The Whiskey Trade
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A Native Tragedy
The Whiskey Trade
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The Whiskey Trade
Liquor comes to the native world and brings addiction and death.
When the white man introduced whiskey to the plains native in the mid-1800s, it had a sudden, devastating effect on a deep-rooted way of life.
A Blackfoot chief named Crowfoot had fought many battles. But alcoholism among his people in the late 1800s was an enemy he said he could not defeat. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)
A Blackfoot chief named Crowfoot had fought many battles. But alcoholism among his people in the late 1800s was an enemy he said he could not defeat. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)

At first, fur traders came to the Northwest Territory bringing guns, blankets and cooking utensils to trade for buffalo robes. Soon whiskey became the trade item of choice.

Whiskey trader W.C. Gladstone described the trading ritual.

"(E)very Indian was given a dram of fire water, by way of a starter. Speech making followed, washed down by another dram, then ... another drink, until every man jack of them had absorbed five drams and was ripe for business. The weeks trade left us with 600 horses and our warehouses very nearly filled."

The whiskey was made from distilled alcohol mixed with chewing tobacco, red pepper, soap, molasses and red ink and it was labeled "Whoop-Up juice." It was cheaply made, highly addictive and provided huge profits for the fur traders.

Within three years, the whiskey trade brought more destruction to the plains natives than a hundred years of tribal warfare.

A Blackfoot chief named Crowfoot had fought many battles for his people. But alcoholism was an enemy he could not defeat.

"The whisky brought among us by the traders is fast killing us off," said Crowfoot. "We are powerless before this evil. We are unable to resist the temptation to drink when brought in contact with the white mans water. Our horses buffalo robes and other articles of trade go for whiskey."

By the early 1870s, more than a dozen forts - stocked with whiskey for trade - had been built on Blackfoot territory. Along with the devastation of alcohol, the fur trade was also contributing to the destruction of the buffalo herds on the plains.

Weakened by whiskey, disease and dwindling food supplies, the native nations were ill-equipped to deal with the oncoming wave of white settlement. In the years to come they would have little choice but to accept the conditions imposed by the white man, and watch a way of life slip away.


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