Drive through the Four Corners region, and you’re sure to encounter Ismay Trading Post in Cortez, Colorado, Tuba City Trading Post in Tuba City, Utah, Two Grey Hills Trading Post in Tohatchi, New Mexico, or Hubble Trading Post in Ganado, Arizona. They are among the remaining authentic historic trading posts.
The idea of trading posts and Navajo people go hand-in-hand. Of course, you have to include the Ute and Hopi people as well, since they too frequented trading posts.
1849 Treaty Allows Trading Posts
The Navajo Nation and the United States authorized trading houses in Navajo territory with a treaty in 1849. The U.S. had become the “owner” of the Southwest at the end of the Mexican-American War. There had been pack trains in the 1840s, and traders traveled around the reservation in covered wagons, distributing Anglo-American goods to people who, as yet, might be unfamiliar with them.
End of The Long Walk and Hweeldi
The first trading posts were established in 1868 after the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland, having been incarcerated at Bosque Redondo, the place they called Hweeldi, the place of suffering. Traders set up tents and placed planks on top of barrels to form counters.
Permanent Trading Posts Built
Traders who were most successful built permanent structures. The land on which they built remained in the hands of the Navajo. It was always possible permission could be withdrawn or the license they were required to carry could be canceled — conditions that might tend to keep traders honest.
As astute business people always do, traders located posts where customers have the easiest access. They also needed a dependable water supply and to be near a road leading to wholesalers in towns. Things got a lot easier after the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad came through in 1882 and hauled goods from rail-side depots deep into the reservation.
Trading Posts Thrived
In 1890, there were 18 trading posts on the reservation and another 30 just outside the boundary. At their peak, there were about 300 trading posts on the Navajo reservation. Today, there are fewer than 60 serving an area nearly as large as Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Rhode Island combined.
Modern World Intervened
The change came about because the modern world intervened on reservations. Following World War II, people who had served in the military had grown used to a cash-based economy. People drove cars, and roads improved. Towns expanded and introduced shopping centers. Many trading posts converted to convenience stores and gas stations. Those closest to highways thrived. Those more remote failed.
Following a Successful Plan
A trading post was the dollar store of its day, built from available materials — sandstone, adobe, and sometimes logs. Standing in the front door, you’d find, around the other three walls, counters made of rough timbers, often four feet high.
Traders always seek an advantage. In this case, the floor behind the counter was slightly elevated, making the trader appear taller. It was a small but potent psychological advantage over the customer. And — as always — behind the counter was at least one gun within easy reach, just in case there was trouble.
The central space, with a potbelly wood stove, was called the bull pen. And since traders waited on one customer at a time, on busy days people would congregate in the bull pen. They met friends and relatives they didn’t often see. People shopped and made deals, told stories, and smoked.
More Than Just General Stores
Trading posts were much more than general merchandise stores. They were the post office and bank and, as mentioned, local meeting places. Traders also served as undertakers. Navajo tradition prohibits them from handling the dead, so the trader would wash and dress the deceased, build a pine coffin, and bury the person.
The building housing the trading post also provided living space for the trader and his family. Behind the building would be corrals for livestock, a hay barn, and often a few hogans for guests who had traveled a long way.
Shelves behind the counters were stocked with coffee — usually Arbuckles — flour, sugar, canned peaches and tomatoes, salt, baking powder, lard, and other groceries. People would find shoes, hats, calico, velveteen, needles and thread, cookware, and knives. Traders hung saddles, tack, blankets, kettles, oil lanterns, and other large hardware from ceilings.
Cashless Society and Navajo Pawn
Navajo, Ute, and Hopi traded wool, hides, blankets, rugs, jewelry, baskets, lambs, and other livestock for food, clothing, and tools. When Navajos had nothing to trade, they’d purchase on credit, using old silver and turquoise, hand-woven rugs, or some other item of value as pawn. Most traders kept pawn in a special room, sometimes a vault. Pawn was required to be held for six months, after which it became “dead pawn” and could be sold. Most traders, however, held pawn longer, especially if it was as item prized by the owner and if the trader knew them well.
Twice a year, the Navajo had cash. In spring, they sheared their sheep and sold the wool. In fall, they’d sell excess lambs and piñon nuts they’d harvested. For the balance of the year, they traded.
What You’ll Find Today
As you tour the Four Corners region, you’ll find many of the traditional trading posts have been renovated and converted to convenience stores and gas stations. More have simply been abandoned and are ruins being reclaimed by earth. But there are still a few you ought to check out.
Ismay Trading Post in Cortez is an adobe with stucco overlay. It sells groceries, gas, and other small items to local Navajo and Ute. It’s off the beaten track so tourist business is not a priority.
Carson Trading Post in Bloomfield is known for its unaltered authenticity. It still operates from its original building, and there’ve been very few renovations. It has maintained its old bull pen arrangement.
Tuba Trading Post in Tuba City is a two-story, octogon-shaped trading post is built of native blue-gray sandstone. Logs for the roof of the original were hauled from San Francisco Mountains nearly 80 miles away. It’s now an Indian arts and crafts store with a small convenience store adjoining.
Two Grey Hills Trading Post in Tohatchi is one of the last remaining old-stye posts on the Navajo reservation. It’s made of stone with a tin roof. Traders here sell groceries and dry goods and do occasional trading. It’s famous for local Navajo weavers who make rugs in a distinctive pattern and color.
The oldest continuously operating trading post on the reservation is Hubbell in Ganado. Housed in its original building of red sandstone, it has thick walls with iron-barred windows. Charles Crary, who started the post in 1871, sold it to William Leonard in 1875. Juan Lorenzo Hubbell purchased the post in 1878 and completed an expansion in 1889. It was sold to the U.S. government in 1967, designated a National Historical Site, and is administered by the National Park Service.
Trading posts were, and still are, places where Navajo, Ute, and Hopi gather and visit. They are places where you can experience and appreciate the rich cultural traditions that remain as strong as a good cup of Arbuckles.