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“Trading Posts in the American Southwest”

Southwest Crossroads Spotlight

For hundreds of years, people of the American Southwest traded among themselves. They used a system of barter to exchange everything from furs, bison hides, foods, woven material, and clothing to pottery, beads, feathers, and turquoise. The establishment of trading posts in the region in the 1800s linked southwestern trade networks to those in the middle and eastern United States. Besides trade goods, trading posts provided places where people from different cultures exchanged ideas.

When the US Army began to occupy the region in the 1840s, traveling peddlers followed with wagonloads of goods to sell to the soldiers. They sold shirts, needles and thread, and other manufactured items brought from the east. The traders also bartered with the surrounding people, including the Navajos, until the US government rounded them up and sent them to Bosque Redondo.

In 1868 the Navajos returned to their lands from their exile at Bosque Redondo. They had lost almost everything they owned and were very poor. According to the treaty between the Navajos and the US government, the Americans set up a supply system at Fort Defiance in Arizona, on the southern edge of the Navajo reservation. Each week, the US Army issued food, clothing, seeds, and tools to Navajos who lived close by or who came by wagons, horse, or foot from the outlying areas. Eventually, the US gave each person two sheep.

Navajos Shearing Sheep“Navajos Shearing Sheep,” W.T. Mullarky (Photographer)

Sheepherding was already part of Navajo life. A century before, in the 1700s, they raised the tough churro sheep introduced from Spain. They wove wool blankets, clothing, and saddle blankets that the Apaches, Utes, Pueblos, and Hispano settlers all prized. The Navajos’ flocks increased with the sheep they received from the US government. US Army soldiers and Anglo cowboys soon came to share the widespread appreciation for the Navajos’s weavings. Extensive flocks revitalized the Navajo economy. By selling meat, wool, and weavings to their neighbors, the Navajo people became more self-sufficient.

The gradual replacement of traveling peddlers by permanent stores also benefited the Navajos. People who wanted to build trading posts on the Navajo reservation had to get permission from the US government Indian agent. Trading posts also existed near Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, and other places around the southwest.

The traders were a tough breed. They often lived alone, miles from the nearest settlement, at a time when there were few roads and few or no cars or trucks. They learned to speak the local language and often acted as doctors, mediators, and postal workers for their Indian neighbors. They built trading posts out of the available materials of stone, logs, and adobe to store their supplies. The trading post became a center for socializing and exchanging information as well as trading. Besides storerooms, trading posts had a public room for trading where people could sit and talk for hours, often around a wood-burning stove.

The trading posts on and near the Navajo reservation supplied people with outside goods such as flour, sugar, calico cloth, tools, and other manufactured goods in return for their meat, wool, weavings, and jewelry. Trade took the form of barter, pawn, credit, and cash. Traders sometimes issued their own form of money called seco, bits of metal that a trading post owner would give and accept as payment. Secos were only good at the trading post that issued them.

Sometimes traders tried to cheat their customers, but they often went out of business, because the Navajos refused to trade with them. Other traders, like Lorenzo Hubbell and the Wetherill family, proved to be honest and generous neighbors. Traders played an important role in developing a thriving market for fine Navajo weavings. They introduced new kinds of sheep noted for the quality of their wool and created markets for the weavings among new groups of people.

The Complete Story of a Navajo Blanket, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona“The Complete Story of a Navajo Blanket, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona,” Unidentified (Artist)

Trading posts were often family-run businesses. The wives played an important role. Once they learned Navajo, these women were able to talk with Navajo women about their families. They sometimes took a special interest in weaving and helped encourage the use of high-quality wool and designs that attracted more customers. Their interest provided support for a thriving reservation business among Navajo women weavers. Many trading post owners told stories and wrote accounts of their lives among the Navajo. Besides the exchange of goods, trading posts and traders provided a point of exchange between cultures and gave Navajo people access to the outside world.

Cars and trucks changed the way people do business. Few trading posts still exist on the Navajo reservation today, because people can drive to Gallup or Farmington for supplies or shop at a nearby grocery store in Chinle or Window Rock.