European manufactories provided a seemingly endless variety of colorful paints, pigments, and dyes that enabled Indian people to develop an amazing array of crafts that are today regarded as entirely native yet the silver jewelry of the southwest, the Navajo rugs, the Eskimo stone sculpture, and the Plains Indian beaded moccasins all owe their existence to goods introduced through the fur trade.
The question asked most often by our visitors is “where did the Indians get their beads?” While American Indians made some beads from shell, stone, bone, and even metal, the brightly colored glass beads sewn to Indian clothing in such intricate patterns were all made by Europeans.
A large glass industry developed in Roman cities around the Mediterranean Sea. By 1400, it was concentrated in Murano, Italy, where billions of glass beads in a vast array of sizes and patterns have been made for a world market. Europeans introduced beads made of glass at the time of first contact with North American native people.
Other bead-making centers sprang up in Bohemia and Holland, but Venice maintained its dominance of the market until the 18th century. Today the Czech Republic and Japan are leading producers of those little glass seed beads.
Silver made for trade to Indians was a remarkable fad. There is scarcely a single mention of it in fur traders’ records before about 1750. Within ten years it was an essential part of any well-dressed warrior’s outfit. By the 1790s, any Indian who was prominent amassed a small fortune in wearable art: crowns, armbands, wristbands, ear wheels, nose decorations, circular “moon” gorgets, and rows of pierced and plain brooches sewn to one’s clothing. Sales of silver steadily declined after 1820, but continued into the 1850s.