The history of trade silver can be traced back to the 16th century when the crews of European ships bartered personal items such as brooches, pins or crosses with the First Nations, most often in exchange for fur pelts. These sterling silver pieces were of the highest quality and minutely crafted. Apart from some religious artifacts, very few pieces from this era still exist.
Later, during the colonial wars, both France and England gave silver to the First Nations as a means of ensuring their loyalty and to cement alliances. Indeed, as early as 1631, in accordance with this tradition, Cardinal Richelieu had silver medallions crafted for the purpose of offering them as gifts to the First Nations tribes located in the French territories. Louis XV was also known to have given silver gifts to native chiefs.
Mid 20th Century trade silver style Celtic glass beads.
Mid 20th Century trade silver style two bar Jesuit cross with pony beads
As traders' log entries reveal, silver as a trading commodity began around 1750. Initially manufactured by French and English silversmiths in Europe, this trade jewellery was later manufactured in America, not only in such places as Quebec City and Montreal but also in New York, Philadelphia and Detroit. Trade silver was often melted down and shaped into silver pieces. Easily transported as a result, they lent themselves perfectly to commercial trade.
Between 1780 and 1820, the demand for this jewellery was so great that it became the leading product created by silversmiths. The most renowned Montreal silversmiths were Robert Cruickshank, Charles Arnoldi and Pierre Huguet Dit Latour, who usually 'signed' their more noteworthy pieces with hallmarks.
These brooches, gorgets, rings, earrings, nose rings and pendants were greatly valued by the northeastern tribes. Requisite components of the warrior’s costume, they were often fashioned into animal shapes the First Nations identified with.
Mid 20th Century trade silver style three bar cross of Lorraine with white glass pony beads
In 1796, Hudson’s Bay Company, which was usually opposed to this type of exchange, started to trade silver when faced with the success of its Montreal competitor, the North West Company.
However, upon merging with the North West Company in 1821, HBC removed trade silver from its trade goods list.