Tale of the Old West from an old point of view

The Santa Fe Trail: Its History, Legends, and Lore

By David Dary Alfred A. Knopf 369 pp., $30

David Dary's "The Santa Fe Trail" is one tough trip into the history of the Old West, a straightforward narration extending from the early exploration of the Southwest to today, based on accounts of what many accept as the "truth" about an important part of United States history.

The author is an experienced enough guide when it comes to westering. His books, especially "Cowboy Culture: A Saga of Five Centuries" (1989), are testimonials to a penchant for covering the biggest subjects in the most comprehensive way. But experience as an Old West historian, especially in New West times, isn't everything.

The Santa Fe Trail is an epic subject. It's filled with dreams and disappointments, romance and myth, or as this book's subtitle would have it, "history, legends, and lore." But what is history?

One might assume that this will be a "factual," realistic narrative of people, times, and places with some legends and lore as condiment. But the "facts" here generally reflect the once accepted dominant Anglo culture's belief in Manifest Destiny and the realization of mercantile dreams. And the few attempts at recounting legends and lore often fall flat, given the lack of panache in the telling.

Between 1825 and 1827, surveyors Joseph Brown and George Sibley wasted their time defining the route taken by first one group of traders then another. Markers shifted, roads fanned out, camp sites changed, making the "trail" really a series of meandering tracks rather than a grand highway like Coronado's and Onate's Camino Real north from Mexico.

Santa Fe, as settled by the Spanish, was seen as a northern destination, an outpost established for king, church, and gold. Santa Fe in the 20th century became the destination of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad and artists and health-seekers whose gold was in the light of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the salubrious air. Today, Santa Fe glimmers as a chic showcase for Pueblo Deco artistic revival and a Santa Fe style so adored by celebrities, most of whom will remain eternal tourists to the native peoples.

Not surprisingly, there were and are many ways to the City of Faith and many centuries' perspectives on place and people: Native American, Spanish, Mexican, Anglo, and hyphenated combinations of the above.

Dary's invocation of Calliope and Clio often results, alas, in a warring patchwork of juxtaposition and mismatched sources. For example, when quoting the egregious one-time governor of Missouri, Meredith M. Marmaduke, who denounced New Mexicans as a people "entirely destitute of moral principle," the author uses such tirades as a springboard to conjecture that Marmaduke must have encountered "food shared by the Mexicans" as described in "It's an Old Wild West Custom" (1949). Out of context, this seems to disparage Mexican (and by implication, New Mexican) cuisine a century later.

The author's "objective" summary of events from mule breeding to the Civil War bespeaks a naive neutrality on issues of race and cultural appropriation that might exasperate New West readers weary of old biases.

Judged for what it is - a retelling of Old West values by means of Old West historical methodology - "The Santa Fe Trail" is still worth reading, but as is the case with all history, with more than a grain of salt.

Robert Gish is the author of "Dreams of Quivira: Stories in Search of the Golden West" (Clear Light Publishers).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.