This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Spring 2017, Volume 63, Number 2)


By Joseph Schmedding. Introduction by Jack Schaefer. Published by University of Mexico Press, Albuquerque. 1974 reprint. Xi + 356 pages, inc. introduction, foreword, contents and illustrations. Softcover. ISBN0-8263-0319-6. Originally published in 1951. Available second hand or reprint.


Born in Bremen, Germany, on 15 October 1887 of a German father and Dutch mother, Joe Schmedding was brought to the US at an early age, the family settling in North Carolina. Tall, redheaded and independent, he began work as a ‘horse handler’ aged fourteen on a stock farm in Polk county. Aged sixteen, he took off for the southwest, thoroughly learning his trade as a ranch-hand, cowboy and bronco-buster through short term jobs working for well known ranchers “Old Man” Nation of El Paso and William Calhoun McDonald of Carrizoz, New Mexico, before being taken on by Richard Wetherill of Pueblo Bonito, New Mexico, where he stayed for three years – 1905-8.


Working for Wetherill had a lasting influence on Schmedding. Richard Wetherill was an outstanding man as a rancher, Indian trader and archaeologist. Though specifically charged with tending the herd of twelve hundred or more horses on the ranch, Joe experienced all facets of the Wetherill family enterprises.


Not least of Wetherill’s influence came from the evening gatherings in Richard’s office usually attended by ranch-hands, local Indians and visiting academics from premier universities and museums. Archaeologists, anthropologists, geologists and botanists were regular visitors, many of whom were personal friends of Wetherill and immersed themselves in ranch life while staying, often with their wives and children.


Wetherill had a library which included not only books on stock raising and breeding and archaeology, for which he was well known locally to be an expert, but classic European literature, science and a selection of works on German culture, many in the German language, at which both Richard and Joe were adept. Newspapers from New York, Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and half a dozen local papers, were available along with the National Geographic, Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post and Scribner’s and Atlantic Magazines; there for reading. Schmedding took advantage of Wetherill’s library. Joe is unstinting in his praise for Richard Wetherill as an honest trader and gives him credit as the founder of his own success.


After leaving Wetherill, Schmedding adopted a wandering life before enlisting in the Fourteenth US Cavalry, serving in the Philippines and becoming a sergeant before being honourably discharged in June 1911. Settling himself in Albuquerque, he began his business career buying and selling Navajo blankets before taking over a trading post at Keams Canyon, Arizona, which dated back to the days of Kit Carson. He was deprived of his trading license by crooked secretary of the interior, Albert B. Fall. Not a man to take a reverse lying down, Schmedding took his grievance as far as President Warren Harding before gaining satisfaction and the renewal of his license.


Schmedding’s later career sees him with the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York, manager of the Firestone Rubber plantations in Liberia, West Africa, and working in Havana, Cuba, for Libby, McNeill & Libby. In the 1940s, Joe returned to trading as an importer of Mexican goods with retail outlets in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and as owner and operator of a medical laboratory in Hollywood. These developments do not come within the scope of this volume. Nor does his later life as a writer and contributor to magazines with articles on his travels and life experiences.


Most of the foregoing is derived from the researches of Jack Schaefer who contributed the introduction to the 1974 reprint. Schmedding was a traditional westerner, tightlipped in the extreme when it came to personal details and with little interest in those of his workmates beyond their name. He goes into great detail in describing his work on the range and the intricacies of bringing wagons across the mesa loaded with wool, hides and blankets for delivery to wholesalers and returning with supplies for the ranch and stock for the trading posts.


Joe is fascinated by the Southwestern landscape and the Navajo Indians with whom he lived and traded for thirteen years. His summation of their attitude to progress closely resembles his own – “…[they] have been there for hundreds of years and their conservative nature does not incline them to change. They look with suspicion upon innovations that appear foolish or useless to them. [They] are reluctant to turn form the ways of their forebears. It is difficult to persuade them that ‘improvements’ really do mean a betterment when those changes having nothing to recommend them except being of the today.”


Joe Schmedding had unbounded respect for the pioneers and doesn’t attempt to hide his disdain for what would now be termed ‘big government’, and such abominations as saxophones, film cowboys, unassimilated aliens etc. Essentially self-educated, he had nothing if not the courage of his own convictions, which he expresses throughout his memoir.

Keith Robinson


English Westerners' Society  

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