The Railroad and the Pueblo Indians: The Impact of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe on the Pueblos of the Río Grande, 1880-1930
by Richard H. Frost, University of Utah Press, 280 pages
In the late 19th century, urged on by economic and population pressures, the course of empire made it s way west. Railroads were the primary vehicles for this commercial and nationalistic expansion, both symbolically and literally. Whereas wagon trains moved slowly and telegraph poles were (for all practical purposes) invisible and silent, railroads were loudly assertive. Where the rails went, change came, and woe betide any local populations or cultures that stood in the way. Standing against such “progress” was a doomed endeavor from the start.
As Richard H. Frost shows in this scholarly and eminently readable study, the pueblos of the Río Grande crescent universally experienced major collateral damage from the coming of the “iron horse.” Customs and behaviors treasured for centuries were challenged. The courses of vital waterways were ruthlessly altered, the result being the loss of valuable acequias and the croplands they served. The very fabrics of the pueblos themselves were sometimes altered — and even if not, the railroads often became a looming presence whose intrusive sights and sounds could not be ignored.
Different pueblos reacted differently to the incursion. Some more or less accepted it, choosing to work with the devil as the best of a bad deal. Others attempted to stem t he metal t ide — in t he long run, with no more success than their more welcoming brethren, and not without a great deal of suffering. The railways indeed brought benefits to the pueblos, such as an increased opportunity to sell their artwork and wares, but these positive effects were a long time in fully manifesting t hemselves, and t hey came at the expense of centuries of tradition.
Frost, a Santa Fe resident and professor emeritus of American history and Native American studies at Colgate University, writes lucidly and confidently. He has t he welcome merit of being able to present a mass of facts without drowning t he reader in t hem. Rather, his style buoys one up from fact to fact and point to point, so that the perusal of the book is enjoyable as well as instructive.
The many revealing historical photographs in the book are all, save one, from the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives. The maps are interesting, but I wish they were larger, and unfortunately, the two-page map showing rival transcontinental railroads in the central West and Southwest has New Mexico and its many pueblos right down the gutter of the book, which makes for difficult perusal. The many footnotes provide good support to the text, and the index is also well done — an important element in a book like this one.
Anyone interested in Western, railroad, or Pueblo history will find this a persuasive study — one that puts an important facet of New Mexico life into perspective. For local readers, the in- depth discussion of the Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico landscape is an interesting plus. This is not light reading, but it is worthwhile.