19th Century Commercial Fishing

In the early nineteenth century commercial fishing appeared as a result of better transportation, in particular the opening of the Erie Canal that made it possible to ship salted fish east. In the 1830s the American Fur Co. organized the first large-scale, commercial fishing effort in the Great Lakes. Although the venture failed, it was followed by several other commercial fishing operations in the 1840s and 1850s, largely run by recent European immigrants from England, Ireland, and Scandinavia. Fishermen at the rapids in Sault St. Marie

Native Americans were intimately involved with these early commercial fishing efforts, primarily as fishers for the American Fur Co. In the Treaty of Washington (1836) specific provision was made for the government to supply fish barrels and large quantities of salt, strongly suggesting that at least some of those who signed the treaty saw a future for themselves in commercial fishing. In 1846 missionary records indicate that there was at least one commercial fishing venture run by Native Americans in Sault Ste Marie. In 1848 Indian fishers in the Sault region sold over 1,000 barrels of fish.

Technological changes in the way commercial fishing was undertaken doomed these Native American enterprises. The introduction of very large nets in the 1850's, steam powered fishing vessels after the Civil War, and "power lifters" in the 1890's gave considerable economic advantage to large scale fishing operations. Small scale commercial fishers, both Native and Euro-American, could not sell fish as cheaply as their more mechanized competitors. As commercial fishing came to require a greater financial investment, Native Americans were particularly handicapped because they tended to be both poor and to have limited or no access to lending agencies such as banks. Unable to buy new equipment, Native Americans fell farther and farther behind the more profitable large fishing operations.

Although Native Americans were not leaders in the Great Lakes fishing industry, they remained active participants. In 1883 several hundred Native Americans made their livelihood as fishers. A very few were proprietors with their own commercial fishing gear. Many more worked as day laborers on the steam powered fishing boats owned by Euro-Americans. The majority, however, were involved in subsistence fishing, using a rowboat and a few handmade nets to catch enough to feed themselves and their family. If they were lucky, these subsistence fishers also had a few fish left over to sell.