Fur Trade West British Florida’s
Fur Trade WBF-1763-1783
ROBIN F. A. FABEL
THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS
Tuscaloosa and London
hazard of ocean travel, the fur trade did not die. The officer commanding the British troops in West Florida wrote to the plantations secretary that the merchants of Pensacola were prepared, if they were denied a convoy or escorts, to run the maritime gauntlet with their valuable cargoes of furs. 25
All the cargoes just mentioned went from and to British ports. In the 1760s and 1770s a great quantity of skins were certainly also exported from West Florida to New Orleans, where the prices at times were higher and duties were nonexistent. Governor Johnstone estimated the consequent loss to the British treasury at £50,000, an incredible figure, although the total value of the skins traded was probably at least that much. It galled John Stuart that French traders, hangovers from the previous regime over whom he exercised no control, regularly traveled among the Indian nations, especially the Choctaw, to buy their skins, which normally they resold in New Orleans. 26 Johnstone’s suggested remedies were for the government to remit all duties on the export of skins and instead to offer a bounty of sixpence apiece. 27 As with other expensive recommendations he had made to the government, these too were ignored, and the trade with foreigners on the Mississippi flourished.
General Thomas Gage, the overall commander of British troops in North America, was concerned at the blatant flouting of trade regulations, but no recourse was ever made to an obvious and often suggested check–siting a customshouse in that part of British Florida on the Mississippi. While many of the skins from up the Mississippi were sold in New Orleans and went to Europe in French or Spanish ships, exceptionally vessels brought Mississippi skins and furs to London. One was the Florida Packet, Robert Ross master, with 1,000 bundles of peltry aboard. Gage was sure that the snow must have been trading illicitly in foreign ports and caused inquiries to be made about her in London. 28 Two years later a cargo of furs worth £30,000 arrived in London from the Mississippi, part of whose cargo may well have passed through the hands of John Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick was a middleman, one of many in a chain which stretched from the beaver building its dam on a tributary of the Mississippi to the fine felt tricorne on the head of a London dandy. His letters relating to the trade in furs and skins were written from 1768 to 1784. 29 Despite the assertion sometimes found that prices for deerskins were higher in New Orleans than could be obtained by exporting them to English markets, Fitzpatrick’s regular customers for the skins he bought from Indian traders were British firms in Mobile, usually the partnership of John McGillivray and William Struthers but sometimes that of John Miller and William Swanson, who shipped them to England. That he traded with them from patriotism is most unlikely: Fitzpatrick did not like trading in skins. Several times he expressed the wish to give up that branch of business. 32 They were risky goods. If his skin consignments arrived too late to catch the annual boat that sailed to England from Mobile, the price went down. If he had to carry a stock of them through the summer, they had to be unpacked and regularly beaten to keep them free of worms. On occasion they were spoiled by water on the voyage from Fitzpatrick’s trading house at Manchac to Mobile, while the insurance and freight payable on the complicated voyage added to the merchants’ expenses. 33 Despite his distaste, Fitzpatrick had no choice. A mainstay of his business was to supply goods suitable for Indians to traders and hunters operating from as far north as the Illinois country. The shortage of cash in those remote regions meant that his customers could pay him only in furs and skins.
John Stuart believed that buying hides in hair enabled Indians to be cheated more easily than if dressed hides were traded, but in England was a demand for hides in the hair. It is no surprise to discover that the bulk of Fitzpatrick’s stock was invariably of undressed hides. He also dealt in martin and beaver, getting a much higher price per skin, as much as seven reals (almost a dollar per pound) for beaver, 34 but his main business was in deerskins, of which the price varied in the decade from 1768 between thirty and forty-eight sols per pound. 35 The price for dressed hides was about five sols less per pound. The average weight of a deerskin was about two and a half pounds, but good ones weighed three. 36 They were normally bundled up in packs of fifty.
Sending cargo to Mobile involved two steps. Fitzpatrick shipped his skins downriver in the vessel of a “Captain Jerome,” who was almost certainly Jerome Matulich, who plied the Mississippi. Somewhere along the river, either at New Orleans when the political situation allowed or, when it did not, at Rançon’s plantation, near the mouth of the Mississippi, the cargo was transshipped to the vessel of Thomas McMin, who carried the goods to Mobile in the aptly named snow Indian Trader. 37 A simpler method of exporting skins than having to unload and reload them somewhere along the Mississippi was occasionally possible when what Fitzpatrick called “the New Englanders,” probably the Nash family, would buy the skins from him, usually at a good price, to sell them in their native Rhode Island. 38 Exact
Among other things the letter book shows what kinds of goods were then being supplied by English merchants at Mobile, Pensacola, the Illinois country, and Natchez to New Orleans. They included flour, slaves, strouds, blankets, checked cloth, and bear oil. It shows too what goods were in demand at the Illinois, from which Fitzpatrick’s correspondent had floated down goods on a bateau. Fitzpatrick was asked to sell the vessel and remit the proceeds in tafia and barrels of pitch. Payment in kind was normal in New Orleans at the time, although in West Florida skins were more welcome than pitch, which was produced locally, but also acceptable were bills of exchange ultimately payable by respected British firms or the government. Fitzpatrick’s letters also demonstrate that O’Reilly’s exclusion edict was not as comprehensive as his official report would suggest. Any Britons married to Louisianans or who were planters were exempt.
Fitzpatrick had to wind up the affairs of eleven British firms or individuals in a matter of days. They included McGillivray and Struthers at Mobile; John Ritson, Valens Comyn, John Falconer, and James Amoss, all at Pensacola; Henry Le Fleur, Alexander McIntosh, Robert Barrow, and John Bradley at Natchez; and the Illinois branch of the Philadelphia firm of Baynton, Wharton, and Morgan. 66 Britons with whom he did not correspond at this time but whom Fitzpatrick mentions and with whom he had dealings are also numerous, and his letters do confirm the existence of many Britons with a commercial stake in the city. By 1769, however, the scale of their dealings was paltry. The largest outstanding debt mentioned was for $254. The figures would probably have been much larger if a desperate shortage of specie had not throttled a great deal of potential trade. The advent of O’Reilly, who presumably came with a treasure chest, was not therefore seen as an unmixed disaster by Fitzpatrick because, prior to the general’s arrival, his Spanish debtors had been unable to meet their obligations and Fitzpatrick had lost potential customers because he was compelled to refuse Spanish paper.
Actually he saw commercial opportunity in the expulsion of all British merchants from New Orleans. There would be an increased demand for goods there, which Fitzpatrick intended to satisfy. He would operate from the West Floridian side of the Mississippi with a stock of $3,000 worth of textiles, mostly cottons. As close to the market as he was, Fitzpatrick must have felt confident of selling them. In exchange he was prepared to take almost all the items of local produce–deerskins, indigo, tobacco, rice, or raw cotton. He excepted lumber products as, presumably, too difficult to transport. 67
Fitzpatrick was not alone in seeing the arrival of O’Reilly as reason for hope because of the half million dollars that he reputedly brought with him. The South Carolina and American General Gazette of 13 September 1769 described the general’s coming as “good news for West Floridians.” Another newspaper opined that it would be better for the West Floridians to have Spanish neighbors than French because ” Great Britain has too often experienced the intriguing temper of the latter.” 68 Lax Spanish enforcement of their commercial regulations was taken for granted, and many adventurers with merchandise of different kinds at once left Pensacola for New Orleans, hoping to exchange it for dollars. They were lucky because by Io October, only a few days after the British merchants had been expelled, it was reported from Pensacola that O’Reilly had relaxed his initially rigid exclusion of British goods. 69
Three months after his arrival, O’Reilly handed over the governorship of Louisiana to Luis de Unzaga, formerly colonel of the Regimiento Fijo de la Habafia. Unzaga was well aware that, though some trade with the English
was desirable, the general effect of the large and growing British presence in the region was injurious to Louisiana’s economy. Effective British control of the pine forests on the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain barred Louisianans from the manufacture of pitch and tar. The amount of deerskins and fur locally available was vastly reduced because of the energy of British hunters. The Indians and habitants of the Spanish province also found it convenient to sell their furs to the ubiquitous British traders. Legal Louisianan exports were thus reduced to indigo, lumber, and in some years, rice, wrote the governor, and he railed against the “fraud and malversion” of the British traders. 70
Unzaga’s view of this subject may be contrasted with that of an Englishman who, as an army officer, had no stake himself in the trade. He was John Thomas, who served as deputy commissioner to the Indians at Fort Bute at Manchac on the Mississippi. Thomas admitted that there was much justice in the Spanish governor’s complaints. Frenchmen from Louisiana who had bought Indian goods on credit at New Orleans were selling the pelts they acquired in exchange to the English merchants at Manchac and not returning to New Orleans to satisfy their creditors. But Natchitoches and Opelousa, both in Spanish Louisiana, were flourishing, in Thomas’s opinion, because of the “vast quantity” of indigo and tobacco that Englishmen were buying there. 71
Not only the Spanish in New Orleans had sometimes desperate needs which their compatriots could not but which the British could supply. In August 1770 two English brigantines with cargoes of flour arrived in the Mississippi. Unzaga persuaded their captains to go to Campeche on the Yucatan Peninsula, where the colonists were starving. Although Unzaga explained to his superiors that, if he had not diverted them, the flour would have been covertly sold elsewhere in Louisiana, he was reprimanded for his action.
It was a source of frustration to the governor that British vessels had a perfect legal right to sail under his very nose at New Orleans on the pretext that they were going to English Manchac and Natchez, when he knew full well that they intended to dispose of their cargoes to Spanish subjects. Usually he confined himself to warning them against illegal trade. 72
Some of his warnings may have deterred merchants from planning voyages to the Mississippi, since the severe penalties for smuggling were well publicized in such places as New York and Rhode Island. Importers of cloth made from cotton or a cotton mixture in Louisiana, for instance, were informed that they were liable, not merely to have their cargoes confiscated, but also to pay a fine of twenty bits (that is, over two dollars) for every yard of illegal
textile. 73 Despite all threats, British trade with Louisiana intensified, so much so that when Francis Murphy, acting for the Philadelphia firm of Barnard and Michael Gratz, arrived in New Orleans in the spring of 1772, he was disgusted to find such a glut of English goods there that, other than two saddles and some chintzes that he sold on credit, he had great difficulty in disposing of his merchandise. There were half a dozen vessels at anchor off the city when he got there, and more continued to arrive. Not only did Murphy have difficulty in selling, but he was also quite unable to buy any of the Louisiana products he sought. A French vessel had, shortly before his arrival, taken all the local produce available. He ruefully noted that the season for the sale of dry goods ran from August to March. In other words he had arrived to sell his goods precisely when the slack season had begun. 74 Murphy was not so discouraged that he never returned to New Orleans; in 1776 he had a residence in the town. 75
Winking at breaches of the law for a time and then abruptly enforcing it was characteristic of English customs officials in Britain’s North American colonies after 1767. Unzaga did the same in Louisiana.
One who suffered from this practice was the Rhode Island merchant John Nash, who, with his partner, Christopher Whipple, owned a sloop, The Two Pollies, which plied between their native colony and New Orleans with cargoes of New England goods. One such voyage began on 1 October 1773. The sloop was in the charge of her master, Ephraim Carpenter, probably one of a Newport family which did business with and settled in West Florida. 76 In the following month Nash and Whipple also left Rhode Island for the Mississippi in the sloop Hope, arriving safely in December. They found The Two Pollies anchored about six miles below New Orleans. After transferring Hope‘s cargo of merchandise to her, Nash then took The Two Pollies past the Spanish city and cast anchor a couple of leagues above it. Nash’s story was the usual one that the goods were strictly for sale to English settlers in the various British settlements farther upriver. The Spanish doubted it. While at anchor on 17 February 1774, a Spanish sergeant and a corporal boarded The Two Pollies and asked to buy some codfish for their men in New Orleans. After the fish was weighed the sergeant begged successfully for the loan of a boat to carry it back to the town. With him Nash sent a sailor, William Proud, to bring the craft back. Instead of being allowed to do so, Proud was seized by Spanish soldiers and jailed. Nash himself then went to New Orleans to untangle the affair but was denied access to the governor. Instead of redress, on the morning of 20 February a squad of Spanish troops with drawn swords and fixed bayonets tried to board The Two Pollies, allegedly on governor’s orders.
Being 3,000 feet from the shore, Nash thought that he could legally refuse but, in the face of force, allowed his sloop to be taken to New Orleans, where she was stripped of her rigging and her cargo, which, together with confiscated cash amounting to $5,760, were deposited in the royal warehouse. Pilfering soldiers and black laborers ensured that not all of the cargo got as far as the warehouse. The thieves seem to have been uncommonly literate and pious, for among the stolen items, if Nash is to be believed, were Young Night Thoughts, Thomson Seasons, Pope Essay on Man, a Book of Common Prayer, a Bible, and French and English grammar books. Five days later Spanish officials appraised the cargo in the warehouse and The Two Pollies. On 4 March the cargo was sold for $482. Meanwhile Nash, Carpenter, his mate Benjamin Pilcher, and the crewman William Proud were all in jail.
On 2 May Nash was told that he was charged with illegally introducing fish for sale in New Orleans. He protested to Governor Unzaga. His petition was successful, perhaps because of a letter of remonstrance from Governor Chester of West Florida of 16 May 1774. On 17 June Unzaga revoked all proceedings against Nash and refunded $3,535 and 4 ½ ryals. He and his fellow prisoners were released after four and a half months in confinement; Nash and Carpenter had stayed not in the common jail but with a Mr. Murphy, perhaps the Francis Murphy who once sold saddles in the town. Together with the necessary expense of translating Spanish documents, Nash’s lodging had cost him $385 and 5 ½ ryals. He estimated his total loss at $9,127 and 1 ½ ryals, of which he received scarcely a third in compensation. He asked in vain for a juster amount from Unzaga and then addressed his complaints to Governor Chester for transmission to Lord Dartmouth, the plantations secretary in Britain. 77
This case illustrates several aspects of Unzaga: he was not vindictive, but he was negligent in supervising subordinates. Sergeant Hildago and his corporal were both dismissed from the Spanish service for their part in buying English fish. The case also suggests that there was probably a regular commerce between Spanish Louisiana and Rhode Island. Thanks to this case too we know in detail the kind of cargo which sold along the Mississippi, certainly to English settlers but also, probably, to habitants on the western shore. The vast bulk of the cargo was an amazing variety of textiles, much of them coarse and cheap, all of them from Europe, mostly from England. Such would certainly have been the origin of the beaver hats which were part of Nash’s cargo, since he would scarcely have declared in a memorial to the British government items that could not legally be manufactured in the colonies. The sum of money confiscated from The Two Pollies was large enough to suggest that Nash had probably engaged in some trading with
Louisianans before her seizure. 78 The Two Pollies episode illustrates the misfortunes attending entanglement with the Spanish authorities. If an indignant press may be believed, it was not an isolated instance of Unzaga’s rigor. Two days before, dry goods to the value of $12,000 belonging to a merchant named Basset had also been seized in New Orleans. 79 Undeterred by his treatment Nash remained on the Mississippi and by February 1778 was an inhabitant of Manchac. 80
Other British traders were also persistent. Shipping lists for the year 1774 show that well over a dozen voyages took place to the Mississippi from mainland colonial ports alone. 81 The coming of revolution to the mainland colonies in 1775 did not end traffic with the Mississippi, but it certainly did introduce several new factors into the trade.
For example, ever since the foundation of West Florida, guns, ammunition, and powder had been exported to the Mississippi. For defense and hunting they were a necessity for white settlers and Indians alike. The imaginative George Johnstone had sought without success to stimulate local production of gunpowder. 82 When the quarrel between Britain and her colonies turned into war, George III found it necessary to restrict the export of munitions to North America. The result was that the provincial authorities began in 1775 to intervene in what previously had been considered purely private transactions. In November the ship Ann, William Reid master, arrived from London at Pensacola. Its cargo, 9,000 pounds of powder, 925 Indian guns, and a quantity of bullets, had been ordered by James Mather, an English merchant residing in New Orleans, and intended for sale up the Mississippi. The West Florida council ordered it unloaded and stored in the provincial magazine at Pensacola, after which 1,000 pounds of the powder might be sent to Manchac, not by way of the Gulf of Mexico, where it would be liable to interception, but via the lakes and the Iberville. Its sale on the Mississippi would be supervised by Thomas, the previously mentioned deputy Indian commissioner. After its use, another 1,000 pounds could be sent to the Mississippi. 83 The same rule was applied two months later when the brig Norton arrived from London with 2,000 pounds of powder and a similar quantity of ball. Captain William Pickles asked for but was denied permission to carry it directly to Manchac, a sensible precaution in the light of Pickles’s later proAmerican activities.
The Continental Congress was undoubtably keen to obtain military supplies from New Orleans by way of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. In 1776 a large barge containing nineteen men and a boy left Fort Pitt on the Ohio, sailed into the Mississippi, and arrived on August I at Walnut Hills ( Vicksburg) in the northwest corner of West Florida, where the American flag was
raised by their captain, George Gibson. He carried dispatches from Congress to Governor Unzaga and to his royal master, but Gibson also wanted to trade his cargo (presumably of skins) for gunpowder. The success of this type of trade, about which Unzaga was only initially cautious, worried the British authorities. 84
Competition for Spanish customers increased, to the detriment of British Mssissippi traders in 1777, thanks to a Franco-Spamish agreement of the previous year which Bernardo de Gálvez, who succeeded Unzaga as governor of Louisiana, had to implement. Exports to France and the French West Indies were made legal on payment of a 5 percent export duty. Direct imports from France were also permitted, thus eliminating any further need for the French to resort to subterfuges like purchasing vessels of British registry to practice commerce with Louisiana. 85 Now slaves could be sent from the French West Indies in payment for the products of the Spanish colony. John Fitzpatrick of Manchac saw a gloomy future for British rivals to the French traders: “They certainly undersell us and their goods are better calculated for this province” he wrote. 86
Nevertheless there was no hint that Gálvez would suddenly and vigorously stifle existing British trade with Louisiana. One writer noted that successive governors had “for years past,” in return for a small share of the profits, connived at such activity. 87 The word on the river was that Gálvez was even more liberal toward English traders than his predecessors. “The new governor,” wrote Fitzpatrick in February, “allows the English liberty to trade or hunt up any of the rivers on the Spanish side they please; further–all the English merchants that kept their stores on board the vessels have now their shops in town.” 88 The sense of security into which they had been lulled must have been profound indeed if they had abandoned the sensible practice of maintaining their floating warehouses in favor of building in New Orleans, but disillusion was soon to follow, as Gálvez reversed his tolerant policy.
It is now half a century since John W. Caughey analyzed Gálvez’s motives for this policy reversal. They included the new instructions opening his colony to French traders which simultaneously ordered the exclusion of the British, Gálvez’s discovery that Louisianans were ready to inform against Britons, and his pique at a new British insistence on seizing small Spanish vessels violating British regulations on Lake Pontchartrain. 89
Lieutenant George Burdon had been legally correct but perhaps overofficious in seizing, early in April 1777, two schooners going from Bayou St. John to the Pearl River at the eastern end of Lake Pontchartrain. They were smuggling wine and tobacco; one of them had 160 “sticks,'” or “carrots,” of tobacco, or something less than three-quarters of a ton. 90 Had they not been caught, the schooners presumably would have loaded up with tar or staves for the return voyage. This legal justification appropriately prevailed in Gálvez’s explanation to the governor of Cuba of his retaliation. 91