The History of Trade Silver
By Chuck Leonard
The story of trade silver begins in the 1500's with the Native Americans and the then seasonal fishing boats coming from Europe. The crew members of these boats traded their personal items, such as cloak brooches, Lukenbooth pins, crosses and Masonic pins to the inhabitants of the New World for whatever the natives had to offer, mainly fur pelts. These silver pieces coming from across the Atlantic were high quality, finely detailed pieces of sterling silver, made by British smiths.

These four shapes appealed to the natives and became the focus of the developing silver trade. The designs changed slightly over the years and the cross and the Masonic brooch gradually lost their religious signifigance.
Armbands, wristbands, gorgets, finger rings, effigies and hat bands were added to the list of trade silver. Another major item, the ball and cone earring, emerged in the early 1700's. This type of earring was perhaps the most common item of the silver trade.

In primative cultures the wearing of one's wealth is common. So it seems natural that the American natives (and the whites in contact with them) wore hundreds of brooches of various patterns to decorate their clothing. The ball and cone
earrings were worn in multiples, not only in the ears, but also hung on the brooches to make a kind of bell. The brooches themselves were secured to the cloth by a tongue-like fastener, which made the silver easily removeable for trade. Trade silver was readily spendable.

From 1725 until about 1825 the silver trade expanded greatly. Silver became one of the dominant items of the fur trade. During this period, high quality trade pieces were being manufactured in great numbers by silversmiths in Montreal, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, St.Louis, etc. The use of makers marks by these craftsmen make it possible to trace these pieces back to maker, location and date. These early craftsmen used hand-made iron punches, chisels and saws to cut the intricate designs. Then they finished the piece by hammering the silver on a polished iron block (doming), filing, polishing and lastly, engraving. The predominant material in this period was silver. This silver was available from many sources, one of which was the silver coins that circulated in the larger cities. The silver content of these coins ranged from 60-95.8% silver.

By the early 1800's, the beaver population was depleted in the East and the Old Northwest and traders were moving west of the Missippi River to obtain the pelts. The thirst for trade silver was successfully transplanted to the West by these traders and their Indian and half-breed families. East of the Mississippi, with the traders gone, the Indians themselves began making silver pieces. They used slightly different methods of construction. Less intricate designs resulted, because of heavy reliance on the saw. Doming was less prevelant and there was little need for filing. Most of the Indian pieces were considered finished at this stage, as engraving was seldom done.

After 1870 the most common material used was a silver colored metal called German or Nickel silver. This metal consists of an alloy of nickel, copper and zinc and contains no silver at all, but it does have a shiney surface. Although German (Nickel) silver came into this country during the early 1800's, it was not obtainable in sheet form before 1838 and does not appear to have been used as a substitute for sterling in trade silver until after 1850.

The use of trade silver has declined since the mid 1800's. It is, however, still made by a few silversmiths and trade re-enactors and Indian traditionalits for their clothing.
In Loving Memory Of Our Dear Friend
Chuck Leonard
April 7, 1939 - December 29, 2005
Information on these pages came from the following resources:

Chuck Leonard.
Trade Silver. 2000 <>
Martha Wilson Hamilton. Silver in the Fur Trade 1680-1820. Martha Hamilton Publishing, 1995.
N. Jaye Fredrickson. The Covenant Chain, Indian Cerimonial and Trade Silver. National Museums of Canada, 1980.