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Historian Robert J. Willoughby manages an intimate portrayal of the brothers Robidoux, blending Turner’s frontier thesis with recent Borderlands scholarship. Beyond simply loner fur trappers, Willoughby emphasizes the “multiple, intertwined relationships” (p. x) the brothers engaged in as they navigated their way westward. Willoughby contextualizes this family biography across three key transitional dates—1763, 1783, and 1803—and in relation to more famous characters, reminding readers of the Creole roots of America in the Louisiana Territory, where national identity and sovereignty increasingly became contested under growing Anglo-American immigration before the advent of the railroads.
In the absence of personal diaries or memoirs from any of the brothers, Willoughby skillfully utilizes other primary sources, especially letters and documents from those whom the brothers Robidoux encountered in and out of the courtroom through their business and political affairs. In essence, the Robidoux brothers (all six of them) beginning with Joseph the eldest in Missouri, spread throughout Upper Louisiana, the American Southwest, and intermountain region, becoming cultural brokers or go-betweens among multiethnic communities as fur traders, wholesalers, and land speculators. For example, Louis Robidoux made a good life for himself in Santa Fe after taking Guadalupe Garcia as his common-law wife and becoming a Mexican citizen in 1829. Between the Taos Rebellion of 1837 and the Texan Santa Fe Expedition of 1841, however, the era of good feelings towards Americans evaporated and so Louis transitioned from fur trapping in New Mexico to farming in California on his Rancho Robidoux. Trouble followed as Louis became upset with local politics during the Bear Flag Revolt in the spring of 1846. Meanwhile his brother Antoine, who also had taken a common-law wife in New Mexico, served as interpreter to Col. Stephen Kearney during the Mexican War. Throughout these troubled times, Willoughby explains that the brothers Robidoux transcended changing nationalities and boundaries in the pursuit of profit.
Willoughby’s narrative pulls no punches, documenting how the brothers Robidoux took advantage of great distances, frontier polygamy, and the slave trade to build their fortunes. He casts a wide audience sympathetic to victims of scandal and violence through coverage of a vast region while humanizing the brothers whose own susceptibility to such vices as gambling and alcohol made them men [End Page 325] of their times. Ironically, Joseph Robidoux, who became the most successful of the brothers with his establishment of the town in Missouri that eventually bore his name—St. Joseph—parlayed his skills at playing “poker” into providing subsistence for down-and-out family members while loans to business partners went unpaid. On other hand, Louis Robidoux experienced declining fortune by the 1860s as Mother Nature presented western farmers with drought, grasshoppers, earthquakes, and flooding while Indian unrest depleted livestock. Turning to the bottle following a debilitating hip fracture caused by a fall from a horse, Louis lost his ranches amid growing debt and litigation and eventual foreclosures. Their stories are a reminder that the transfer of land and capital from the fur trade to real estate could just as quickly be lost as won whether justly or not.
Willoughby’s book, successfully synthesizing conflicting perspectives about the opening of...