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The Silver of the Sierra Madre: John Robinson, Boss Shepherd, and the People of the Canyons

Author(s):Hart, John Mason
Reviewer(s):Beatty, Edward

Published by EH.NET (January 2009)

John Mason Hart, The Silver of the Sierra Madre: John Robinson, Boss Shepherd, and the People of the Canyons. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008. ix + 237 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8165-2704-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Edward Beatty, Department of History, University of Notre Dame.

Silver dug from the mountains of Mexico flowed through international economic markets for five centuries. During boom periods it motivated investments from Europe and the United States, attracting a flood of people and new technologies to Mexico, while the outflow of silver ingots and coins onto ships and then rail cars frequently left Mexico with periodic shortages of silver coins.

Historians, economic and otherwise, have examined many parts of this story, from its origins in the 1500s to its twentieth century decline. It is a story, like precious mining stories everywhere, of booms and busts, of recurrent cycles of discovery, investment, and production and, when the costs of extraction catch up to mineral prices, of decline, at least until metal prices rise or new techniques make extraction of lower grade ores profitable.

John Hart, the John and Rebecca Moores Professor of History at the University of Houston, is a historian of nineteenth and early twentieth century Mexico who has written extensively on that country?s revolution of 1910-20 and especially on the history of Americans and American interests south of the border. Nothing drew more Americans (and more investment dollars) to Mexico than the mining sector. By 1910 U.S. investors controlled the majority of all mining enterprises and dominated the business of smelting and refining, from gold and silver to the industrial metals. Hundreds of young Americans sought their fortune, or at least the opportunity to gain management experience south of the border before returning north. (They also found their way into popular culture, from Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to Wallace Stegner?s Pulitzer-winning Angle of Repose.)

In this book Hart offers a micro history of one mining center and the two American men who controlled it from 1860 to 1910. Batopilas lies deep in Chihuahua?s copper canyon country, remote both from the Pacific port of Mazatl?n and overland access to markets in the city Chihuahua and beyond. The great veins of silver ore that ran through the mountains surrounding the town had been worked modestly for a century or more when John Robinson arrived with enough cash to buy the central properties outright and enough connections to leverage further investment and connect local production to export markets.

The story Hart tells focuses primarily on the two men and their styles of entrepreneurship: their ability to build a network of connections in the U.S., for investment, and in Mexico, for support and protection. Hart paints Robinson as a somewhat benign paternal figure while Shepherd, in contrast, is cast as a classic feudal lord. His word and action ? backed by Federal authorities ? defined the law through a vast region, with little benign about it. Hart is most interested in tracing the impact of American investment and imperious entrepreneurship on the local region: the land and its inhabitants. He touches on the environmental destruction wrought by the mining boom: waters polluted by mercury and cyanide, mountain slopes denuded of all trees. He also details the transformative and often equally destructive social consequences ? with allegations of coerced labor in horrific conditions; the segregated lives of American owners, managers and technicians from the local population; and the ways in which Americans? authority undermined nearly all forms of local political voice. Mining?s impact on the regional indigenous population ? the Tarahumara or Raramuri people ? was particularly destructive.

Economic historians looking for insight into Mexican mining history, entrepreneurship, the silver business and its global context will find little here besides some vivid anecdotes. Hart?s interest lies in understanding Robinson and Shepherd and their relations with and impact on the local region and the people who lived there. We get bits and pieces of the business ? scattered references to wages and production levels and the introduction of new techniques ? but nothing systematic or analytical. It is not clear whether this is a function of the evidence available (the archival bibliography indicates substantial materials and an exhaustive search by Hart) or by the author?s disinterest in such questions. While painting a vivid portrait of the local empires that Robinson and Shepherd built in the barrancas around Batopilas, Hart?s account is often frustrating. Citations are relatively few, and long detailed passages are drawn from several contemporary and modern synthetic accounts.

Hart?s central argument, often implicit, is that this story is a classic one of the exploitative, immiserating effects of extractive foreign investment, part of ?the American takeover of Mexico.? There is little doubt that, first, the impact on the local environment and peoples was largely destructive ? especially under Shepherd?s tenure ? and second, that the vast wealth generated from local rock ended mostly abroad with little positive affect in Mexico. Clearly this was a near enclave activity, with few domestic linkages. The Mexican governments through this period failed to impose taxes or other requirements that might have siphoned off some portion of the profits and know-how generated by American investments. But there is no systematic examination of this and most other issues here. Moreover, there is no indication of whether things would have been any different under Mexican ownership (or any other counterfactual scenario). This book paints a vivid portrait of the local impact of one case within the global nineteenth century mining boom and, while offering little in the way of economic or business history, provides an additional window for anyone interested in understanding the full impact of this experience for Mexico.

Edward (Ted) Beatty is Associate Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame and currently serves as director of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies. He is working on a history of technological change in nineteenth century Mexico.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII