Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
Broadcloth and Britches: The Santa Fe Trade. By Seymour V. Connor and Jimmy M. Skaggs. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1977. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 225 pages. $10.95.
Reviewed by David J. Weber, Professor of History, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, whose publications include a number of items on the Santa Fe trade, including: The Extranjeros: Selected Documents From the Mexican Side of the Santa Fe Trail, 1825-1828, Albert Pike’s Prose Sketches and Poems, and The Taos Trappers.
In winning her political independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico also sought to declare economic independence by opening her ports to foreign merchants. For San Diego and other communities along the California coast, this new state of affairs ushered in the golden age of the hide and tallow trade. For the first time, New England vessels called openly at California ports, bringing manufactured goods and offering a market for byproducts of California’s seemingly limitless herds of cattle. Simultaneously, a similar burst of American-Mexican commercial activity had begun at the inland “port” of Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the northeastern edge of Mexico’s northern frontier. Missouri merchants, whose vessels were wagons and whose medium was the sea of prairie grasses, brought manufactured goods to Santa Fe in exchange for mules, furs, and silver.
Parallels between the incipient Santa Fe trade and California’s hide and tallow trade are striking. Both, for example, began as illicit activities prior to Mexican independence and both attracted significant numbers of American entrepreneurs and adventurers into northern Mexico after 1821. In each case, Mexico sought to control exploitation of her resources and to gain revenue from trade. Many Americans, however, sought to avoid Mexican tariffs through smuggling and other extralegal devices. Some of these Americans settled permanently in California and in New Mexico, learned the language and the customs and paved the way for the American conquests of 1846. Finally, both the Santa Fe trade and the hide and tallow business have been immortalized by classics of Western literature: Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast (1840) and Josiah Gregg’s Commerce of the Prairies (1844). Each of these authors, coincidentally, went west for his health.
If parallels exist in these two businesses, enormous divergences appear in the historical literature. Few studies of the hide and tallow trade exist, whereas numerous books and articles treat the Santa Fe trade (Jack Rittenhouse listed 718 items in an excellent Santa Fe Trail bibliography which appeared in 1971). Do we, then, need still another book on the Santa Fe trade? For the general reader, the answer is yes. The standard one-volume histories of the trail by Henry Inman (1897) and R. L. Duffus (1930) are out of date. Broadcloth and Britches is of value because it incorporates new scholarship. Moreover, Connor and Skaggs, its authors, both trained historians, surpass the earlier writers in their efforts to place the subject within the broader events of the time. They take the reader on useful digressions which illuminate the main story—matters such as a comparison of Mexican and American politics, and the state of medicine in mid-nineteenth century America.
For the general reader in search of a single easily read volume which illuminates the Santa Fe trade from its murky beginnings in the Spanish period to the coming of the railroad in 1879, this attractive book is unsurpassed.
Serious students of the subject, however, will find it of limited value for the authors do not provide citations to sources; others may find offensive its occasional chauvinistic interpretations.