When you’re driving around the country, you often see the brown signs that mark some sort of historic site. We often stop for these, even though they’re nothing we’ve ever heard of. Sometimes we hit the jackpot.
That was the case when we pulled off near Ganado, Arizona (see interactive map below) at the marker for the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site. As it turns out, although this is a National Park Service site, it’s also a working trading post, still in operation since 1878.
In 1864, the federal government hired Kit Carson to round up the Navajo people living in Arizona and relocate them to a fort in New Mexico. Carson was on good terms with a number of native tribes, especially the Utes, long-time enemies of the Navajo, and enlisted their help in the effort. The march from Arizona to Bosque Redondo proved devastating, with hundreds dying along the way and hundreds more in the forced isolation of an unfamiliar landscape.
When the Navajos were allowed to return to their ancestral lands in 1868, they found their herds decimated and their fields destroyed. Thus began an economic depression that continues into today. It was in the interest of the government that the Navajo should be content and peaceful so they recruited business owners to establish native-friendly trading posts on and near the Navajo nation. One of these was John Lorenzo Hubbell, who was 29 when he began operating this trading post.
Hubbell was born in New Mexico and spoke three languages, including Navajo. He worked hard, traded fairly, and soon established a reputation for honesty and reliability among the natives of the area. The Navajo relied on traders for contact with the outside world and for supplies they couldn’t produce for themselves. In exchange, they brought in wool, furs, and handmade weaving and pottery.
The Hubbell family ran the post until 1967 when it was sold to the park service. Today, the post hosts auctions twice a year at which outstanding native handcrafts are offered—rugs, dolls, leatherwork, and pottery.
We visited on a sunny day and thought that, except for the cars parked in the lot, it could have been a century earlier. Birds flitted through the cottonwood trees at the wash, and people crowded into the trading shop to bargain and buy. The visitor center was full of information and a local school group was hearing a ranger talk on post history.
In the post itself, we flipped through a big box of beautiful hand-woven Navajo rugs, only belatedly looking at the price tags, which ranged to several thousand dollars. What an experience. If your road takes you past a brown sign, think twice before passing it by.