This article re-evaluates the nature of Indigenous labor at Central California’s New Helvetia colony. The fur trade in Central California was not simply a vehicle for settler exploitation of Indigenous labor but a dynamic trade network shaped by Plains Miwok– and Valley Nisenan–speaking trappers and traders, Mission San José, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and white settlers. Analysis of the financial aspects of trade for the Indigenous trappers and ethnohistorical examination of their motives for engaging in the trade suggest that the fur trade was not a source of degradation and dependency, but a vehicle by which they creatively and purposefully engaged colonial forces and markets. This article orients the histories of Plains Miwok– and Valley Nisenan–speaking communities into the larger story of the North American fur trade and suggests New Helvetia and its fur trade can be better understood as what historian Lisbeth Haas calls “Indigenous colonial” creations.

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