Trading Posts

Until recently, barter has been an important part of Native American economy. White men, realizing this, established trading posts early in their relationships with both the Utes and Navajos. In the Intermountain region, Antoine Robidoux manned a small post on the Uinta River, as did Kit Carson at the confluence of the Green and White rivers, and Miles Goodyear at the site where Ogden now stands. These facilities were oriented towards the fur trade and disappeared as interest in pelts decreased and Mormon settlements increased. Eventually, regular stores met the needs of both whites and Indians, except for a handful of licensed government posts on the reservations.

The situation in southeastern Utah was somewhat different. As the majority of earlier displaced Navajos returned from Fort Sumner in 1868, trading posts started to spring up along the banks of the San Juan River. The Navajos grazed their flocks of sheep and planted their crops on the south side of the river while settlers moved to the north side to establish communities and earn a living. Wool, silver, and blankets were among commodities bought locally, sent to towns like Mancos and Durango, and then shipped to distributors.

To encourage Indian business at these posts, the traders introduced a number of innovations. Customers were encouraged to cross the river and barter at certain stores, some of which operated a ferry system on a cable. Once the trader lured an individual to the store, he often extended credit to keep the customer returning. Storekeepers also kept tobacco or candy on the counter, a guest hogan for visitors, and a lively conversation flowing in the “bull pen,” an open area outfitted with a stove and surrounded by counters.

Many posts were ethical in their dealings; others were not, providing liquor on the sly while allowing gamblers outside to cheat the Navajos of their goods. Although these were the exceptions and not the rule, enough conflict erupted on the northern boundary for the agents at Fort Defiance to complain about their inability to control off-reservation trade. By the 1890s, however, the problem solved itself. Early frosts and severe droughts damaged the Navajos’ economy, affecting their ability to trade. As a result, many of the posts closed. For example, in 1885, on a thirty-five-mile stretch of river that extended from the Four Corners to a short distance below Bluff, there were seven posts that plied their trade. By the mid-1890s, only one still operated.

From 1900 to the 1930s trading posts started to appear with more frequency as government regulations relaxed. Stores at Oljeto, Aneth, Hatch, Mexican Hat, Navajo Mountain, Bluff, Montezuma Creek, Allen Canyon, and the Four Corners traded with the Utes and Navajos in San Juan County. Reasons for this proliferation of trading posts were varied. The Shiprock Indian Agency spurred the development of arts, crafts, and agriculture by introducing in 1909 the annual Shiprock Fair, to which traders brought their best rugs and handicrafts. Rug weaving became increasingly competitive among Navajos. Roads and bridges made access to the isolated posts more convenient, which also encouraged some Navajos to enter the wage economy through hauling goods and working for traders.

Tourists followed close behind as areas like Rainbow Bridge, Monument Valley, Betatakin, and Keet Seel opened to the traveler as well as the archaeologist. Some posts specialized in catering to these expeditions that went by car or by horseback to their points of interest. John and Louisa Wetherill, who first ran a post in Oljeto from 1906 to 1910 and then moved to Kayenta, offered a welcome haven to travelers while at the same time providing goods and services to the Navajo Indians. Louisa became particularly involved in studying and helping preserve certain religious and material aspects of the Navajo culture.

Trading posts also served as focal points within the Navajo community. The trader served as an economic, social, and, at times, political hub for activities that attracted customers within a sixty-mile radius. He and his wife loaned tools, extended credit, doctored the sick, buried the dead, discussed issues, provided family counsel, and, when appropriate, encouraged economic development. Most traders and Navajos appear to have developed a mutual respect and admiration as each became entwined in the other’s world. There were exceptions, but these men did not remain on the reservation for long.

Activities at the post often followed a routine. Except for Christmas and an occasional ceremony when the trader contributed substantially to the event, daily life at the post usually was slow-paced and uneventful. For the Navajo, the purchase of goods was not an activity to be rushed. Some offered prayers and songs for protection and success on their excursion. Once they arrived at the post, a leisurely saunter about the bull pen, an exchange of pleasantries with the trader (who had his own “Navajo” name), a small sampling of tobacco, peaches, or soda pop, and an evaluation of contemporary topics often preceded the actual exchange of items. Successful rapport was important on both sides of the counter, since to lose cooperation could put a seller out of business and a buyer in financial straits. Traders sometimes competed for customers, enticing them with generous credit, desirable goods, and helpful services. The Navajos were aware of this, and endeavored to profit from the situation.

Beginning in the 1920s and culminating in the mid-1930s, the government implemented, first by word and then by action, a livestock reduction of the vast Native American herds of goats, sheep, and horses. To the Navajos and the traders, the slaughter of the herds was a shocking, world-shaking event that was culturally unforgivable. The destruction of this economic base, coupled with the occurrence of World War II and the increasing availability of automobiles, caused the trading posts to decrease in importance except in the most isolated areas.

Navajos became more mobile, more aware of contemporary American society, and moved into a wage economy with an increasing desire for material goods. Many traders, unable to compete with urban shops in variety and type of products, sold their posts, while others converted their buildings into convenience stores. By the 1980s the posts of the past had disappeared except for those maintained for “atmosphere” or as sites on the historic register.

Robert S. McPherson