Southwest trapper surveys his vast, often dry terrain.
An unframed limited edition print from an original oil on canvas painting by Den Schofield. Fine art print available in paper or canvas form. Each limited edition print is signed by the artist and comes with a certificate of authenticity. Smaller open edition paper print also available.
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Taos was small hamlet in what is now northern New Mexico. It served as the hub of Anglo-American trapping and trading in the Southwest, during the early nineteenth century.
This location offered several advantages to American entrepreneurs. Geographically, it was a convenient point of departure to explore the valleys and rivers of the surrounding territory. (An area that now covers southern Colorado, southern Utah, southeast Nevada, southern California, Arizona and New Mexico.)
Then, Taos provided trappers with a fixed settlement where they could sell their pelts and procure supplies. Here, they could spend the off season among the comforts of a "civilized" environment. This paradise was preferable to the rendezvous system used in the central and northern Rocky Mountains.
Invariably, these activities led to intermarriage with the local, Hispanic women. Den's print shows our trapper with his Indian wife. This practice was not unheard of, in the Southwest, but was more common with northern trappers. Southwest trappers not only married far more often, but usually married Hispanic women. These marriages often required conversion to Catholicism. More often than not, these conversions were motivated by economics rather than by religious inclinations. Marriage resulted in special status and trading privileges. They also, at times, led to land acquisition and greater involvement in the community. Many trappers completed this picture by becoming Mexican citizens.
By contrast, a northern trapper's wife accompanied him during the trapping season, and then they wintered together with her tribe. These tribal societies were, of course, nomadic in nature. The southwest trapper's wife remained home, maintaining home and community, while her man worked the rivers for beaver.
Another contrast with the trappers of what is now, northern Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, etc., was the well codified legal system of Mexican society. The northern trappers lived as they pleased, a sort of survival of the fittest. Mexican culture was more civilized and this stability, ironically, led to the even stronger impact of the Americans in their territory. While this legal system led to long term stability, in the short term we are presented with yet another irony. The American trappers chose Taos as a base of operations precisely because of it's distance (75 miles) from Santa Fe's Mexican officials and their stiff tariffs. Furs could be shipped to St.Louis from Taos, and supplies smuggled in with relative ease.
Another advantage to the trappers and traders, in the Southwest, was diverse entrepreneurial opportunities. Many pursued other ventures besides trapping. Those who acquired land often took up farming or ranching. Others tried mining, worked as artisans, dabbled in politics, horse trading, and distilling whiskey for trade.
Not all was advantageous. By far, the most challenging factor endured by Southwest trappers was the environment. Water was relatively scarce, beaver furs were fewer and of lower quality, and their was no navigable waterway to St. Louis markets. These factors led to the Southwest becoming a haven for small scale enterprises and independent trappers. The circumstances simply were not profitable for the large scale investment typical of the central and northern Rocky Mountain fur trade.
Like their northern counterparts, the Southwest trapper became familiar with the geography and blazed vital trails. Thus they opened the way for the following elements of the ever westward moving American civilization: i.e. mining, railroads, ranching, farming, towns and cities. However, unlike the northern trappers, who left no "footprint" of their passing, the Southwest trappers and traders established the first settlements of United States citizens in the Far West. Indeed, the American influence, economically, culturally, socially and politically, was such that this entire New Mexico province of Mexico was acquiesced by the United States in a "bloodless conquest" during the Mexican War of 1846.
The Taos trappers were men of great ambition, enterprise, energy, and determination. They set out into a vast wilderness in search of their fortune. They were also shrewd and flexible, able to blend and work with the Hispanic culture of the area. Together they formed the society that ultimately determined the borders of the Southwestern United States we know today.
The above comments were largely drawn from the Introduction by S. Matthew Despain, to Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest 1997, Utah State University Press