Fur Traders and Trail Blazers (Part I)

Posted By BrokenClaw on January 21, 2007

As best as I can tell, this article was originally published in the Overland Journal (6:3) 1988. I believe that this article is important to the understanding of Otoe-Missouria genealogy, so I am posting my reference copy of the article here, unless I hear otherwise from the publisher, the author or his agent. All links within the article were added by me.

by Merrill J. Mattes

Joseph Robidoux is well known as the proprietor of the trading post at Black Snake Hills, which became the nucleus of Saint Joseph, Missouri. However, he has never been sufficiently recognized as an equal of Manuel Lisa, Pierre Chouteau, Jim Bridger, and other giants of the western fur trade. He was one of the earliest traders in the Omaha-Council Bluffs region, and entrepreneur whose initiative revitalized the Santa Fe trade, and the man whose western Nebraska trading posts and east-bound caravans were among the colorful highlights of the California Gold Rush. He was the king-pin of the prolific and energetic Robidoux family, the one who obtained the trading licenses, put up the capital, organized expeditions, and managed the headquarters post. Meanwhile his five brothers, one son, and two nephews operated in the field. Anyone foolhardy enough to research the Robidoux family has several formidable problems. Though probably none of them were illiterate, none kept a journal. Accordingly, no full-scale scholarly effort has been attempted to produce a family history. What little is known of their Western wanderings is plagued with confusions of identity. The name “Robidoux” or one of its many variations crops up in numerous sources in the history of the fur trade and later in overland migrations, but rarely with any first name. There were so many of them, that they seemed like so many interchangeable parts. To make matters worse, the name – properly spelled R-O-B-I-D-O-U-X according to signed documents – has three wobbly French vowels so the name is spelled by contemporaries at lease 75 different ways! My brief published biography of Joseph Robidoux, in the classic series entitled Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, is an effort to relieve this confusion and obscurity. Perhaps someone else will discover important source materials that I have missed and might be then willing to attempt a full-scale family biography.

To begin with there was not just one Joseph Robidoux, but four, one in each of four successive generations, so I have differentiated them for the benefit of the reader as Joseph I, II, III, and IV. We can quickly dismiss the first two after saying that Josephs I and II, father and son, migrated from Montreal to St. Louis in 1771, and that Joseph II was the father of the six brothers, the third generation which figures prominently in the period under discussion. In order of their births these attached, so the researcher is thrown back on pure speculation. In a given case, which particular Robidoux is the writer talking about? (In most cases the contemporary observer probably didn’t know himself which of several Robidouxs he encountered; there were Joseph III (1783), Francois or Francis (1788), Isadore (1791), Antoine (1794), Louis (1796), and Michael or Michel (1798).

Also figuring in our story was the first-born of Joseph III, namely Joseph IV or Joseph E. or Joseph Robidoux, Jr. Two brothers who played roles in the overland picture were Antoine II and Sellico, both sons of Francois and therefore nephews of Joseph III and cousins of Joseph IV. To summarize, we have a total of nine different Robidouxs to sort out here!

Subsequently, Joseph III joined up with Manuel Lisa and others to erect trading posts among the Omahas, Otoes, and Pancas, between the mouth of the Platte River and the original Council Bluffs of Lewis and Clark. On the west bank of the Missouri River, in present North Omaha, there was a Fort Robidoux, later known as Cabanne’s post. Its swarthy proprietor, Joseph III was visited and described in 1823 by globe-trotting Prince Paul, Duke of Wurttemberg. While brother Francois worked the territory claimed by the Pawnees, during the period from 1823 to 1826, Joseph sent his other brothers westward on trading expeditions to the Plains tribes, and then southwestward along the Arkansas River, and down to Santa Fe, in Old Mexico. This resulted in the eventual domination of the southern Rockies by the Robidoux family, at the same time that William Ashley, William Sublette and others of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company came to dominate the central Rockies.

Probably because of better source material, historians have focused primarily on the northern half of the mountain fur trade. It distresses me that so little is understood today of how the Robidoux brothers, in seven league boots, swept across the southwestern United States. Antoine and Louis became nominal Mexican citizens and prime movers in the Santa Fe trade before the Santa Fe Trail itself was fully operational, and they built trading posts in wilderness areas of present Colorado and Utah. It is claimed that as early as 1837 Antoine reached southern California, which explains why he was drafted by Colonel S. W. Kearny as guide on Kearny’s historic march from Santa Fe to Los Angeles at the outset of the War with Mexico. Antoine was badly wounded in the Battle of San Pascual that scattered the opposing Mexicans. Later, brother Louis settled in California, where he is reputed to have acquired vast land holdings; Mount Robidoux near San Bernadino is named for him.

The influence of Joseph III did not extend, of course, to California. His rambunctious brothers went far beyond his authority to penetrate the Far Southwest. Meanwhile, Joseph tangled with the equally ambitious Pratte and Chouteau interests which soon emerged as the Western Department of the
American Fur Company. Because of Joseph’s aggressiveness in Middle Missouri, and his family leapfrogging to the Southwest, Bernard Pratte, in 1827, bribed him to stay out of Indian country.” While his brothers stayed in the distant field, Joseph retreated to Saint Louis, though he soon returned upriver to his old haunts in the Black Snake Hills. There he established a permanent post, sometime between 1826 and 1831, at a site Roy Coy, formerly of the Saint Joseph Museum, identifies as being at the corner of Jules and Second Streets, in the old ware house district of Saint Joseph.

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