- Indians, Alcohol, and the Roads to Taos and Santa Fe by William E. Unrau
Alcohol, Native Americans, Westward expansion, Southwestern history, Indian removal
As Emeritus Distinguished Professor of History at Wichita State University and author or coauthor of ten books about Indians, William E. Unrau is a consummate scholar in an important field. His earlier study, White Man’s Wicked Water: The Alcohol Trade and Prohibition in Indian Country, 1802–1892 (Lawrence, KS, 1996), is the precursor to his new work on alcohol distribution in the Trans-Mississippi and Mountain West. Earlier, Unrau argued that federal policies and private capital merged as a force in Indian dispossession, and that the cession of Indian lands was both a result of an increased dependency on alcohol and the means by which Indian alcoholism was exacerbated.
Unrau’s gift is the careful probing of complex and concomitant sociopolitical events; he establishes big-picture processes for readers. In the new book, he focuses on “how it came to pass that distilled alcohol … was in fact easily obtainable by so many resident and transient Indians” (2). Thus, his narrative concerns interlocking processes: ambitious westward expansion via trails and trade routes to the Southwest; evolving federal policies regulating land cessions and alcohol sales in Indian country; Indian mobility both as removed emigrant tribes and as Great Plains bison hunters; and finally, the devastating consequences of Indian presence along routes moving prodigious quantities of alcohol.
Unrau’s scope of study is tight: the years 1821–1846 in the land penetrated and impacted by the Santa Fe Trail. This land stretched from the Missouri River to Colorado and northern New Mexico, and included reservations of Indians removed from eastern states, such as the Shawnee and the Miami. The trail also passed through ancestral lands of Kansa Indians and cut across traditional hunting territories of Plains equestrian tribes: Southern Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Sioux. These three Indian groups, each with differing trade behaviors, histories of interaction with whites, and use of natural resources, have too often been discussed as s single population. Unrau understands that the Santa Fe Trail drove the establishment of settlement nuclei where alcohol could be stored, sold, and disseminated to ready buyers; and this process played out from Westport (Kansas City) to Taos. Bent’s Fort in Colorado was by far the [End Page 134] most important of these sites. Native Americans became magnetized to the trail as a conduit of market economy forces. Unrau traces the hot core of those market forces to the “enormous profits … traders could obtain from Indians so long as they were agreeable to alcohol as the preferred payment for bison robes” 119). He also examines federal annuity payments to Indians in eastern and central Kansas. Annuities, usually included as part of land cession treaties, simply provided the means to purchase rather than trade for alcohol.
Seen as an argument recognizing western trails as a causal factor in Indian alcoholism, this short study is powerful. Historical literature is rife with observations by European and American travelers and military personnel, who all stated that Indians at trading posts were frequently drunk, violent, unpredictable, and loathsome. Unrau adroitly shows such observations as evidence of the impact of alcohol dissemination and unregulated policies, rather than evidence of Indian weakness. He is consistently clear about “the repudiation of any notion that innate deficiencies as human beings lead Indians to excessive and abusive consumption” (4). The final chapters chronicle the staggering impact of available alcohol on Indian nations. Entire tents of Indians—extended families including children—drank to unconsciousness; Indian villages traded months of labor-intensive hide preparation (usually by Indian women) for kegs of New Mexico wheat whiskey. To the east, reservation Indians used annuity payments for pints of Missouri corn alcohol available at border grog shops. By 1834, when a pivotal Indian prohibition law was passed as part of the Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts, most government officials well knew there was a lucrative trade in alcohol in Indian country and that...