The end of the United States Indian factory system… and an unrecorded early Detroit imprint

B. Lindsley, U. S. Agent & G. M’Dougall, Auctioneer, $13,000 INDIAN GOODS At Auction. WILL be sold at Auction at the Council-House in the city of Detroit…. Detroit, Dec. 11, 1822.
Broadside, 12 ½”h x 7 5/8”w at sheet edge. 3 lines of headline type surmounting column of text, inset table with divider of ornamental type. Minor soiling and offset, some fold splits, and bit of chipping at edges. About very good.

Unrecorded broadside, printed in Detroit, announcing the sale at auction of trade goods remaining from the Federal Government-operated factory stores at Chicago and Green Bay. The sale took place in Detroit on December 18, 1822, following the termination by the United States Congress of the factory system for trading with the Native Americans. The end of government competition was a great triumph for John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company and paved the way for it to achieve, for a time, near-complete control of the American fur trade.

From the earliest years of settlement the European powers viewed the Native American peoples as vital allies (or deadly enemies) in the contest for empire in North America. For England, France and Spain, the Indian fur trade became a vital tool for building alliances and exercising influence, and they competed with one another by establishing chains of trading posts, often fortified.

The United States entered this game early in the Revolution, when Congress ordered the purchase of trade goods and prohibited unlicensed trading. This first, halting effort was followed by other laws in the Confederation and early Republic eras, instituting various licensing systems and at times prohibiting foreigners from the trade altogether. Given the ongoing weakness of the central government, all such attempts proved ineffectual.

In 1796 the Federal Government tried an entirely new strategy by going into business for itself. The Act for Establishing Trading Houses with the Indian Tribes empowered the President to establish at his discretion trading houses (“factories”) on the western and southern frontiers, and to appoint agents (“factors”) to oversee the trade. Over the next 27 years more than 30 factories were established as far afield as Mackinac, Fort Osage, Natchitoches, and Colerain in southern Georgia. In 1816 the system was given a boost by a law prohibiting foreigners from trading on United States soil unless they were employed by American companies.

While the factory system seems to have met with some success early on, its structure and rules, coupled with intense competition from private traders—most notably Astor’s American Fur Company–posed major obstacles. To give but one example, regulations prohibited government factors from cultivating their Native American with presents, a tactic which had for centuries been used to ensure their good will and which private traders continued to practice. Eventually, in March 1822 Astor connived with Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri to convince Congress to terminate the system. Superintendent of Indian Trade Thomas McKenney (later co-author of History of the Indian Tribes of North America) was ousted, and the heads of factories were replaced by men charged with closing them down.

The broadside
Around this time one Abraham B. Lindsley was appointed to the Chicago factory to succeed Jacob Butler Varnum (1788-1874). The latter thought little of Lindsley, describing him as “a hanger-on about the offices for an appointment for years.” In fulfillment of his duties, while in Chicago Lindsley attempted to sell the remaining goods from the Chicago and Green Bay factories, apparently without much success. He then moved on to Detroit, goods in tow, where on December 18, 1822 he attempted to sell them at auction.

Offered here is the most ephemeral of items, being an unrecorded broadside dated December 11, 1822 and announcing the auction a week hence. The sale was to be held at the Council House, located at the southwest corner of Jefferson Avenue and Randolph Street. The broadside lists a sampling of the goods on offer, including a great variety of textiles but also looking glasses, sleigh bells, soap, vermillion, needles, finger rings, arm bands, combs, rifles, shotguns, axes, hoes flints and a host of other items. The text ends with a note that “liberal credit will be given for notes payable at the Bank of Michigan”—a recipe for disaster—and is signed in type by Lindsley and auctioneer G. M’Dougall. The broadside must have been printed in tiny numbers purely for local distribution, and this is the only example I have been able to locate.

Once again Lindsley’s results were miserable. Varnum assessed them as follows:

“After remaining in Chicago as long as his instructions would permit without making any sale or collecting the debts, he packed the goods and shipped them to Detroit, where they were again offered for sale; and were finally auctioned off without a guarantee of any kind as to payment. They sold at good prices—the purchasers not intending to pay, were indifferent as to the prices offered, and, what was foreseen in Detroit, no satisfaction of value was received by the government, and Lindsley a man without a single business qualification, got credit for the prompt and satisfactory manner with which he had closed the business, and subsequently received an appointment in the custom service.” (Peake, pp. 205-6)

Though Varnum had an axe to grind, this bleak assessment is in fact backed up by Lindsley’s own accounts: On October 15, 1822 he had taken delivery of $15,637 in goods from the Chicago and Green Bay factories. On January 20, 1823, following the auction, he reported “bills receivable” (many of which would never be paid) of $5063 plus a “loss on sales” of $6968. (Peake, p. 290)

In all, a remarkable survival and an interesting artifact from a transitional moment in the history of both the North American fur trade and relations between the Federal Government and the Native American peoples. 

Not in OCLC. Background on the factory system from Ora Brooks Peake, A History of the United States Indian Factory System 1795-1822 (Denver: Sage Books, 1954) and Royal B. Way, “The United States Factory System for Trading with the Indians, 1796-1822,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, vol. 6 no. 2 (Sept. 1919), pp. 220-235.