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

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Craig A. Smith

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.

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