Hubbell Trading Post: Trade, Tourism, and the Navajo Southwest

Hubbell Trading Post: Trade, Tourism, and the Navajo Southwest

by Erica Cottam

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ISBN-13: 9780806152554
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 09/22/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 17 MB
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About the Author

Erica Cottam holds a Ph.D. in history from Arizona State University.

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Hubbell Trading Post

Trade, Tourism, and the Navajo Southwest

By Erica Cottam


Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5255-4


Drifting into Navajo Country

Juan Lorenzo Hubbell and the Navajos

In 1870, a handsome, bespectacled seventeen-year-old named Juan Lorenzo Hubbell invested his savings in a saddle horse and outfit and embarked alone on a journey that would eventually see him crowned the "King of Northern Arizona," owner of an Indian trading empire that bridged the gulf between the Navajos and the American consumer. The short, barrel-chested young man had spent the previous year working as a clerk in the Albuquerque post office for the rather good wage of $40 a month. But Hubbell was, as noted by historian Frank McNitt, "a self-reliant fellow ... ready to wrestle any man for fun or to fight in earnest if forced to." In short, Hubbell found that "the indoor life of a postal clerk" failed to satisfy his "craving for romance and adventure." He set off for Utah Territory "through little-known country and along very uncertain trails" that wandered through vast areas of desert reigned over by the Navajos. He pressed through the sandy expanse of Navajo country to Kanab, a fledgling Mormon settlement perched on the knife-edge of failure and prosperity, where he found employment as a clerk at a trading post. For a few critical years, he learned the ropes of the trading business and the Navajo language, but Utah, for reasons more mythical than factual, disagreed with young Hubbell. It spat him back out into Navajo country, the stories say, with a couple of bullet holes in his body.

Many years later, an aging, white-haired Hubbell would enjoy long hours sitting on the porch of his trading post in Ganado, Arizona, spinning yarns for the travelers and tourists among whom he was something of a legend. Like most such stories, they grew taller in the telling, and the historical record offers few crumbs that can either contradict or corroborate them. The tale of his flight from Utah, a favorite of his admirers, took on many different contours. He evasively told one reporter, "Some parts of a story are best left untold, so it is enough for me to say that I became involved in difficulties." To others he told a more embroidered tale — that the trouble began when he "started courting a girl up there." Hubbell's neighbor, Gene Haldeman, recalled, "He liked her pretty well and decided he'd better lay off of that, and, so he was getting ready to go back towards Albuquerque, a bunch of hombres decided that he'd courted that girl just enough that he should marry her but he wasn't about to." Humorously, the way Hubbell's own grandson heard it from one of the farmhands, he fled because "he got mixed up with one of the Mormon girls up there and then it seemed that the Mormon bishop wanted to have a word with him, and that he was going to [have to] marry all of the sisters."

Before he could be "pronounced 'man and wives,'" J. L. packed his things and took off on horseback, with his pursuers not far behind. In the "rumpus" that followed, bullets flew and Hubbell escaped by the skin of his teeth with a wound in his left leg and another in his back. He told his doctor (flourishing his scars for dramatic illustration) that he had waited in ambush and killed all seven of his pursuers in the gun battle that gave him his wounds. To others, he said he simply took off his clothes and dove into the roaring Colorado River.

"I wandered for days," he intoned, "scarcely knowing where I was or what actually happened." Delirious, he staggered into a Paiute camp where he was nursed back to health, a rescue from "certain death" that forever disposed him kindly toward all Native Americans. Under the care of the Paiutes, the stories say, he was shortly on his feet again and headed south. He spent a golden summer at the Hopi pueblos, where he witnessed his first Snake Dance ceremony at a time when few outsiders had seen it, though it would later become one of the premier tourist attractions of northeastern Arizona.

"After nearly five years of wandering and the collection of experiences somewhat similar to those of Marco Polo," Hubbell reflected, "I drifted back into New Mexico again, and then into Navajo country." In 1876, he bought a trading post in the Pueblo Colorado Valley, a little speck of green in the desert with a shallow lake, a modest river, and a Navajo village. He arrived at a crucial time. Not long before, the Navajos had been rounded up by the US Army and forced onto a reservation in eastern New Mexico, far from their traditional homeland in the Four Corners region. The exile lasted only four years before the government acknowledged the project's failure and allowed the Navajos to return home, but it had a lasting and devastating effect on their economy, opening the door to a new system of trade. American entrepreneurs, Hubbell among them, moved into Navajo country on the heels of the returning Navajos, bringing with them an array of manufactured goods and working a dramatic economic transformation that would eventually tie Navajo-made arts and crafts into the national market.

Hubbell played a central role in that transformation. He is credited with being one of the first traders to see the market potential of Navajo rugs and silver jewelry at a time when the trade centered on wool, hides, and sheep. Through concerted advertising efforts which coincided with a cultural movement in which Americans became enamored of the "primitive," by the turn of the twentieth century, Hubbell had become one of the most well-known dealers in Navajo and Hopi products in the Southwest. George Wharton James, tireless promoter of Southwestern Indian arts and crafts, captured public sentiment toward Hubbell: "Few men have ever held so honored and rare a position in the esteem of the Navahos and in relation to the blanket industry as does John Lorenzo Hubbell. ... That his name is synonymous with honorable and upright dealing goes without saying, for no man can stand as he does with the Navahos without being — as the Indians would say — 'a walker in the beautiful way.'"

Hubbell built up his fame on two other fronts: as a player in Arizona politics, and as "the most hospitable man in the world." An avid Republican, Hubbell served terms in both the Arizona territorial and state legislatures, and in a dozen other small delegations and offices, most notably as the fabled sheriff of Apache County. His impact on Arizona politics was unremarkable, but his involvement helped spread his fame as an Indian trader and earned him connections in political circles across the country, especially those concerned with Native American rights. Meanwhile, the same cultural impulses that drove the market for Navajo arts and crafts beckoned travelers to Navajo country. At first, they were occasional scientists, artists, and writers traveling on horseback or by wagon, but as the years rolled on, the railroad and the automobile brought increasing numbers of tourists into the heart of Navajo country. In the absence of hotels, Hubbell flung open the doors of his trading post and stately home, surrounded by irrigated fields, herds of Navajo sheep, and the endless piñon-covered landscape. As he sheltered, fed, and guided visitors, he regaled them with tall tales until both he and his hospitality had become legendary. Even after Hubbell's death in 1930, his trading post remained closely associated with the Navajo Southwest. The Hubbell name was carried on by his two sons, who became as well-known in their day as their father had been in his: kindly Lorenzo, Jr., for his selfless hospitality, charming Roman for his exciting Navajo country tours, and both of them for their intimate knowledge of Navajo arts and culture. Theirs was a family inseparably connected to the Navajos.

Just as that connection persisted after J. L.'s death, its roots extended further into the past than J. L.'s first foray into northeastern Arizona in 1870. His family heritage was inseparably entangled with the history of Spanish, Mexican, and American conquest, his own life of trading, politics, and hospitality shaped by his upbringing in the tri-cultural Southwest. Even at seventeen, the venturesome and romantic Juan Lorenzo was nothing if not the product of his heritage. His mother was a daughter of Spanish dons, his father an adventuring son of Connecticut Yankees. Every branch of his family tree was heavy with politicians, soldiers, traders, landowners, and ranchers who earned and maintained power by their own sweat and blood, almost always in competition with the Southwest's indigenous peoples.

Spaniards and Navajos

By all accounts, Juan Lorenzo's mother, Juliana Gutiérrez (sometimes affectionately called Julianita), was a remarkable woman, graceful in character and appearance. Family stories say she was a blue-eyed blonde, "her Castilian blood ... traceable in her sparkling beauty." The descendent of some of the earliest of New Mexico's Spanish settlers, she was an heiress to a large parcel of land and a family legacy of wealth and influence. Her family had been in the New World since the 1500s, when Luis Baca crossed the Atlantic from Toledo, Spain, to settle in Mexico City, which was then rising from the ashes of the conquered Aztec city of Tenochitlán. In 1600, his grandson, Captain Cristóbal Baca, took his family north into New Mexico to reinforce the fledgling Spanish colony of San Gabriel de los Caballeros under Juan de Oñate. From the seventeenth century onward, the family left its mark on New Mexico, while the enchanted land in turn left its mark upon them. Of all the actions and conflicts that shaped the generations that followed, perhaps it is most important to understand that from the time they first set foot on New Mexican soil, the lives of Juliana's ancestors were inseparably entangled with the lives of the Native Americans. Every generation was involved at some level in the wrestle for New Mexico. The Baca family were among the Spanish settlers who fled the violence of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, and they were among those who later returned to take back their estancias and retrench the Spanish foothold in the Southwest, acre by acre.

At first, the Navajos, or the Diné (the People), as they call themselves, were somewhat removed from the upheavals brought by Hubbell's ancestors. When Spanish explorers penetrated the New World in the sunset years of the sixteenth century, they were enticed over the desert horizon by persistent rumors of gold, but when their forays into Navajo territory yielded no gleaming profit, they concentrated their efforts on settlements in the Rio Grande Valley. Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and his men encountered many sights that would later be called wondrous, including the Grand Canyon and the Hopi mesas, while traipsing about the Southwest in search of wealth. But their enthusiasm waned when their search proved fruitless, and for forty years Spanish settlers largely ignored the region save for a few far-flung missions.

In 1583, Antonio de Espejo, "a fugitive fleeing a murder charge who financed an expedition to find two missing priests and thereby redeem his name," became the first European since Coronado to explore northeastern Arizona, and the first to record contact with the Navajos. At the time of Espejo's expedition, Navajo culture had not yet coalesced into what it would be. Scholars argue that the Navajos, along with the Apaches, differ markedly from the Southwest's Pueblo cultures in language and custom, instead sharing linguistic traits with indigenous groups in western Canada, collectively known as Athabaskan- or Dene-speakers. Archaeologists posit that the Navajos migrated into the Southwest from the subarctic between 1000 and 1525 CE. Whether their route took them over the High Plains or along the backbone of the Rocky Mountains, the migration involved a journey of thousands of miles, hundreds of years, and significant cultural change. The Navajos are known for being ever ready to incorporate other peoples and traditions into their lives. Old ways were adapted or exchanged as the migrating Athabaskans encountered new climates, environments, and peoples. As Peter Iverson argues, nearly every group with which the Diné came into contact, "people from Jemez Pueblo, San Felipe Pueblo, the Utes, the Chiricahua Apaches, the Zunis, other Puebloans, Paiutes, and even Spanish/Mexican groups were integrated in time into the Diné." The extent and rate of that change is impossible to judge — but at the time of Espejo's expedition, they had not yet become the Apaches de Nabajó described by seventeenth century explorers, and even the Apaches de Nabajó were not yet the Navajos as Americans would know them. The outlines of the expedition's impressions of the Navajos are faint, but they noted a few key characteristics: namely, that the Navajos were growing corn, raising livestock, and already burnishing a reputation as warriors.

Espejo and his men clashed briefly with the Navajos, but it was the Pueblo peoples who bore the brunt of their violence. On his way back to San Bartolomé, "Espejo set out on a troublemaking journey among the pueblos, killing people who resisted ... in any way and in one instance putting a village to the torch." It was a portent of things to come. When the Spanish government sent Juan de Oñate to establish the first Spanish colonies in New Mexico in response to Espejo's reports, Oñate infamously subdued Acoma Pueblo by massacring several hundred Acomas and cutting off the feet of the survivors. Unlike the stationary Pueblo peoples who were pounded by the iron fist of Spanish colonialism, however, the Navajos were mobile, still living "on the margins of the Spanish Empire in a rugged terrain that the Europeans found difficult to penetrate."

However, European goods, primarily livestock, continued to flow north into Navajo hands. Recognizing the utility of sheep, goats, horses, and cattle, the Navajos readily appropriated them for their own use, even absorbing them into their cosmology. "Long ago," the stories go, "when the Holy People still roamed the earth, Changing Woman created livestock to reward the Hero Twins for ridding the world of evil." Sheep became increasingly central to Navajo culture as they developed a seasonal economy centered on herding and began to weave wool textiles. With the help of four-legged beasts, in the cradle of Dinétah in northwestern New Mexico, the birthplace of the Navajos, they became "the largest and most powerful Native community in the Southwest."

As the Navajos' herds and flocks grew, livestock became a source of conflict between the Navajos and their neighbors. While the Navajos acquired many of their livestock through trade, others they obtained through raiding. Mounted, they became a force to be reckoned with in the Southwest, for their adaptability did not mean they made no distinction between themselves — the People — and others, especially enemy people, anaii dine'e. The Navajos were curious, enterprising, pragmatic, and expansionist. "Once the people acquired a few horses," Peter Iverson explains, "they wanted or needed more horses — and more land for them. Once they obtained a few sheep, they understood the benefits of having more — and the necessity of finding a place for them. Such an approach guaranteed that the Navajos would gain a reputation." And gain a reputation they did — the Navajos were ever willing to trade with or fight against their neighbors, Native American or European, as best served their interests. They frequently clashed with the Comanches and Utes, each side taking horses, sheep, and even human captives from the other. With the arrival of the Spanish, slave raiding became an epidemic in the Southwest, and though they were removed from the frontier of Spanish settlement, "[t]he Navajos suffered more from Spanish slavery than any other Native group." The Spanish indulgence in the slave trade dramatically increased Navajo raids, as they were motivated not by material gain, but by the attempt to retrieve slaves, especially captured women and children. The Navajos and the Spanish became locked in a seemingly endless cycle of raiding and retribution: the Navajos raided Spanish settlements, and in return the Spanish launched punitive invasions, "seizing Navajo horses; taking men, women, and children captive; killing others; and burning their cornfields."

A few episodes of the centuries-long Navajo–Spanish feud are particularly worth noting here. Some individual Navajos participated in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when the Pueblos declared emphatically that they had had enough by violently ejecting the Spanish colonists from New Mexico. Twelve years later, the Navajos provided a refuge for fleeing Pueblo peoples during the Spanish Reconquest in 1692, an important moment in Navajo history, as the influx of Pueblo peoples helped shape Navajo culture. War with the Spanish colonists continued more or less unabated from then on, with an interlude from about 1716 to 1774, during which the Navajos and the Spanish formed a fragile alliance while they fought a common enemy in the Utes. During that peace, Spanish settlers moved onto Navajo lands for the first time, and "the encroachment of thousands and thousands of Spanish sheep, and the lure that they held for young Diné seeking prestige and power, triggered a round of raiding." In 1774, Navajos attacked the settlements and successfully drove out the colonists, but the victory was brief. In 1805, Lieutenant Antonio Narbona led a retaliatory expedition against the Navajos, who retreated to Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto, where Narbona and his men massacred 155 Navajo men, women, and children, an episode that still haunts Navajo memory. The Navajos, however, remained unsubdued and continued to test their might against the Spanish government until Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. The Mexican government had no better luck subduing the Navajos than the Spanish had — if anything, warfare and slave raiding increased under Mexican rule. Violence escalated in the 1820s and 1830s. Once Spain was ousted, lines of trade with the Anglo-Americans, once kept clamped tightly shut by the Spanish government, opened, flooding the territory with superior firearms that further fed the cycle of raiding. It was a crucial period in Navajo history. Contact with the Spanish colonists and their livestock "fostered a metamorphosis from a relative small population almost invisible to Spanish observers to one of the most populous and powerful indigenous nations in North America."


Excerpted from Hubbell Trading Post by Erica Cottam. Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. Drifting into Navajo Country: Juan Lorenzo Hubbell and the Navajos,
2. Traders to the Navajos: Early Trading Posts in the Pueblo Colorado Valley,
3. Laying the Foundations: The Daily Business of the Hubbell Trading Post, 1878–1900,
4. The Rise of an Empire: Expansion and Evolution, 1900–1914,
5. Troubled Times: Changing Fortunes, 1915–1929,
6. "No Misrepresentations, No Shams, and No Counterfeits": Tourism and the Curio Trade,
7. "Seekers of Beauty" and "Adventurers into the Buried Long Ago": Visitors to the Post,
8. "The Worst They Ever Knew": The Great Depression and World War II, 1930–1945,
9. A New Era: Becoming a National Historic Site, 1945–1967,

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