Fur trade contract, 1692
Fur trade contract, 1692Francoeur, François
Columbia Avenue in Manufactures Building, 1893 World's Fair
Columbia Avenue in Manufactures Building, 1893 World's FairJackson, William Henry, 1843-1942
Grain elevators, Central Illinois
Grain elevators, Central IllinoisHigbie, Tobias

>The landscape of central North America is marked by artifacts of past and present systems of exchange: grain elevators, railways and roads, crossroad villages passed up by development, abandoned factories, gleaming office buildings, and shopping malls. Before Europeans arrived, the region’s lakes and rivers were part of a system of trade that linked American Indian communities across the continent. European settlers turned Indian trails into carriage roads and railways in order to solve a problem of exchange: how to get wheat, corn, and livestock from the frontier farm to the market. They also developed a system of trading farm produce that would revolutionize diets the world over.

Along with the exchange of things and money came the exchange of ideas and culture. Early French traders brought Jesus Christ to Native Americans along with their iron pots, guns, and wool blankets. Some Indians converted to Christianity, some rejected it, and others incorporated elements of Christian theology into their own spiritual practices. Early maps and tales of travel to the region satisfied the desire of elite Europeans for information lives of Native Americans, which helped them imagine their own cultural superiority.  In later centuries, the poorer Europeans who would migrate to North America as farmers and workers sought practical information about the region that would help them imagine their new life far from home, and find a good place to live and work.

These cultural exchanges were not always made between equal partners. Some buyers and sellers brought additional clout to the market. During the fur trade, Europeans had technology, but Native Americans had information and access to territory.  In the farming economy of the 19th and 20th centuries commodity traders could count on a glut of grain at harvest time as farmers rushed to cash in and settle their debts.  In response farmers organized politically seeking to leverage their citizenship into government action against corporate power.  These unequal cultural and economic exchanges, and the reactions they provoked, shaped the legal and cultural landscape of the region.