Jim Babbitt

4~ Jim Babbitt

Full Transcript in Text Format

Listen to Jim Babbitt

When [the Babbitts] first came to Flagstaff in 1886, they were really interested in being cattle ranchers.  That was the thing that was really foremost in their minds.  Along the way, after they had been in the cattle ranching business, they also got into the mercantile business, and the lumber and hardware business--parts of which they had done back in their home town of Cincinnati, Ohio.  Never had a mind about, or any idea that Indian trading would be something that they would do....  They had never gone up into the Indian country in those early years.  And certainly never had any goal towards getting involved in that business.  It just happened in a very serendipitous way.

As part of their mercantile business, they conducted both wholesale and retail operations.  And for a lot of those small, kind of independent, entrepreneurial traders who were establishing themselves up in the Indian country, after the railroad came to Flagstaff, they had, for the first time, really, a source of supply for manufactured goods, for canned food and hardware and tools and kerosene lamps and so on and so forth.  So Flagstaff was the nearest source of supply for at least a lot of the small traders on what we know today as the western Navajo Reservation.

And in 1891, one of those people was a German Jewish merchant, Sam Dittenhoffer.  He had established himself at a little trading post--outpost if you will--at Tonalea, Arizona--Red Lake, about twenty-five miles up past Tuba City.  In those days, a completely remote and isolated little place.  And his source of resupply, after he conducted his trading business up there for a series of maybe weeks or months, and had taken in trade all these Indian-manufactured goods:  rugs, and baskets, and pottery, and silver and so forth... he would load those on a freight wagon and come to Flagstaff to our wholesale operation, and he would exchange all of those Indian goods for a new supply of groceries and saddles and wool shears and wool dye--all the things that we supplied.

So in April of 1891, he had been in Flagstaff doing that business, and after he was done with the business part of his visit, went out and had a little round in the local saloons, and made the acquaintance of a young lady.  The two of 'em kind of hit it off pretty well.  She accompanied him back up to the trading post there at Red Lake a day or two later.  They had been up there not more than another day or two when another suitor of hers arrived on the scene, got in a fight with Mr. Dittenhoffer, and killed him out in front of the trading post, took his girlfriend or whatever, back to Flagstaff, and so that kind of left a little problem for my grandfather [C.J. Babbitt] and his brothers. 

They extended a lot of this wholesale business to these small traders on credit, and so now they have this little isolated trading post up at Red Lake with an inventory that they had extended on credit, and literally now, no one minding the store.  So my grandfather went up there, never having been anywhere up in that Navajo country, went up there, found this little Red Lake outpost, went in, kind of got behind the counter.  He knew no Navajo language or anything, didn't know the trading business as such, but started doing it, and started communicating as best he could with the local Navajo people.  After doing that for a few days, he found that he really liked that sort of Red Rock country up there, that Navajo country; liked the local people, became kind of interested in their language and so forth.  But I think most of all, he really enjoyed this, what in those days was a real barter-trade kind of economy there.  There was no cash up there,... the Navajos didn't have payrolls or jobs or any way to get their hands on cash.  So it was truly a barter economy.

I think my grandfather kind of liked that.  You know, "I'll trade you three sacks of groceries and a kerosene lamp for your little rug, and maybe a silver belt," or what have you.  A far cry from business today.  Accountants would be driven crazy by trying to account for those types of transactions.  But he liked it, got into it, and the family basically has been in it ever since that day.


….At its most basic level, particularly in the early days, I think the traders were actually providing a service, and that was access to goods, to manufactured goods that made life easier.  I mean, it was a tough and primitive life in the late 1800s in Northern Arizona--very tough.  And I think having manufactured goods—horseshoes… kerosene brought the first, probably, nighttime light to the interiors of Navajo hogans and so forth.  I mean, these are very simple things, but back in those days, I think they were very important things.  Ropes, for example, manufactured ropes, to rope livestock with.  We think nothing of it today, but I think back in the 1880s that was a major convenience to have.  Manufactured shears to shear the wool off the sheep.  Dye that was aniline dye that was commercially manufactured back in Pennsylvania, which we packaged and sold and supplied to lots and lots of trading posts.  [That] ended, in a way, or at least for a lot of the weavers, the backbreaking and time-consuming work of gathering all of these plants and making these vegetable dyes.  Of course, that was revived later on and thought to be a really good thing, and an artistic thing--which it was--but at the time, I think things like that were great conveniences….  The trading posts became, for example, post offices.  So the Navajos then could have access to the postal system….  I think through the trading posts, also, medical service probably first came to the reservations, along with the Indian Health Service.  Education, certainly.  I think a lot of the early-day traders, before the Native American kids were in U.S. Indian Service schools, [they] could learn at least the rudiments of English and the rudiments of doing business and currency system and so forth.

So I think there's a whole variety of good things that came from our culture to their culture through this sort of commercial intermediary, the trader.


….There is an old story that, as you have heard probably from many of the traders, that in some way or another they interacted with the weavers and suggested or promoted a given type of rug or a pattern or a given way of weaving.  I think Bruce Burnham is doing that with the Burntwater rugs, and also more recently with the revival of the Germantown rugs.  I think Cozy McSparron up at Chinle in the twenties and thirties was instrumental in kind of getting some of these Wide Ruins and vegetable dye rugs going.

Anyway, there's an old story at Red Lake that that storm pattern really was initiated by one of our traders there who said he needed a new device, kind of, to sell these rugs to the tourists.  And so there had to be a story behind the rug, because the tourists would always fall for it, if there was some story connected with the rug.  And so it is said that that trader had created, by the weavers, a rug called the storm pattern, which depicted some of the major elements of the Navajo creation story.  And so that is the story.  The truth of that I'm not sure.  I do know that through that Red Lake Trading Post we probably traded and sold thousands and thousands and thousands of those storm pattern rugs.  The original form, the old form of which, remained the same for a very long time, and which was used by our company as kind of a logo.  It was on all the stationery and the shopping bags and the little gift boxes for jewelry and so forth.  So it was very popular.  So that was my favorite kind of design.  I like the old storm pattern design....

As it has been related to me through the years by both Anglos and by Navajos, that storm pattern rug…. had elements in it from the Navajo creation story, and so I went back and looked in the literature as best I could, and asked some of the older Navajos what that story entailed.  And it is really remarkable, that story is not very far different from our own.  That is, in the beginning with them there was a great flood, also.  And they didn't build an ark, but they were scurrying around, looking for some way to survive the deluge, and they were in the vicinity somewhere of the Little Colorado and Big Colorado Rivers, and the water was rising and rising and rising.  And so they found some big cottonwood logs and they lashed them together in the form of a cross--these great big logs--and they made a big raft out of it, and they got out into this deluge and survived the deluge by having this raft.  But as they came into the big Colorado River somewhere, there was a big whirlpool.  And as they went down, they got caught in this whirlpool, and the big cottonwood log raft started whirling and whirling and whirling, and that is the symbolism of the whirling logs [reminiscent of modern day swastikas].  They eventually survived it....

Some of the other symbolism on that old-time storm pattern:  there are four squares on the outside, those are the four mountains, the sacred mountains, that surround the reservation.  And they're connected to the Place of Emergence of the Navajo people in the center of that rug, by lightning bolts.  And then you have this whirling log from their creation story on either end of that.  So I don't know, undoubtedly, like the trader wanted- made a good story to tell to rug buyers, if nothing else.


I remember going to negotiate leases in Window Rock with the Navajo Tribe's Department of Commerce, and they used to have a big map on the wall of the whole reservation, and they would put a little blue pin in the map for every location where they had a trading post lease in force.  And even in the middle 1970s or late 1970s, those little blue pins covered the map.  I mean, they were dense all over the reservation.  But through the seventies and eighties, I would say literally hundreds of little trading stores closed and went out of business.  The pins were removed.  If you look at that map today, it is a far different kind of thing than it was twenty or thirty years ago.

 And its a sad thing to see, certainly.  Trading as it once existed had its ups and downs, and it had its good aspects and it's not so good aspects, but it was sort of a unique feature of life in the Southwest, where different cultures came together to do commerce, and two cultures kind of interfaced for well over a century.  And I think now that's all going into the pages of history.

Oral Histories > Traders exhibit > Exhibits > Special Collections & Archives