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The Brothers Robidoux and the Opening of the American West

Robert J. Willoughby

Publication Year: 2012

Written in a unique biographical format, Robert Willoughby interweaves the stories of six brothers who shaped the American trans-Mississippi West during the first five decades of the nineteenth century. After migrating from French Canada to St. Louis, the brothers Robidoux—Joseph, Francois, Antoine, Louis, Michel, and Isadore—and their father, Joseph, became significant members in the business, fur trading, and land speculation communities, frequently interacting with upper-class members of the French society.



            Upon coming of age, the brothers followed their father into the fur business and American Indian trade. The oldest of the six, Joseph, led the group on an expedition up the Missouri River as Lewis and Clark had once done, designating a path of trade sites along their journey until they reached their destination at present-day Omaha, Nebraska. Eventually the younger brothers set out on their own westward expedition in the mid 1820s, reaching both Colorado and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Joseph eventually became a town founder in northwest Missouri near Blacksnake Creek. Antoine and Louis traveled as far as California, finally settling in Santa Fe where they became prominent citizens. As a trapper and trader, Michel endured many hardships and close calls during his journey across the West. Francois and Isadore made their home in New Mexico, maintaining a close relationship with Joseph in Missouri.



Though frequently under contract by others, the brothers did their best work when allowed to freelance and make their own rules. The brothers would ultimately pass on their prosperous legacy of ranging, exploring, trading, and town-building to a new generation of settlers. As the nature of the fur trade changed, so did the brothers’ business model. They began focusing on outfitting western migrants, town folk, and farmers. Their practices made each of them wealthy; however, they all died poor.



            To understand the opening of the American West, one must first know about men like the brothers Robidoux. Their lives are the framework for stories about the American frontier. By using primary sources located at the Missouri Historical Society, the Mexican Archives of New Mexico, and the Huntington Library, as well as contemporary accounts written by those who knew them, Willoughby has now told the Robidouxs’ story.

Published by: University of Missouri Press

Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xvi

This is a biography of six brothers who left an indelible mark on the open-ing of the American West. I refer to them as the Brothers Robidoux, as if they represent a single entity, for despite being individuals, who at points in their lives went their own way, they so frequently worked together that it is some-times difficult to tell their efforts apart. It is true that the eldest of the brothers, ...

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Chapter 1: The Business of the Father

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pp. 1-19

Three dates, each twenty years apart, set the early timeframe for this biography of the Brothers Robidoux and the opening of the American West: 1763, 1783, and 1803. In 1763 the French and Indian War ended, and as part of the terms of the Treaty of Paris, France lost the land it called Louisiana. This vast territory encompassed the Mississippi Valley, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf ...

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Chapter 2: Emerging Sons

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pp. 20-45

The events of 1803 left a profound impact on the direction of this story. Though of French roots, the brothers had been born subjects of the king of Spain. In 1803, they became Americans, as the result of one of the greatest real estate deals in all history, the Louisiana Purchase, which made St. Louis, in deed, the gateway to the American West. Personally, 1803 began to mark the ...

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Chapter 3: Working the Missouri

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pp. 46-62

By 1819 the oldest brother, Joseph Robidoux, was no longer a young, free-wheeling fur trader who traveled extensively throughout the Mississippi- Missouri river valleys. He had reached middle age, but still enjoyed the frontier life, while keeping a family, consisting of his wife and eventually eight children, comfortably ensconced in St. Louis. By all accounts he had a friendly, engaging ...

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Chapter 4: Into the Mountains

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pp. 63-87

On the Missouri River, the trade practiced by Joseph, his brothers, and the company he worked for remained very much as it had been for the two previous decades. Indians harvested the furs and pelts, brought them into the trading posts for the most part, exchanged them for merchandise, and then returned to their villages until they acquired enough skins to make it worth their ...

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Chapter 5: Trouble at Council Bluffs

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pp. 88-99

Things came to a head in 1826 when Joseph Robidoux acquired a separate license from the government to trade on the Missouri between Bellevue and Niobrara, south of the Bluffs post. The veil of using Michel as the licensee dropped, and the permit issued by William Clark in St. Louis on August 16 named Joseph as the licensee and granted trade privileges at Bellevue, the mouth of the ...

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Chapter 6: The Blacksnake Hills Post

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pp. 100-119

Joseph Robidoux retired, if only temporarily, to St. Louis and operated what remained of the family businesses located there, primarily a bakery. He apparently was neither very happy nor very good at doing it. His involvement with the Fontenelle and Drips expedition to the Green River in 1830 is certain, if only that he invested some of his money and the energy of his ...

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Chapter 7: Brothers in New Mexico

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pp. 120-132

On July 16, 1829, Antoine and Louis Robidoux appeared before an administrator of the Mexican government in Santa Fe as “citizens, residents and married in this capitol” and petitioned “That being practiced what the law of 14 of April of 1828, to acquire naturalization papers, as they demonstrate the documents that we appropriately accompany, we beg you to accept the resignation ...

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Chapter 8: Joseph Builds His Own Town

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pp. 133-144

By 1835, there may have been two hundred or more families living illegally in the southern part of the Indian Territory in which Joseph’s trading post stood. General Andrew Hughes, in charge of the subagency near the Black-snake Hills, loathed the idea of taking action against the whites. Joseph tried to have a good working relationship with Hughes, but ultimately failed at the ...

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Chapter 9: Dwindling Prospects in the Mountains

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pp. 145-167

By 1839 the beaver trade began to dry up in the once-rich trapping region of the Green River and its tributaries. The trappers who provided so much of the business done by Antoine at his intermountain posts began to wander away. The system of rendezvous, instituted by Ashley fifteen years before, also went away. As Joe Meek, a famous trapper and contemporary of Antoine Robidoux, ...

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Chapter 10: War and Finding Home

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pp. 168-177

In 1846, as hostilities commenced with Mexico over the ultimate control of the Southwest, Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny, making preparations for his campaign at Fort Leavenworth, wrote to Antoine Robidoux in St. Joseph, Missouri, offering him the job of interpreter for his impending expedition against Santa Fe and points beyond. He knew Antoine had been to California so his ...

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Chapter 11: Queen City of the West

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pp. 178-201

Joe Robidoux’s town became a western terminus of American civilization, quickly equaling Independence to the south in economic stature, and evolved into the most popular jumping off point of the great western migration. Beyond it and the western border of Missouri lay nothing of urban note until one reached the California and Oregon coast, two thousand miles away. American ...

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Chapter 12: The End of Their Era

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pp. 202-210

Isadore and Michel remained in business in St. Joseph as partners until Isadore died during the summer of 1852. In the probate records of Buchanan County, Missouri, Isadore is listed as having died intestate, with Michel, also referred to as Mitchel or Mitchell in some documents, appears as “the surviving partner of Michel Robidoux & Co.” To secure the settlement of debts owned by brother ...

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pp. 211-212

They all left the world as humbly as they had entered, with little or nothing of real tangible wealth to their names. The only one to this day with a substantial grave marker is Joseph, who was originally laid to rest in the Catholic Calvary Cemetery, then moved to Mount Olivet Cemetery in the town bearing his name. His monument stands twelve feet high and was erected by his ...


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pp. 213-234


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pp. 235-244


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pp. 245-252

E-ISBN-13: 9780826272911
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826219916

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2012