- Drawing Life from Ledgers
A promising trend is underway in U.S. Western history. Scholars are returning to the so-called “traditional” subjects that attracted historians of the 1950s and 1960s. Researchers are once again producing economic, business, political, and intellectual histories that focus on the people who exercised the greatest power—elite white males. But they are doing so with a difference: by integrating the insights learned from the decades-long turn to social histories that centered on those who exercised less power and from the analytical tools of critical race theory, class, and gender. They are consequently recalibrating traditional topics by examining not only the exercise of economic power by Anglo men, for instance, but the ways in which women and people of color interacted with them and, in the process, helped shaped the historical landscape. This new synthesis results in a satisfying blend of foundational works, which for too long have been overlooked, with more contemporary studies and sensibilities. It was only a matter of time before the two historiographies joined. That time has come.
Linda English’s By All Accounts: General Stores and Community Life in Texas and Indian Territory is a very good example of this new approach. She uses general stores—or more precisely, the ledger books kept at those stores—as entry into rural economic life during the 1870s and 1880s in eastern and central Texas as well as what becomes Oklahoma. English looks at lists of names and numbers and teases out a picture of social and cultural life in small-town America, with particular emphasis on how class, gender, race, and ethnicity play out. She begins, then, with the barest outline of economic behavior—purchases—and, from there, attempts to recreate a multidimensional sense of individual lives. This is, in truth, a rather slim archive with which to work. Happily, sufficient scholarship on business, consumerism, race relations, immigration, and ethnic and women’s history exists to flesh things out. English is not primarily interested in economic history but rather in what business [End Page 98] activities reveal about everyday life, relationships of power, and the interplay between national trends and policies and those of a particular region.
Admitting that general stores lack the fascination of saloons and brothels, which have been studied more often, English maintains they are important because they attracted the widest, most diverse clientele. People of all races and classes, men and women, frequented them. Everyone needed life’s basics, and the better-off occasionally purchased luxuries there, as well. These businesses were important gathering places that displayed a town’s social dynamics. Their records help elucidate a variety of themes: the role of the merchant class in rural America, insight into regional identity, the importance of women consumers, inscription of race onto everyday life, the cultural imprint of particular ethnic groups on particular places, and the interplay between national policies and local consumerism.
English begins with a sample of merchants who are all white and, with one exception, male. Some entered into post–Civil War retail businesses with significant assets: for example, plantation owners who, after the Civil War, maintained their wealth as they rechanneled some of it. More typical, however, were those who fit the “self-made” model, relying upon personal ambition, ability, and favorable market conditions to establish their general stores. One man, J. J. McAlester from Arkansas, parleyed information about untapped mineral wealth on Choctaw lands into a fortune. First he opened a trading post that morphed into a dry-goods store near the coal outcroppings. He married a Chickasaw woman, thus establishing a relationship that allowed him entrée to Chickasaw and Choctaw resources as well as business and political ties with prominent tribal members. Eventually he expanded into cattle ranching and mining, before being elected to office as an Oklahoma lieutenant-governor. Anna Martin, who began her life in Texas as a poor German immigrant girl, ended up running the retail business her husband started and went on...