Edmunds – Potawatomi Entrepreneurship

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And I think you can make some very strong cases that in the Midwest there were, for example, the entrepreneurship on the part of the Miami, Potawatomi, some Chippewa, Ottawa people—it’s profound. Their ability as small business people in the late eighteenth century, early nineteenth century—they will dominate the trade at Chicago, at Fort Wayne. In 1816, when Indiana enters the union, the richest man in Indiana is a man named Jean-Baptiste Richardville, who is from mixed lineage Miami-French. And he will manage a trading empire that ran from, basically from Detroit all the way almost through St. Louis. He had trading houses in the Fort Wayne region, and he controlled the portage—he charged people who went across the portage and he made a lot of money. He was relatively well-to-do. He had other Miami friends named Francis Godfroy. There were also some Potawatomi people very much involved in that in the South Bend region, a man named Coquillard. There were Potawatomi people here in Chicago. There were Ottawa and Ojibwa people who also did the same thing. And these entrepreneurs then controlled the flow of goods and materials throughout the Great Lakes region from the period of the 1750s or 60s through maybe the 1820s or so. Incidentally, some of the very successful merchants in this case were Native American women. And there were Native American women, for example, that ran inns, there were Indian women among the St. Joseph Potawatomi that controlled the flow of grain.

And the interesting thing about these traders, and these entrepreneurs, was that after the 1830s, when many of these people were packed up and removed from the region, they were removed first to Council Bluffs and into a couple of locations in Kansas and then essentially were finally settled, many of them, on the Kansas River just west of Lawrence and Topeka at a place called Silver Lake, which was a Catholic mission. And in the 1840s and 50s these Potawatomi entrepreneurs, people who had some experience in business, formed a new community there. The interesting facet of this is that in the 1850s there was a gold rush that started towards Colorado, and these people were sitting just astride the “Pike Peak or Bust” sort of gold rush where people were trying to leave the Kansas City region, the modern Kansas City region, and migrate to Colorado and end up in Denver to exploit the gold in the Rockies. This location really worked to these people’s advantage because this was about after about 100 miles of traveling across the Kansas prairie, they stopped in these Potawatomi communities.

And they had restaurants, and they sold them fodder for their animals, and they also purchased a lot of the things that the people going west initially thought they would take with them to Colorado. So they purchased some of these things at really bargain basement prices and many of their homes, for example, in the region are described by frontiersman who come through there as being furnished very lovely. I mean there’s pianos in some of these Potawatomi parlors, for lack of a better term. They held band concerts of all things, charged people to come and listen to their bands.

Historians use a wide range of sources in developing Native American history. If you look at the newspapers in Missouri, you see advertisements for furniture that have been purchased in Kansas by the Potawatomi people, taken back into Missouri, sold to other immigrants who then carry it into Kansas. And there was one, from the description of it, one walnut sideboard that was bought and sold three or four times because it was pretty obvious, that although it was a bargain to buy it, you really weren’t going to carry it to Colorado after you’d hauled it for about 100 miles. We use documentary sources, we use government records, we use the records of missionaries, we’ll use travel accounts by non-Indians,we’ll use speeches by Indian people, government documents such as treaties, etcetera, and we also use oral tradition which is held by the tribes.

These people then began to sell them things and they formed ferries across the river and they formed toll bridges. So these people prospered and they did very well. It’s not the kind of an image that many people associate with tribal people, but it’s a very successful kind of image, and they were relatively wealthy.

The problem for them, of course, is that in the 1850s—after the passage of the Kansas and Nebraska Act—then there will be a large influx of American non-Indian people into Kansas in an attempt to bring Kansas into the union as either a slave state or a free state. And these people again will be sitting on “good farmland.” And there will be pressure mounted to get them off of that farmland. But the current blossoming of Native American entrepreneurship in all kinds of things, everything from gaming to selling a broad range of commodities, has a historical precedence that stretched right back to Chicago.

My name is Dave Edmunds. I’m the Watson Professor of History at the University of Texas in Dallas. I’m interested in the tribal people of the Midwest. I’m interested in Native American biography.

Production credits:

Executive Producer, Loretta Fowler
Assistant Producer, Brian Mornar
Production by Mike Media Group

Photo credits:

Jean-Baptiste Richardville – photo courtesy of Wikipedia (mingusboodle)
Frances Godfroy – photo courtesy of Tippecanoe County Historical Association
Massaw – photo courtesy of Tippecanoe County Historical Association
Kansas River – photo courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey
St. Mary’s Mission – photo courtesy of Kansas State Historical Society
Pike’s Peak or Bust – photo courtesy of Kansas State Historical Society
Diary Extracts from Louise Barry, The Beginning of the West, 1972 and R. David Edmunds, “Indians as Pioneers: Potawatomis on the Frontier,” Chronicles of Oklahoma 65, 1987-88

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