Mississippi was part of a large southeastern regional trade in deerskins that operated from the 1680s through the early 1800s. Deer hides were an important commodity in the prehistoric Southeast and quickly became the main commodity in the trade between the numerous Native American tribes and the French, British, Spanish, and later the American powers that vied for control of the areas east of the Mississippi River. For the Native Americans, the trade quickly became part of the social and political distribution of goods that validated and maintained chiefly rank and held the allegiance of hunters and warriors. European trade goods (which included guns; powder; metalwares such as kettles, axes, and knives; and large quantities of yard goods and blankets) came to the Native Americans as gifts from Europeans to cement political and military ties and as part of a commercial trade in which prices of European goods were set in numbers of deerskins. The Europeans also used the trade to provide lucrative monopolistic rights to court favorites: for example, the French Company of the Indies (1717–31) and Spain’s grants of privileged trading status to Panton, Leslie, and Company in the 1780s. These practices created two levels of trade: an official, well-documented, heavily regulated trade run from trading posts established at major ports, and a furtive, often illegal, trade carried on by numerous coureurs du bois, as the French called them, who traveled into the hinterlands to trade in the Indian villages and live with the different Indian nations. Much of the legislation related to the trade sought to control the disruptive behavior of these freelance traders.
For the Indians of the Southeast, the major deer hunt occurred in the late fall, when villages broke up into small bands and dispersed to different hunting grounds. In the early years of the trade, only enough deer were killed to supply the band’s needs for meat, fat, and skins to purchase a few European goods. The trade, then, had natural limits, at least until rum was introduced. In his analysis of the Choctaw trade, Richard White claims that rum sales drove overhunting of deer at the end of the eighteenth century. Another evil introduced by the trade was the credit system: goods were advanced to individual hunters or a band leader against an expected return of deer hides after the fall hunt. The repayment of debts depended on the success of the season, the skill of individual hunters, and the willingness of the hunters to repay their debts. Competing traders often used rum to lure hunting bands and purchase the season’s take before the skins reached the trading post. The need to pay trade debts increased the pressure on Native Americans to sell their lands.
The English, particularly traders operating from South Carolina, had extended overland trading routes into the Mississippi area by the 1680s. Transporting their trade goods and deer hides on packhorses was expensive, and the English trade consequently included a large component of Indian slaves. Traders encouraged the Chickasaw to raid their neighbors, particularly the Choctaw, for slaves who could be transported to Charles Town markets. France turned its interests to the Southeast when d’Iberville settled Biloxi in 1699, and by 1701, sixty traders were doing business there. The French and English competed aggressively for the hide trade east of the Mississippi. The French had the advantage of water transportation; the English had a greater variety of higher-quality trade goods. The French established two major posts to control the southeastern trade, New Orleans and Mobile. Smaller posts were also constructed, among them Fort Toulouse on the Alabama River to secure the trade of the Choctaw and Alabama, Fort Rosalie near Natchez, and various posts on the Tombigbee River. The rivalry between the French and the English spawned a protracted series of wars between the Chickasaw, who were generally trading partners and allies of the English, and the Choctaw, who generally favored the French. A civil war broke out among the Choctaw in 1748–50 as that nation became divided over loyalties to French and English traders.
In 1763, when the British officially gained control of the areas east of the Mississippi River, Mobile and Pensacola became centers for the English trade in deerskins, but deerskins also crossed the Mississippi to the New Orleans markets in large numbers. The American Revolution interrupted the deer hide trade. When it resumed after the war, Panton, Leslie, and Company, a British firm established in 1783 and operating out of Florida, dominated the trade. The company set up trading posts in Pensacola in 1785 and in Mobile in 1788 before establishing posts up the Mississippi River, including at Nogales (near the mouth of the Yazoo) in 1793 for the Chickasaw-Choctaw trade and at Chickasaw Bluffs near Memphis in 1796 for the Chickasaw trade. The Nogales post was important in serving hunters who had crossed the Mississippi because of declining deer populations on the eastern bank.
While Panton, Leslie, and Company dominated the trade in the Southeast, it was never without competition. The US government entered the hide trade to win the friendship of Native Americans and woo them away from hostile powers. The US Indian Factory System, which ran from 1795 to 1822, set up trading factories at Chickasaw Bluffs (1802–18) for trade with the Chickasaw and at Fort St. Stephens near Mobile in 1802 for the Choctaw and Chickasaw trade. This post later moved to Fort Confederation in 1815 and closed with the whole system in 1822. With declining deer populations east of the Mississippi River, Panton, Leslie, and Company ceased being a major player in the hide trade. After the Choctaw and Chickasaw signed 1805 treaties with the United States, the company devoted much of its energies to collecting its old trade debts from these nations through treaty payments from the US government.
- William S. Coker and Thomas D. Watson, Indian Traders of the Southeastern Spanish Borderlands: Panton, Leslie, and Company and John Forbes and Company, 1783–1847 (1986)
- Verner W. Crane, The Southern Frontier, 1670–1732 (1956)
- Ora Brooks Peake, A History of the United States Indian Factory System, 1795–1822 (1954)
- Paul Chrisler Phillips, The Fur Trade (1961); Daniel H. Usner, Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley before 1783 (1992)
- Richard White, The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos (1983)