Culture

Buy, sell and trade in old Taos

A look back at trade and commerce and its power to inform the future

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Mention the word "economy" to anyone in Taos and you're likely to get an earful of opinions. But, what you won't hear is the historical importance of trade and commerce in Taos and how that perspective can inform today's business climate.

Those interested in this perspective may want to make plans to attend the Taos County Historical Society's slideshow presentation, "Comerciantes, Arrieros y Modistas: New Mexican, Trails and Commerce in the 19th Century." This free, public program will be presented by Dr. Susan Boyle from El Rito Saturday (March 3), 2 p.m., at Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, 118 Cruz Alta Rd.

"Susan was suggested to me by Mark Henderson, one of the board members," TCHS Program Chair Paul Figueroa said. "We were looking to connect with the Taos Arts Consortium on (its) theme for the year: 'Taos: Cultural Crossroads of the West.' Susan's presentation gives us more information, knowledge and appreciation for the Hispanos in New Mexico's history. We're looking forward to the talk."

Boyle's résumé includes receiving a doctorate in American Social History from the University of Missouri as well as a 1988 Fulbright Scholarship to Argentina. She is the author of "Los Capitalistas: Hispano Merchants and the Santa Fe Trade" (University of New Mexico Press, 1997). She also worked for the National Park Service on heritage tourism and the study of cultural landscapes.

"Taos was a major trading center for centuries. The Pueblo Indians, the Plains Tribes, the Hispanos, all pushed aside grievances and animosities and went trading in Taos," Boyle said.

She plans to discuss how the federally designated Santa Fe National Historical Trail and El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail ignore Taos. Only the Old Spanish National Historic Trail shows Taos as a major center for goods flowing north to Colorado and eventually west to California.

When speaking specifically about the Santa Fe Trail, Boyle said, "My research shows that 'from Missouri to Santa Fe' does not even begin to tell the story. It ignores the role Taos has played in trading and commerce for hundreds of years."

She explained that some people think traders and merchants loaded their wagons in Missouri and dropped off their goods in Santa Fe. "It's more complicated than that. The designated trails do not closely correspond to historical reality."

Boyle's presentation focuses on commerce in the 1800s. Most notably, the "opening" of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821 accelerated already existing trends, which are fascinating to learn.

For example, Boyle will present the three main economic demands: modistas (tailors and seamstresses); arrieros (muleteers); and comerciantes (merchants).

The importance of tailors and seamstresses relates to the large quantities of precut fabric that were introduced to the West. These bolts of fabric were shipped from the East Coast, but some of it originated in Europe. For the first time in the history of the West, dressmaking and suitmaking could be more easily assembled rather than built from scratch, necessitating the sewing skills of modistas.

Comerciantes were rich merchants who ran stores and diversified their operations with livestock and real estate. What makes them an interesting subject is the quality of historical documentation they left behind for study.

While tailors and merchants still exist in today's modern economy, one important role has slipped away in history: the muleteer or arreiro. The ability to properly pack mules and steer them over rough walking conditions was an essential craft in the Spanish transportation system, which centers on the use of mules.

"Mules were so important," Boyle said, "that the U.S. Army has manuals, from 1908-1911, in which they speak at length about the importance of the mule and how effective it is as a beast of burden. They don't even bother to translate; they use the Spanish words."

Muleteers skillfully packed cajas (boxes), petacas (leather pouches), and bultos (packages) among numerous other merchandise onto the backs of mules.

"The seamstresses and the muleteers were of the lower class while the merchants were rich," Boyle said.

In her presentation, Boyle shows a Spanish advertisement for a commission merchant house in "Nueva York."

Like the Internet today, the commission merchants were the global connectors of their time. They arranged for large shipments coming in from Europe to make their way to Missouri. Boyle introduces one Belen merchant, Felipe Chávez, who used his relationship with a New York commission merchant house to become quite the "el millonario." Although in all fairness, Chávez was born into a wealthy family.

Nevertheless, Boyle points out the impressive practices this 19th century merchant conducted and how they are still relevant for anyone running a business today.

"In this presentation, you will learn about the role of trade and commerce in New Mexico, and how the Hispano population was a part of that," Boyle said. "The role the Hispanos have played in the New Mexico economy: some were poor people, like the seamstresses and the muleteers. Others were the rich folks: the merchants. I'm focused on people who have extensive documentation."

For more information, call (575) 779-8579.

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