The Expansion of Commerce and Trade on the River (Economic Development), 1800-1850

By Peter J. Kastor, PhD, Washington University


The system that created and sustained the elaborate social networks and complex diplomacy of the Mississippi Valley was commercial at heart. But that commerce was more than a simple system of trade. Commerce served numerous purposes and, in the end, provided cohesion to a region marked by distinct, often antagonistic localities. While French was the most commonly spoken language on the Mississippi in 1800, trade was the true lingua franca.

It was the possibility of speedy transportation that made the Mississippi so attractive to settlers and traders. Indians dispersed throughout the length of the Mississippi Valley in pursuit of that trade. French explorers initially descended the Mississippi River to establish a transportation route for goods bound from Canada for Europe. The first European city on the River—New Orleans—was supposed to secure that trade by establishing control of the mouth of the Mississippi. Meanwhile, the second major European settlement—St. Louis—was supposed to foster commerce at the nexus of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

The Mississippi River carried just about every trade good imaginable: furs from the Great Lakes and the Missouri River; staple agricultural products like corn and wheat from the Midwest; cotton, sugar, and tobacco from the plantations of the Deep South. And in each case, trade led to distinct forms of culture. The fur trade rested on the complex multiracial and multi-ethnic relationships between numerous Indian villages and people of French, British, and Spanish ancestry. The chance for prosperous farms made possible by the Mississippi trade attracted settlers to the Midwest and fueled their own belief that the region was the ideal home for a society where hard work, equality, and opportunity were in the best interest of all. Meanwhile, the rapid expansion of slavery into Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and western Kentucky occurred because planters assumed they could make a profit off goods traveling down the Mississippi.

But commerce was never entirely about profit and loss. Instead, commerce served important cultural and diplomatic purposes. Commerce and trade still defined the rules of behavior at the turn of the nineteenth century. With people speaking French, Spanish, English, and numerous Indian languages, the basic rules of barter and exchange offered an effective means of communication. Gift-giving was the most common means through which people showed their goodwill. Access to trade became the greatest gift that a white government or Indian village could offer. Likewise, denying access to that trade was the best way to express displeasure and was the most common cause of diplomatic friction.

Nobody reflected this situation better than the Métis, the people of French and Indian ancestry who populated the Mississippi Valley in large numbers. These people were often the product of exchange, since sex with Indian women was a common gift that secured commercial relationships with white traders. Meanwhile, the Métis often became commercial brokers. Fluent in multiple languages, they often understood multiple customs and could successfully negotiate commercial arrangements. Of course, the Métis understood their own importance and hoped to exploit their skills to secure their own commercial advantage.

By 1850, the number of Métis had declined, reflecting the racial and ethnic changes in the Mississippi Valley. So too had the commercial system they represented. The old rules of local relationships and face-to-face negotiation had increasingly given way to a more elaborate and impersonal commercial system that marked the transition to an increasingly industrial economy.