Vignettes of the Frontier Economy


Entrepreneurs of the Old West, by David Dary, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 368 pages, $22.95

Students of economic and business history know that the major activity of businessmen in the American West during the 19th century involved locating resources, extracting them, and taking them to markets. It was natural, then, that many would find opportunities in such areas as furs, lumber, mining, cattle, and later on agriculture and petroleum, while others deepened rivers, engineered canals, and threw telegraph lines and railroads from the Mississippi to the Pacific.

In addition, hundreds of merchants went west to provide its inhabitants with goods manufactured in other parts of the country and world. There were small but significant enterprises engaged in what today we would consider tourism; some journalists developed a cottage industry of explaining the West to the rest of the world, which drew visitors, who went to Colorado and Nevada with the same spirit with which their descendants today travel to Tibet and the South Seas—to see for themselves exotic and beautiful places.

David Dary, a professor of journalism at the University of Kansas and a former newsman, has undertaken to tell part of the story in Entrepreneurs of the Old West. None of Dary's earlier works—The Buffalo Book, True Tales of the Old-Time Plains, Cowboy Culture, and True Tales of Old-Time Kansas—was devoted to what generally is considered analysis of businessmen. He is thus exploring here what for him is a new field of study. This may explain why the author says that while many books have been written on the old West, "few of them deal extensively with the entrepreneurial aspect of pioneer life."

Peter F. Drucker defines the entrepreneur as one "who endows resources with new wealth-producing capacity." Given this, it might be said that a majority of the books on the West deal directly or indirectly with entrepreneurship. Lewis Atherton, Hiram Chittenden, Robert Dykstra, Robert Fogel, and Paul Gates, who are quoted in Entrepreneurs of the Old West, certainly were concerned with this matter, as was Walter Prescott Webb, the greatest historian of the subject, whose The Great Plains is devoted to showing how the westerners adjusted to their environment to produce wealth.

Unlike these historians, Dary is more at home with interesting stories and anecdotes than with synthesis and analysis. It is here that he is at his best.

For example, he tells the tale of unfortunate James Baird, who in 1822 led an expedition bound for Santa Fe. The group lost its animals and trekked the 350 miles from Dodge City to Taos in 20 days. There they purchased mules, then rode to the place they buried their stores. Before turning around, however, they were attacked by Indians who robbed them of all their belongings. What was there to do? Dary writes that "again the traders had to walk to Taos."

We learn how trappers captured beaver, how skins were cured, and of the extraction from the perineal gland of "bait," a form of aphrodisiac that was reputed to draw beaver from as far as a mile away. Buffalo hunters, writes Dary, knew that the animals' coats were best from November to March, and he tells us how the Indians treated the skins to make them marketable.

Yet, though Dary's vignettes are colorful, he overlooks much about entrepreneurship in the Old West. He writes in his foreword of the "silent army" of entrepreneurs that sought opportunity and profit in the West. But the '49ers, the miners of the Comstock Lode, the cattlemen, and the like were hardly silent. Nor were lumber tycoons like Frederick Weyerhaeuser or Hiram Sibley, who all but single-handedly created the coast-to-coast telegraph linkage.

All of this is either ignored or scanted. There are only a few pages on the California gold bonanza and nothing for anyone who has a nodding acquaintance with the event, though the Kansas territory gold rush of the 1860s is treated somewhat better. (The author, whose major interest is Kansas history, is most comfortable with matters concerning that region.) Weyerhaeuser and Sibley aren't even mentioned in the book.

It could be that the author intended to concentrate upon small businesses or has uncovered material on half-forgotten individuals; but this suspicion is dispelled by the chapter entitled "The Iron Horse Arrives," which contains standard fare on the railroad tycoons. There is some interesting material on several Kansas cattle traders, such as Frank H. Mayer, a "buffalo runner," who made a good thing of hunting the beasts for their hides and meat, but little on the beef barons of the 1880s who, often financed by Scots banks, were equally important. Dary does a decent job in analyzing the buffalo trade, though here as elsewhere the material is thin and derivative.

On several occasions Dary offers inventories of goods carried by merchants, their trading methods, and profits—just enough to make the reader yearn for more information and the author's analysis, which rarely comes. In one of the chapters, "Traders and Indians," we learn that in 1835 the sharp traders at Bent's Fort bought buffalo robes for 25 cents' worth of trade goods and turned around and sold them in St. Louis for five or six dollars. One group handled more than 15,000 skins in a season, meaning their earnings could have come to well over $80,000. We read of how wells were driven in the Plains, and how Jewish merchants—including the ancestor of Sen. Barry Goldwater—started out and eventually became department store tycoons.

Curiously, for a person with his background, Dary has produced a series of barely related essays lacking a central thesis or even an underlying rationale. He leaves one wondering just where and to what purpose he is headed in his narrative. Still, his series of 14 chapters, arranged in more or less chronological order, illustrate some familiar and a few obscure aspects of the western business scene of the time.

In essence, this is a book for readers who will be delighted by interesting vignettes that the author has culled from a careful reading of primary and secondary sources, as well as from several unpublished theses, documents, and newspapers. The illustrations are very good, and Al M. Napoletano, who is responsible for the many pen-and-ink drawings, has deftly captured the flavor of the steel engravings of the period.

A professor of business history at Hofstra University, Robert Sobel is co-author of The Entrepreneurs: An American Adventure as well as histories of IBM, ITT, and Salomon Brothers.