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The Gun on the Frontier

On the American frontier of previous centuries, the possession of a firearm was often a key to survival. In this regard, the frontier of 20th-century America, although different geographically, is very much like earlier frontiers.

As different waves of Europeans arrived in North America, each took a distinct approach to trading guns with the Indians. The Dutch, settling in New Netherlands (now lower New York State), came from one of history's greatest trading empires. Dutch settlers of the Hudson River Valley bartered guns to the Mohawk tribes. In 1543, some of the Mohawk launched a two-year war against Dutch settlements, but they spared the Hudson communities that continued to sell guns to the Indians.

The Dutch attempted to license gun traders in 1650, hoping to shut off the Indians' supply. The West India Company protested, arguing that Indians would pay a black-market price so high that controls were impossible. In 1656, the government decreed that settlers could possess only matchlock rifles; modern flintlock rifles, which were more reliable and easier and faster to fire, were banned. A death penalty for selling guns to the Indians was enacted, but the law failed to stop the trade.

No matter what the Dutch did, the natives had a ready supply of guns from the French. One firearm, usually a musket, was worth 20 beaver pelts. The main partners of the French were the Ottawa (whose name means "to...

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