From Preservation Issues, Volume 3, Number 3

A Celebration of Diversity

by Patrick O'Brien
"The town [Independence] was full of African slaves, indolent dark-skinned Spaniards, profane and dustladen bullwhackers going to...Santa Fe... and emigrant families bound for the Pacific." 1846 Anonymous (Quoted from Independence, Bernd Foerster)
The diversity of landscapes, populations, and ideas is critical to an understanding of the American experience. some still insist it is not a traditional way of looking at the nation. However, over the last 20 years, many historians have reexamined the important question of American diversity.

The diversity model (or, to quote Patricia Nelson Limerick of the University of Colorado at Boulder, the "rendezvous or convergence" model) treats American history as a celebration of the diverse. In this model, the history of the United States is seen as a congress peoples with individual ethnic identities forming a national experience, rather than creating the illusion of a human amalgam resulting in a single new people.


Photo courtesy Kansas City Star. Westport Road at Pennsylvania Ave. in Westport as it appeared in 1892. The Santa Fe Trail proceeds from foreground to background at center. Albert Boone's store is at far right.

The overland trade between the United States and Mexico in the first half of the 19th century provides an excellent example of the importance of the diverse in understanding American history. Known to Americans variously as the Mexican or Santa Fe trade, it is traditionally interpreted by American historians as an active economic interchange between the United States and Mexico from 1820 to about 1879. In actuality, it based itself in centuries-old native American and European economic patterns with beginnings in the 17th century and exemplified by the trade fairs of Taos, N.M., the economic patterns of the native American comancheros, and the western fur trade. It continues to this day, involving the southwestern regional markets still largely dominated by Kansas City.

The Santa Fe trade of the 19th century consisted of manufactured goods from the United States and Europe being transported thousands of miles by water and overland routes from eastern American ports to Santa Fe, Chihuahua, and Mexico City. Traders brought specie and raw materials like wool back to the states to trade for additional manufactured goods. Exorbitant Mexican tariff rates at Veracruz (Mexico's only Caribbean port) and technological advances in transportation such as the Allegheny Portage Railroad between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and later the transatlantic steamship, combined to make the overland trade economically possible.

Trade between Santa Fe and Chihuahua and western Missouri required the cooperation of an international business community to ensure its success. Middlemen, or "comerciantes," handled the movement of goods with sometimes as many as a half-dozen separate firms involved in the transfer, storage and shipment of goods. A single shipment of goods from Europe for the Mexican trade involved insurance agents, banking houses, and the U.S. Mint, blacksmiths, wagonmakers, wheelwrights, saddlers, gunsmiths, tailors boot makers, teamsters, managers - plus ancillary services such as merchants, grocers, saloon keepers, hotel owners, farmers, stock drivers, slaves, and various other peoples supplying services to those individuals and firms freighting goods to the southwest.

The speculative trade that developed between western Missouri and Mexico in the 19th century depended on an international network that included men and women of various cultures, involving two continents and stretching across thousands of miles of ocean, mountains, rivers, and deserts. The town of Independence became one of a number of entrepots on an international trade route that extended from Europe across the Atlantic and the North American continent to central Mexico that had been sporadically in operation in one form or another for more than 200 years. Furs provided the first trade focus for the route. Later, the trade expanded to include both natural resources and manufactured goods involving a variety of peoples and cultures. Located at that crucial southeast bend of the Missouri River, the Independence and Jackson County region served as a natural point of transfer and supply for caravans leaving for and returning from the southwest. The town remained active in the trade from its founding in 1827 until the middle of the 19th century. Just before the Civil War, Kansas City supplanted Independence as the trade's eastern supply point. After the war, railroad technology changed the face and intensity of the trade, but not its basic nature.

International trade required an international community and a cooperative network of people to foster its development and guarantee its success. The center of the Independence/Santa Fe trade formed around a few business people who managed to cooperate and survive. They included Spanish, Mexican, Anglo, Free Black, Jewish, French Canadian, and German peoples. They included men and women, slave holders and slaves.

The question of diversity and its place in American history is important today particularly as the American nation defines who we are as a people, at a time when cultural diversity is seen by some as a dangerous and subversive thing. The world of the Mexican or Santa Fe trade revolved around a speculative economy that was based, not on a tangible mineral resource, but on the vagaries of international trade. Americans named the trail town of Independence after an important American ideal that, in time, became the byword of the American West. The independent ideal, however, constituted an illusion. The town of Independence, like the trade and nation it served, was not independent of its region, its nation, its peoples, its economics, or the international world in which it existed. International trade required international cooperation.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A native of Independence, Mo., Patrick O'Brien served as that city's historic preservation officer from 1977 to 1984. O'Brien is currently a historian for the eastern team of the Planning Division at the National Park Service's Denver Service Center.

All text and photos are taken from Preservation Issues
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Historic Preservation Program, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, MO 65102
Editor: Karen Grace
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