use wampum as money, the New England colonies used it as a medium of exchange. Soon, they were trading with the Indians of New England and New York using wampum.
|Algonquian Wampum Belt|
Whereas the southern Algonquian had previously shifted their village sites and houses with the season, now they tended to stay by their "wampum factories." The men gathered the shellfish and the women made the belts and headbands and stoles of the strung and woven wampum. Time was also found for farming - some villages having cornfields as large as two hundred acres. But corn had long lost its trading power in the market place. Now the price offered for the beaver pelts and the translation of that into wampum and the value of a fathom of wampum at a trading post was all that mattered.
The suddenly, the whole situation changed. The beaver market in Europe collapsed. A fathom of wampum (six feet) which had once been worth nine or ten shillings was now worth about five shillings. The Indians did not understand this and felt cheated. The golden age of fur and wampum prosperity was over. Now, the only resource the Algonquians of New England had was their land - a limited exhaustible commodity much in demand by the European settlers already living in New England and by the immigrants still arriving.
To be continued