David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
The Taos Trappers. The Fur Trade in the Far Southwest, 1540-1846. By David J. Weber. (Norman, Okla., University of Oklahoma Press, 1971). Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. Notes. 263 pages. $8.95.
Reviewed by Dr. Iris Wilson Engstrand, author of William Wolfskill; Frontier Trapper to California Rancho (1965), and a contributor to the Mountain Men Series published by the Arthur H. Clark Company. Dr. Engstrand received her A.B., M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Since 1968 she has been associate professor of history at the University of San Diego.
Taos, today a picturesque New Mexico towna haven for artists and writerswas for a considerable period of time the center of lively trading activity. In contrast to St. Louis, the home of large fur companies, Taos remained the gathering place for independent Mexican, French, and American trappers who, in small parties, worked the rivers and streams of the far Southwest. Among the well-known figures lending a colorful history to this adobe boom-town of yesteryear were such westerners as Kit Carson, “Peg Leg” Smith, and James Ohio Pattie. Other sometime residents of Taos became overland trail blazers who would later make their permanent homes in southern California. These pioneer settlers included J. J. Warner, Benjamin D. Wilson, John Rowland, and William Wolfskill.
Although a number of individual biographies of fur trade participants and some general surveys of the northwestern fur trade are available, there has been no com prehensive history written of trading activities in the far Southwest until the present work. The Taos Trappers, in terms of scholarship and readability, fulfills the author’s intent to tell not “the story” but “the many stories” of individual trappers both at their home base in Taos and in their relentless search for beaver in the rugged and remote areas of the southern Rockies. Professor Weber has, in a single, handsomely designed volume, done an excellent job in bringing together a multitude of personalities to paint the larger economic picture of a geographic region.
Based almost entirely upon primary sourcesarchival records, letters, diaries, contemporary newspapers, business receipts, and similar materialsthe book accurately reflects the words as well as the spirit of the times. The author, capable of selecting significant detail from these early documents without losing the overall thread of continuity, has skillfully woven in numerous quotations to enliven the text. The fine bibliography gives clear testimony that Professor Weber has consulted and utilized every major archive in the United States and Mexico containing significant data on trappers and traders of the Mexican Southwest. He has also made use of published primary works and pertinent secondary sources, especially periodical materialsall of which provide a valuable gateway for further research. The three excellent maps of fur-trading activities and trails of the far West are also helpful.
If the text at times seems unusually filled with the unravelling of “minor mysteries,” the reader must view these in light of the difficulties inherent in writing a book of this nature. Technical problemsthe several nationalities and therefore several languages involved, the incomplete and often fragmentary documentation, and the unsystematic Spanish rendering of names (e.g. Joaquin Joon for Ewing Young, Sambrano for Ceran St. Vrain, Juan Roles for John Rowlandserve to complicate research. At the same time, the complexities of hidden identities, the attempts to cover up illegal activities, Mexican officials who vacillate between protecting and exposing foreign traders, and deliberate misrepresentations of events make accurate interpretation a job for the expert. The tedious “sorting out” of much of this information is a credit to the author’s patience and linguistic ability.
A particularly welcome contribution is Professor Weber’s analysis of the Spanish fur trade (1540-1821), the importance of which has often been overlooked by chroniclers of early exploration. The Spanish, though first concerned with finding gold and silver, and later with missionization, did understand the value of and carry on a reasonable effort in the acquisition of a variety of furs. Other subjects which come under the author’s careful scrutiny include French intruders, trailblazers to California, fur markets, local complexities of Taos daily life, and the legal intricacies of Mexican officialdom. His closing chapter on the declining years of the Taos trade (18341846) gives new insight into the final days of a thriving business. As the beaver diminished in number, certain foreign trappers settled permanently in the New Mexican area. By the time Mexico’s hold on the Southwest had weakened under the weight of internal problems, America’s fulfillment of her “manifest destiny” was only a matter of timeand the Mexican War.
Students of Western history, especially the Spanish borderlands, will find The Taos Trappers profitable for special reference and pleasurable for leisure reading.