Date of this Version
Published in In the Wake of Contact: Biological Responses to Conquest, ed. Clark Larsen and George R. Milner (Wiley-Liss, 1994), pp. 63-74.
Most scholars are understandably preoccupied with the impact of Europeans on native peoples who were passive, unwilling, or resistant participants in that contact. We present in this chapter a different case. The Missouri River tribes, including the Omaha and Ponca, willingly engaged in relations with Euramericans, especially in the fur trade that dominated interaction in this region. The time frame for this study is 1780- 1820, a period when interaction between individual traders and Native Americans was replaced by the dominance of the American Fur Company in organized exploitation of the Missouri River lands and peoples. This involvement later contributed to the well-documented environmental destruction of Plains river systems with dire consequence to Native American subsistence in the late 1800s. The years between 1780 and 1820 saw commerce contribute to the emergence of the Omaha tribe as a major political, economic, military, and cultural force in the area of modern Nebraska. It is thought that lifestyles changed during these dealings with Euramericans to the simultaneous benefit and peril of tribal members. Omaha population decreased during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Epidemics (Trimble, 1989) and trade in toxic lead (Reinhard and Ghazi, 1992) contributed to this decline. Beyond these factors, female health and reproductive success must have played a role in the decline and eventual recovery of the Omaha population. It appears that several factors related to the fur trade resulted in changes in ways of life that adversely affected female health. Trade exposed the Omaha to Euramericans and their diseases. The need to produce furs resulted in greater physical demands on an already heavily taxed population. We suspect that the vitality of Omaha women was compromised, resulting in a decrease in life expectancy and reproductive success.