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The first pieces of "trade silver" may have been personal items owned by the traders. Before long, specific styles of silver jewelry were being produced - in Europe at first, then later in North America - expressly for the fur trade. From 1725 until about 1825 silver became one of the dominant items of the fur trade. Fashioned from coins, usually melted down and shaped or hammered into thin sheets, trade silver was produced in large quantities. (3)
High quality trade pieces were manufactured by silversmiths in Montreal, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis. Major Canadian makers included Robert Cruickshank who traveled to the Upper Mississippi region, Charles Arnoldi, Pierre Huguet dit Latour, Joseph Schindler and Narcisse Roy. Such masters would employ up to thirty other silversmiths to help meet the demands of fur traders. Larger pieces bore the mark of the silversmith; smaller pieces usually did not. (4)
The use of makers' marks by these craftsmen have make it possible to trace these pieces back to maker, location and date. These early craftsmen used hand-made iron punches, chisels and saws to cut the intricate designs. Then they finished the piece by hammering the silver on a polished iron block (doming), filing, polishing and lastly, engraving. (5) Because of the high demand between 1780 and 1820, trade silver became a mainstay of the silversmiths' trade. (6) The most important requirement from the trader's point of view was that the pieces be thin, both to reduce cost and to make the silver light for transportation into the interior.
Northeastern tribes - who at first had little in the way of metal-working crafts - placed great value in silver jewelry in specific styles. An active trade in sterling silver brooches, rings, earrings, and other pieces flourished through the fur-trade era of the 17th through mid-19th centuries. After that time, changes were introduced including so-called "nickel silver", also known as "German silver." This inexpensive alloy of nickel, copper, and zinc contained no real silver. (7) "German silver" came into this country during the early 1800s, it was not obtainable in sheet form before 1838 and does not appear to have been used as a substitute for sterling in trade silver until after 1850. (8)
Associating pieces of trade silver to a certain historical date or narrow time period is very difficult. Most of the artifact pieces are dated by their makers' marks, and makers generally produced items over several decades of their career. Generally the more basic the silver piece, the earlier the time period. The simpler rings - with few or no piercings, the crowned or weeping hearts, the plainest crosses, and nosebobs - are the ones which date to the early to mid 1700s although these designs were not necessarily dropped in favor of the more ornate work. The more elaborate pieces with fancy-shaped or multiple cutouts were generally not produced until the late 1700s to 1800s. (9)
In the fierce competition between the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company, the British-based HBC tried to avoid introducing silver into its trade because it was a fairly expensive item. However, the North West Company were so successful that the British were forced to introduce trade silver in 1796. In 1821, when they took over control of the Montréal-based NWC, the first item dropped from the trading lists was silver. (10)
1. "Facts About Trade Silver," From Barking Rock Farm, Online: http://www.barkingrock.com/catalogd.htm
2. "Indian Trade Silver," The Historica Canada, Online: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/indian-trade-silver/
5. Leonard, Chuck. "The History of Trade Silver," Online: http://www.xxtradesilver.com/HistoryTS.html
6. "Indian Trade Silver"
8. "Facts About Trade Silver"
10. "Indian Trade Silver"