The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Summer 1978, Volume 24, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor
Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
The Trader On The American Frontier: Myth’s Victim. By Howard R. Lamar. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1977. Illustrations. 53 pages. $5.00.
Reviewed by Merrill J. Mattes, Chief of Historic Preservation, National Park Service (retired), author of The Great Platte River Road (1969) and biographies of Hiram Scott, Seth Ward, John Dougherty, and Joseph Robidoux in Mountain Men of the Fur Trade series (1965-1972).
This work is identified as an essay, and such informal literary form is entitled to be rambling and sometimes even irrelevant, albeit entertaining. We cannot criticize Professor Lamar, therefore, on literary grounds, but can only express disappointment that the result is a flawed piece of historical insight.
The author’s basic proposition is valid enough, that the trader played a vitally important role and that role, contrary to popular belief, was often constructive and peaceful, helping the tribes to cling to their cultural integrity. The difficulty is that demonstration of this thesis is weak, spasmodic, and unconvincing. Doubtless the use of the essay form precludes the treatment the subject deserves—but if this was but the embryo of an idea which will mature in later book form, it scarcely seems to warrant hardcover book form itself.
Lamar mentions some intriguing facts, for example, the extent of intertribal trade before the white trader arrived, and the prevalence of slaves, as well as horses and metals, as stock trade items. He suggests an interesting comparison of the Mandan and Hidatsa villages on the Upper Missouri with Pecos and Taos in the Southwest, as trade centers; and he points out the importance of remote and unpublicized places like Torrey’s Station on the Brazos, which have been put in the historical shade by the likes of Bent’s Old Fort and Fort Laramie. But these good thoughts are simply thrown out and let drop at random along with a few dubious ones.
What can we make of the statement, for example, that Saint Louis was “the most successful trading post in the history of the United States”? A trade center, certainly, and a unique one, but an Indian trading post? The author raises a question. Was the “mountain man” basically a hero, a white savage, or simply a frontier capitalist? While he was probably a blend of all three, the author fails to clarify which, in his opinion, is the myth and which the reality, so we are left hanging. He deplores the stereotyped image of Chatillon, the mountain man guide of 1846 described by Parkman. Yet isn’t this the image of reality captured on dozens of sketches by eye-witness A. J. Miller in 1837? Exactly what myth is Lamar talking about?
While a live audience might be amused, it seems a bit strained to draw a parallel between Neiman-Marcus of Dallas and Torrey’s Post on the Comanche frontier, much less to discern a likeness between the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the American Fur Company!
With insufficient space allotted to do justice to the Indian trader himself, the essayist nevertheless allots eight pages to “the cowboy, another of myth’s victims”, zeroing in on Charles A. Siringo who played many diverse roles, none of which had anything to do with the Indian trade. This irrelevance seems a logical enough way to abort a malformed fetus of a thesis.