Trade Silver: North America’s Jewelry Heritage

In the 1500s, European traders began arriving on the shores of North America, spurred by European fashion demands for fur pelts. Fur was highly prized in Europe and used in many clothing fashions, and pelts such as those of the black beaver—used in the manufacture of top hats—were particularly desirable.

As the Europeans established themselves in the New World, they became acquainted with the tribes of Native Americans living along the eastern coast. These included the Delaware, Algonquin, and Ottawa as well as the Iroquois Nation—five powerful tribes that came to power in the area of New York State in 1390. These five tribes—the Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, and Mohawk—formed an alliance in the 1500s and added a sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, around 1715.

A form of commerce soon sprang up between the two cultures. In exchange for pelts, the Europeans offered Native Americans items brought from their homelands. Cloth, knives, needles, and other practical items were offered, but perhaps the most popular items of barter were ornamental pieces—usually pieces of jewelry—which became known as trade silver. Brooches, crosses, and other ornaments were especially popular with the Native Americans, who used them as embellishments for their dress, but the term “trade silver” refers to any highly polished decorative piece used as barter.

The foreign ornaments were not the first the Native Americans had seen or worn. They had worn jewelry fashioned from copper, shell, and bone, and there was a prosperous native industry—run by the Mohawks—in lead and pewter ornaments.

The fur trade held great meaning for the Native Americans. At heart a form of commerce, it also had social and political significance (see “Forging Friendships”). In 1735, in reference to dealings with the British, a spokesman for the Iroquois is said to have stated, “Trade and Peace we take to be one thing.”

Swapping skins for silver. The fur trade extended throughout the eastern coast of the New World and initially centered on areas conducive to animal trapping. New York’s Hudson River Valley, New England, the Great Lakes, and areas extending into Canada all drew traders, as long winters made for profitable hunting seasons. Many of the early traders were French, and in 1600 they established the first Canadian trading post at Tadoussac, on the St. Lawrence River. Dutch, English, and other Europeans also joined the thriving fur trade.

Early designs in trade silver were simple—generally, the simpler the design, the earlier the piece. Simple rings, round and heart-shaped brooches, beaver pendants, and Masonic pins were among the first designs seen. Many early pieces showed a French Jesuit influence in large cross designs and religious symbols on rings and other items. Earbobs—dangle earrings consisting of a hoop with a dangling ball and cone—also were popular.

Another popular early design was the “Luckenbooth” brooch—two overlapping hearts topped with a crown—which represented friendship or betrothal. The design, thought to have originated in Scotland, calls to mind the Irish claddagh—another design passed on to Native Americans by early visitors.

The best of both worlds. As European silversmiths established themselves in the New World, creating workshops in settlements and colonies, Native American artisans worked with them. The blending of the two sensibilities eventually increased both the volume and the quality of trade silver pieces. More advanced European jewelry molds aided production, and the combination of European looks and native designs made for a huge array of jewelry pieces.

Trade silver saw its peak of popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries, with Philadelphia and Quebec emerging as centers of production. Pieces often were fashioned from Spanish silver coins, but the term “trade silver” is somewhat misleading. Pieces needed only a bright polish and decorative or barter usage to acquire the designation of trade silver, and such pieces were made of a variety of metals, including pewter and brass. In the late 1800s, a metal known as “German” or “nickel” silver was commonly used. Despite its name, the metal contains no silver—it’s an alloy of nickel, copper, and zinc. Actual silver items, however, were particularly desirable (and more expensive), while the less costly brass designs were favored in areas where pelts were less plentiful.

The Europeans also brought with them the practice of hallmarking. Most coins of the time were of the sterling standard, and therefore it was acceptable to stamp any pieces created from them with the British lion passant, indicative of 92.5% silver.

Some European silversmiths who set up shop on the eastern coast also continued to stamp their work with their personal hallmarks. The mark of Robert Cruickshank—a prolific silversmith based in Montreal—consisted of a hand-engraved script “RC.” Pieces with his mark are highly prized.

According to existing records, a huge volume of trade silver pieces was created each year. A partial list of Cruikshank’s silver orders from the year 1801 shows in excess of 49,000 pieces produced, including 16,000 orders for small brooches, 5,000 for large brooches, and 3,000 for pairs of earbobs.

Information on the barter value of individual pieces—and on trade silver in general—is difficult to find, but the papers of Sir William Johnson, Albany, N.Y., 1891, cite some trading values. (Silver-to-pelt values differed according to trading post, so these values apply only to New York.) The papers list large silver armbands as the trade equivalent of four large beavers or bucks. Silver brooches were worth one raccoon each, large crosses (up to 5.5 in.) had a trade value of one small beaver or medium buck, and earbobs were worth one doe.

Message in the medium. In The Iroquois Silver Brooches, a study of Iroquois trade silver written in 1900, author Harriet Maxwell Converse explains the meanings behind a variety of jewelry designs. At the time she wrote, she had found no silver pieces that were straightforward copies of European designs, and she credits the Iroquois’ blending of European design with their own sensibility as ingenious and wholly original. Images from nature and mythology adorn many Native American designs, as do symbols of friendship and loyalty. One brooch featuring the familiar silhouette of a crowned heart is revealed by Converse to be “a crown terminating with a double eagle-headed snake. This serpent has power over the land and sea.” She has this to say about incised marks on the piece: “The wavy lines signify water; the long line, land; and two dots signify the day, sun and moon, or the journey—the rest and the start.”

Variations on the heart-topped-with-crown designs were popular, and often the crown was replaced with other symbols, such as the tail of a bird, a face, or an owl, all of which can be interpreted as guardians of the heart.

The call of the West. Trade began to move west in the 1800s, as human populations grew and beaver populations thinned on the East Coast. The trade in silver items spread to communities west of the Mississippi River, while Native Americans remaining in the east continued to fashion their own versions of trade silver jewelry. Toward the end of the century, however, the use of trade silver began to decline, and it never regained its former popularity.

Despite the large quantities produced, the whereabouts of much of this silver are unknown. Some pieces exist in museums and private collections or surface in the hands of antique dealers, and a large trade silver cross even turned up recently on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow.

Some of the silver may have been melted down, but it’s also possible that much is buried. Native Americans—both male and female—wore hundreds of trade silver pieces on their clothing at a time, often as a display of prestige or wealth. The weight of all that silver could amount to several pounds, and one source notes that jewelry worn by an individual at the time of death often was transferred to the burial garments and buried with them.

Today, a handful of silversmiths still make trade silver jewelry using period tools and techniques. Chuck Leonard, a silversmith based in Jackson, Michigan, has been producing trade silver pieces for 34 years. Originally trained in stone cutting and silversmithing, Leonard became interested in trade silver after fielding a request from a man involved in competitive flintlock rifle shooting, who wanted the silver to complete his 1700s period dress. “I did some library and museum research and jumped right in,” Leonard says.

Leonard sells his work primarily at historical reenactments and also maintains a Web site detailing both his work and the history of trade silver. His customer base consists of historical reenactors, Native Americans, and people interested in historical jewelry. “It’s interesting that my most popular pieces are the same pieces that were most popular 200 years ago,” he says. Listing them in order of popularity, he sells many “ball and cone earrings, ring brooches, finger rings, and larger [round or heart-shaped] pierced brooches.”

Although demand isn’t huge, for a small group of contemporary silversmiths the creation of trade silver jewelry is a labor of love. Says Leonard, “There are a handful of us doing it for the joy of keeping the art alive.”

Author’s note: Sources consulted for this article include W.H. Carter’s North American Indian Trade Silver, Hothem House, 1996, and N. Jaye Fredrickson’s The Covenant Chain: Indian Ceremonial and Trade Silver, National Museums of Canada, 1980.