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Sharps rifles and Spanish mules: the San Antonio-El Paso mail, 1851-1881.

Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules: The San Antonio-El Paso Mail, 1851-1881.

By Wayne R. Austerman. (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1985. xiv 367 pp. $29.50.)

Like most postal histories, this account of an important mail route sacrifices significance for drama. Although Wayne Austerman offers tantalizing glimpses of ideas that could enrich business history, he rarely interrupts his colorful and vividly written narrative to develop them. The many assumptions and occasional assertions about the importance of postal communication to business development remain unexamined.

In most respects, this is a work of regional history. The author details every watering hole, rise, and bend on the route that stretched from San Antonio to El Paso and in some years on to San Diego. Characteristic of this genre, the story is organized around the travails of several individuals. Mail contractors and their employees wrestled with the terrain and the weather, Indians and highwaymen, government bureaucrats and politicos. The narrative unfolds as a series of advances and setbacks in the face of such adversities. The level of detail, appropriate in regional histories, crowds out interpretation and renders the book less useful to readers interested in business and communications. The work is, however, supported by meticulous research in government documents, newspapers, and local histories and biographies.

Despite some shortcomings, Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules makes a modest contribution to business history, in two ways. First, it sketches, though tentatively, a picture of mail transport companies as business enterprises. Second, it suggests the importance that frontier businesses attached to regular communications.

As businesses, the firms carrying the mails in the West faced a number of obstacles. The principal operators of the line studied here were businessmen from the communities that stood to benefit from regular mails. Often with little experience in commercial transportation, they tied their own fortunes to those of the risky mail service. Contracts to carry the mail were secured by submitting bids to the post office department in Washington. For the thirty years during which the line operated, no contractor made much of a profit. George Giddings, for example, lost $60,000 on the contract in a fifteen-month period because of Indian depredations and fines levied by the post office for late mail deliveries. To minimize financial losses, those who operated the line occasionally traveled to Washington to lobby at the post office department and Capitol. Contractors continually drew on their own resources and sought credit in order to maintain service. Political vicissitudes increased the uncertainty of conducting business; presidents and postmasters general used contracts as political patronage, and Congressional authorization of new routes or levels of mail service depended on the regional balance of parties at the moment.

The contractors' extraordinary efforts to keep their lines in operation indicate the value they placed on them, as do the many contemporary statements, which the author carefully records, extolling the virtues of regular postal service. Such expressions of support reflect the perceived importance of the mails to frontier towns, but the specific advantages are never explored. At best, there are hints. For instance, the author asserts that "the mail company's value lay as much in its role as a seedbearer for other enterprises as in any revenues generated for its proprietors or the government' (p. 132). What other enterprises, one might ask? Elsewhere, Austerman avers that merchants hoped to extend their markets via mail lines radiating from cities, and that communications ended political and economic isolation. Such observations, though hardly original, nonetheless beg for amplification.

The title, Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules, suggests that Austerman did not intend to write an analytical business history. Indeed, he has fashioned a fairly traditional regional history, albeit one of greater breadth and presented in crisper prose than most of the genre. Still, had he looked beyond the many paeans offered to the mail service, this study could have yielded insights helpful in understanding the role of communications both on the Texas frontier and throughout the West.
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Author:Kielbowicz, Richard B.
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1986
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