Indian Use of Trade Guns
Prehistoric Native Americans:
No gun in American history had such widespread use as the Northwest trade gun. This smooth bore, fowling piece, or single barrel shotgun was used more than all the Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Hawken rifles put together (Klisinger).
Firearms were brought to America by the first explorers, and some of these matchlocks fell into the hands of Indians. But for practical purposes, the Indian trade gun came about after the introduction of the flintlock in 1620-1635. These early Dutch and English smoothbore guns established the pattern for the Northwest trade guns.
By the mid-seventeen hundreds, the Indian trade gun was the most traded weapon in North America. The wide-spread use of Indian trade guns resulted in many names: the French called it the fusil, fusee, or fuke; the gun makers of England called it the Carolina musket; some traders and explorers, including Gen. William H. Ashley referred to it as the London fusil. The name also depended on its region of use; the gun was called the Hudson’s Bay fuke, the North West gun, or the Mackinaw gun. The first use of the term Northwest gun appears in the journal of John Long. An independent Montreal merchant, Long traded with the Indians north of Lake Superior in 1777-1780 (Russell).
From its beginning in 1670, the Hudson’s Bay Company traded guns to the Indians on a large scale. By 1742, beaver pelts were valued at: one pelt for one pound of shot or three flints; four pelts for one pound of powder; ten pelts for a pistol; twenty pelts for a trade gun.
The primary source of the Indian trade gun was factories in Birmingham and London, England. The gun makers in London charged that Birmingham turned out park-paling muskets for the American trade. The Birmingham manufacturers were often referred to as blood merchants and their factories blood houses by the London group. There are numerous accounts in journals of gun barrels blowing up when these trade guns were fired (Northwest Journal). There is no way to determine how many Indians and traders lost all or parts of their hands from these guns. Still, problems with the Indian trade gun were probably no higher than other Colonial guns of the period.
The development of the trade rifle paralleled that of the Northwest gun, but western Indians showed little interest in rifles. The earliest mention of rifles in the West was at the American Fur Company’s Fort Astoria near the mouth of the Columbia River. The journals of Robert Stuart, Gabriel Franchère, Ross Cox, Alexander Ross, and Wilson Price Hunt used the word rifle in reference to their firearms.
By the early eighteen hundreds, the trading companies had established rigid requirements for the Northwest guns. The full-stocked, smoothbore trade guns varied little in shape and style, but under went changes in barrel lengths. By the late 1820’s, the 30-inch barrel had become popular. The overall length of a standard Northwest gun with a 30-inch barrel was 45.5 inches. A distinctive feature of these guns was the dragon or serpent shaped side plate. Most Indians would not trade for a gun that did not have the serpent plate. Hansen states that the earliest record of the Hudson’s Bay gun with its distinctive dragon ornament is dated 1805.
After 1800, almost all the Indian trade guns were supplied with blue barrels, brown-varnished stocks, and bright polished locks. These guns were stamped below the pan with a large sitting fox-like animal facing right and enclosed in a circle of 0.4-inch diameter. These guns carried the brass serpent side plate and an over sized trigger guard for use with mittens. Despite the majority of the Indian trade guns being made in Birmingham, England the majority of the Birmingham gun makers stamped “London” on the top near the breech (Hansen).
For more than three hundred years the name Barnett was prominent among gun makers in England. The North West Company, the Mackinaw Company, the American Fur Company, and the U. S. Indian Trade Office all distributed Barnett trade guns in the early nineteenth century. The Barnett Company produced more Northwest Indian trade guns than any other company.
The overall length of the above-pictured Barnett gun is 52 inches with a barrel length of 36 inches. The lock has a half cock position.
The picture below shows a lead pot, a ladle, a bullet mold, lead bar, musket balls, and a pair of dice made from musket balls. This pair of dice was used in the wintertime at Hudson’s Bay York factory.
The Barnett gun was the major trade gun used by the North West Company for the Indian trade. After the merger of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821, records show that Hudson’s Bay Company made its first purchase of the Barnett trade guns. The distinctive features of the Indian trade guns are shown in the above pictures.
Indian Trade Guns East of the Mississippi:
The earliest recorded use of firearms occurred in June of 1609. The battle occurred between Samuel de Champlain with three of his men and a war party of Huron, Montagnais, and Algonquin warriors against the Iroquois. On what is now Lake Champlain, Champlain and the war party of sixty Indians met two hundred Iroquois; both parties landed and threw up barricades in the trees. The next morning the Iroquois advanced, Champlain killed two Iroquois chiefs, and one of his men killed another with their harquebus (a heavy portable matchlock gun). The Iroquois fled in terror. The end result of this battle was that Champlain with his harquebus allied the Iroquois and British through the Revolutionary War.
Indians of the Iroquois Confederation…Mohawk, Cayuga, Seneca, Oneidas, Onondagas, and Tuscarora…were trading with the Dutch at Fort Orange (Albany, NY) in 1624. By 1630, the Iroquois had acquired enough trade guns to overpower the Algonquin and drive them out of their territory. To counteract the Iroquois threat, the French supplied trade guns to their Algonquian allies.
In addition to arming the Indians along the East coast and Great Lakes region, the French in New Orleans armed the southern tribes, primarily the Cherokee, Choctaws, Natchez, and Yazoo. This arming of the various Indian Nations was a major factor leading to the French and Indian War, 1755 to 1763.
Despite protests from the American Colonists, both the French and English used Indian trade guns to form alliances with the Indian Nations. After the French, and then the British, were driven out of this country, the Indians and the Americans paid a terrible price for these alliances. For example:
Colonel David Williamson appeared at the Moravian Indian Mission in March of 1782, and convinced the Christian Indians to give up their weapons as a show of good faith. After giving up their weapons, Williamson and his men bound the converted Indians…thirty-five men, twenty-seven women, and thirty-seven children…and waited for another group of converts to arrive at the mission. When they didn’t appear, the Colonel and his men struck each bound Indian from behind with a copper mallet and scalped them. News of the Moravian (Gnadenhutten) Indian Massacre spread rapidly. A great many people were outraged at what had happened, but a good number of those in the Ohio County believe the Indians had gotten what they deserved. Neither Col. Williamson nor any of his men were tried in a court of law for the Moravian Massacre.
In September of 1779, President Washington sent General Sullivan with a five- thousand-man army to wipe out the Iroquois Confederacy; they had sided with the British during the Revolutionary War. Within a few months, General Sullivan had razed forty villages, chopped down and burned vast orchards, confiscated over a hundred thousand bushels of corn, and destroyed any other crops his men found. The power of the once proud and invincible Iroquois, whose form of government was used by the framers of the Constitution, was over. The survivors took refuge in the Ohio country and Canada.
The 4th of November 1791, Gen. Arthur St. Clair, with a fourteen-hundred-man army and four hundred camp followers, fought with the Shawnee and their allies in western Ohio. This battle was the worst defeat ever inflicted on an American army by Native Americans; six hundred soldiers killed, four hundred wounded, and two hundred and thirty-two camp followers killed. The Indians lost sixty-six men.
Southern Indians and their guns were undoubtedly used to justify the Government’s Indian Removal Policy. President Jefferson fostered the idea of moving the Indians into the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, but the plan was not carried out until congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Indian relocation, resulting in the Cherokee Trail of Tears, will always be a black page in this country’s history.
Indian Trade Guns West of the Mississippi:
Indian trade guns were not as important to the Plains and Southwest Indians as they had been to the Eastern Indians. Probable reasons for this are:
1) fur traders had little interest in arming the Indians with guns as the French and English had done.
2) horse-mounted Indians hunted buffalo with bow and arrows or lance
3) it was harder to get guns repaired.
4) according to Russell the Northwest trade guns were not accurate beyond fifty yards.
5) flint had to be replaced after thirty to forty shots.
Despite the indifference of American traders, trade guns were available at the Missouri River trade fairs from the Hudson’s Bay and North West company traders. The Canadian Cree and Assiniboine Indians often acted as middlemen at these trade fairs …Plains tribes got their first guns not long after they had horses. Horses reached the Plains from the southwest and guns from the northeast. Guns and horses were being traded at the Missouri River Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara villages long before Lewis and Clark reached the Mandan Village in 1804.
The arrival of firearms on the Plains reduced the frequency of the larger more powerful Plains tribes raiding the weaker ones. To the Indian, this new thing, which behaved so mysteriously, was strong medicine (see, Ewers). Indians feared the noise that sounded like thunder more than they did the bullets. Hyde noted that before getting French guns, the Caddoan were at the mercy of the horse-mounted Apache. Spanish reports in 1699 stated that the Apaches were destroying entire Caddoan villages, killing the men and older women and carrying off young women and children to be sold in New Mexico as slaves. After the Caddoan had guns, even one or two in a village, the Apache raids stopped.
The Convention of 1818 established the 49th parallel, from the Great Lakes to the Continental Divide, as the border between Canada and the United States, resulting in expulsion of the Canadian traders. Russell stated that during the Mountain Man period, there is little evidence that the American trading companies marketed the Northwest gun in the West.
There are records that the American Fur Company and the Chouteaus purchased Indian trade guns, but nothing concrete on their trading guns to the Indians. Purchases by these fur trade companies were to supply their employed trappers, including many Shawnee, Delaware, and Iroquois, with the Indian trade gun. Mountain men and the traders would have had little interest in trading or repairing the Indian guns that might be used against them…their interest was in beaver plews, and Indians did not need guns to trap beaver.
Haines describes a battle between eastern and western Indians that occurred in about 1850. As the eastern Indian tribes were forced to move across the Mississippi, they were able to take over some of the buffalo grounds in eastern Kansas. Along the Arkansas River, the Southern Plains tribes gathered a force of fifteen-hundred-mounted warriors armed with bow and arrows, lances, and a few guns. This fighting force, composed of Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, Osage, and Kiowa Apache, united to protect their hunting grounds. After a short search, the warriors discovered a hundred Sauk and Fox. The Sauk and Fox had received rifles as an inducement to give up their lands and move west of the Mississippi. The Sauk and Fox took shelter in a small ravine, and as the mounted warriors dashed about, they picked them off with their rifles. After suffering severe losses, the attackers retreated in confusion and dismay. In this battle, the Sauk and Fox lost six men, all from a few Osage warriors that had rifles. This ended any organized effort by the Southern Plains warriors to beat back encroaching warriors from the East.
Although the Comanche acquired trade guns from French traders as early as the 1740s, they continued to rely heavily on their traditional weapons: lance, bow and arrows, and the war club. The war club used by the Comanche was similar to the one used by the Shoshone. A pukamoggran was a three foot stick with a two to three pound stone attached on one end.
According to Jablow, the Comanche or other Plains tribes seldom used guns during a buffalo chase. By the time a muzzleloader was re-loaded, the Indian could ride three hundred yards and discharge twenty arrows. McHugh states that for every lead ball shot from a muzzle-loader, an Indian could shoot up to eight arrows, and each one of them was a more effective killer than one or even two balls from a trade gun. Roe, Hyde, Ewers, Lowie, and others have reported that the bow retained its favor, and its expert use, down to the very last days of the buffalo chases.
Ewers stated rifles were uncommon among the Blackfoot prior to the introduction of the breech loading rifles in 1870. David Thompson and Prince Maximilian of Weld mentioned in their journals that the Blackfoot were not good marksmen with the gun; however, they were expert in the use of the bow. William T. Hamilton claimed that he and a single Indian companion killed five Blackfoot braves during the time those Indians were trying to reload their Hudson’s bay flintlocks in a skirmish near Fort Benton in 1865.
Hassrick mentioned that in 1804 Lewis and Clark noted that the Teton Sioux was badly armed with fusees. In 1805, Zebulon Pike stated that only about five per cent of the Sioux warriors that he encountered carried such weapons. This changed with the introduction of breechloading rifles. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, Sioux warriors were among the most renowned cavalrymen in the world.
The steelyard tongue and hide scale will weighs from five to two hundred and fifty pounds.
The following excerpts from an article on The Guns of the Little Big Horn by Terry Shulman are interesting:
In the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer and five companies of the 7th Cavalry were overwhelmed in southeastern Montana Territory by a combined force of Lakota and Cheyenne Indians on June 25, 1876.
The Seventh Cavalry troopers were armed with the Springfield carbine Model 1873 and the Colt Single Action Army revolver Model 1873. The best effective range for this carbine was less than 300 yards.
There is much speculation as to the guns carried by the Indians. Private Charles Windolph of Company H was probably closest to the truth when he estimated that half the warriors carried bows and arrows, one-quarter of them carried a variety of old muzzleloaders and single-shot rifles, and one-quarter carried modern repeaters.
At the Little Bighorn, about 42,000 rounds were either expended or lost. At that rate, the soldiers hit one Indian for about every 840 shots. Since much of the ammunition was probably lost–Indians commented on capturing ammunition in cartridge belts and saddlebags–the hit rate must have been higher. Yet the results do not speak highly of a supposedly highly trained, “crack” cavalry regiment.
In the Battle of the Rosebud, eight days before the Little Bighorn fight, General George Crook’s forces fired about 25,000 rounds and may have caused about 100 Indian casualties–about one hit for every 250 shots.
If trained U. S. cavalry troops were such poor marksmen, it is unreasonable to assume that Indians, with little access to powder and lead to practice with, could have been as good. Could this be why the Plains tribes relied on their favorite weapon…the bow and arrow throughout the fur trade era?
The Indian Trade Gun article was written by Ned Eddins of Afton, Wyoming.
Permission is given for material from this site to be used for school research papers.
Citation: Eddins, Ned. (article name) Thefurtrapper.com. Afton, Wyoming. 2002.
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The Barnett gun pictures are courtesy of Clay Hayes.
I think you need to research your comments on the indian trade guns. Trade guns were inexpensive but I would hardly classify them as junk. Indeed, being smoothbore, like a shotgun, they won’t be as accurate as a rifle. Never the less, they were prefered by many as they are a good hunting weapon. White men who hunted buffalo to feed trading posts used trade guns because they were easier to load on a running horse.
Many accounts state how demanding indians were for quality mechandise. If a trader want to stay in business he better offer decent quality. As to repairing them, there isn’t much a white man can do to fix a broken gun out in the field unless he carries spare parts.
Another comment on trade guns. You state that they were way over valued. That doesn’t seem to be the case from the historical record. A trade gun cost about $9. The cost in buffalo robes was said to be between 6 and 10 robes for one gun, depending on how new it was. A fur company, like the Bent St Vrain Co. make on average about $2 profit per robe. So, even at a price of 10 robes, that only makes a $11 profit. That is about what retailers today usually double the price of products so that isn’t an unusually high price.
Reply: The only reason I posted this reply is that I cannot understand how anyone can reach the above conclusions from the article. Almost every statement made in the article comes from one of the references listed below. My only suggestion to the no-name reader is that he or she learns to read. Example, the article is on the Northwest Indian trade gun and by the time Bent’s Fort opened for trade in 1833 (Bent’s Fort by Lavender, page 139), no mountain man or Indian is going to trade for a Northwest trade gun to hunt buffalo.
I have re-read the article twice and no where is the Northwest Indian trade gun referred to as “junk” or “over valued”. If I am missing something would someone please point it out.
Two thing that I would mention is that by 1742 the Hudson’s Bay Company was trading one gun for twenty beaver pelts. This would put the price of the gun as a trade item at somewhere around thirty-five dollars.
Despite reading it in the literature, I do not believe that anyone could load and accurately fire a Northwest trade gun from a horse running over rough uneven ground while chasing buffalo …seeing is believing.
Ewers, John C.. The Horse in Blackfoot Indian Culture. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D. C. 1969.
Ewers, John C.. Indian Life on the Upper Missouri. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman Oklahoma. 1989.
Hansen, Charles E. Jr. Northwest Guns. Bison Press, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1956.
Hassrick, Royal B.. The Sioux. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman Oklahoma. 1989.
Hyde, George E.. Indians of the High Plains. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman Oklahoma. 1986.
Jablow, Joseph. The Cheyenne in Plains Indian Trade Relations 1795-1840. Bison Books. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln, Nebraska. 1994.
Lowie, Robert H.. Indians of the Plains. University of Nebraska. Lincoln, Nebraska. 1972.
McHugh, Tom. The Time of the Buffalo. University of Nebraska. Lincoln, Nebraska. 1972.
Roe, Frank G.. The Indian and the Horse. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma. 1955.
Russell, Carl P. Guns of the early Frontier. University of California Press, Berkley, Ca., 1962
Russell, Carl P.. Firearms, Traps & Tools of the Mountain Man. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1986.
Shulman, Terry. Guns of the Little Bighorn. Wild West Magazine.
www.telusplanet.net/public/gottfred/dtnav.html – Arms in the Northwest, by J. Gottfred.