Both Sides of the Bullpen: Navajo Trade and Posts by Robert S. McPherson
In Both Sides of the Bullpen, historian Robert S. McPherson examines a previously neglected site of Navajo history: trade posts that operated in Utah and Colorado in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although historians have written about Navajo trade posts and individual traders in New Mexico and Arizona, fewer works have addressed the history of trade posts along the Navajo Reservation's northern border, where Anglo traders met not only Navajo customers but also Ute and Paiute visitors. By drawing from a number of interviews with Navajo elders, McPherson recovers local Navajo histories in this borderlands region.
A professor emeritus of history at Utah State University, McPherson has written extensively about Navajo religion and history, and he grounds this work in a detailed account of Navajo religious traditions and trade. He describes Navajo conceptions of property, interpersonal relationships, boundaries of foreign lands, and equitable trade. This background helps McPherson show how Navajos made trade posts into their own spaces, beginning with the "bullpen" itself. According to McPherson, the bullpen—an open room at the front of a store—"mimicked" the "open space" of the Navajo hogan, and it was a place where Anglo traders adopted Navajo trading practices (63). Successful traders maintained the Navajo tradition of the "free gift" by granting additional trade goods (80). Some traders learned the Navajo language and went by Navajo names. Although the book chronicles violence and conflict at the posts, McPherson argues that cooperation and trust mostly characterized trade relations at posts in the Four Corners region.
McPherson provides a vivid account of daily encounters at posts within the Four Corners despite their largely "ephemeral" existence (278). A few trade posts would survive into the twenty-first century, but most became "rubble" after a few years of operation (293). In order to reconstruct their history, McPherson draws from an extensive group of interviews that he conducted with Navajo elders over the span of three decades, from the 1980s into the twenty-first century. These interviews bring readers into the trade posts themselves, revealing negotiations on "both sides of the bullpen." They also show that the posts were more than supply depots: they were gathering places where visitors exchanged news and held community events. By detailing the multiple roles of trade posts, McPherson provides a glimpse of Navajo history that extends far beyond government agencies on the reservation. [End Page 211]
McPherson describes the operation of trade posts in a set of thematic chapters that relate Navajo views of trade posts and traders, post architecture, the experiences of traders, and the roles of livestock and rugs in the exchange economy. The later chapters of the book provide a chronological account of the Utah and Colorado posts. Most of these posts emerged in the late nineteenth century along the San Juan River, which became the northern border of the Navajo Reservation. One of the book's strengths is its discussion of traffic across this border. By 1900, traders had constructed a series of ferries that connected their posts to reservation lands across the San Juan River. Ferries brought together Navajo, Ute, and Paiute traders, who maintained trade connections despite government efforts to police traffic across the borders of the Navajo and Ute reservations.
According to McPherson, these early posts precipitated the "golden age" of the Navajo trade posts from 1900 to 1935, when they became busy commercial hubs (214). Yet he also shows how traders in this period increasingly catered to American customers. The book's concluding chapters address the role of tourism in transforming the landscape of the Southwest and the operation of trade posts. In order to supply a growing number of American tourists in the early twentieth century, traders asked for sacred religious imagery in Navajo rug designs and desecrated sacred sites to retrieve artifacts. They refashioned trade posts into tourist sites and museums. McPherson effectively situates the history of southwestern tourism within the longer history of Navajo trade posts, showing how tourism threatened the older barter economy as well as Navajo trade practices. He concludes that the "golden age" of trade posts ended in the 1930s, when the federal government instituted a stock reduction program that destroyed Navajo sheep and goat herds and forced Navajos to seek income in a wage economy. As McPherson argues, the trade posts ultimately transformed from places of cooperation into markets of "distrust" (291).
Although McPherson clearly documents the decline of trade posts in the mid-twentieth century, his work might have benefitted from more background in its earlier chapters about how and where Navajo trade posts first emerged. Overall, however, Both Sides of the Bullpen takes readers inside a significant institution in Navajo history and the history of southwestern tourism. For public historians, it contains new insights about the central role of trade post owners in the growth of tourism, archaeology, and museums in the Southwest.