Books Tell Little-Explored Histories of American West

Article excerpt

It's been said that history is written by the winning side.

The six Robidoux brothers, all born in St. Louis just before the end of the 18th century, certainly played a big part in the winning of the American West. But unfortunately for history, and their legacy, they rarely put pen to paper.

What stories they could have told. Starting out as fur traders, the brothers ranged from the upper Missouri River, to what is now New Mexico, to the western slope of the Rocky Mountains and to California. The oldest brother, Joseph Robidoux III, was the founder of St. Joseph, Mo. The No. 3 son, Antoine, accompanied Gen. Stephen W. Kearny as his interpreter on Kearny's 1846 California campaign during the Mexican-American War. And in some measure, Taos and Santa Fe, N.M.; Riverside, Calif., and Scottsbluff, Neb., are what they are today because of the Robidoux brothers.

Robert J. Willoughby, a history professor at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, acknowledges in the preface to his new book, "The Brothers Robidoux and the Opening of the American West," that others have shied from writing about the brothers because of the paucity of personal material about them.

Willoughby does an excellent job with what he has.

Joseph Robidoux comes to life in his letters from the Upper Missouri to Pierre Chouteau Jr. in St. Louis. The correspondence illustrates the power wielded by the Chouteau family, showing Pierre Chouteau in a godfather-like relationship with Robidoux, not only financing his operations but acting as a buffer from antagonists. One enemy was J.P. Cabanne. He and Robidoux worked the same Indian tribes near what is now Council Bluffs, Iowa. Cabanne also reported to Chouteau, and in one letter to him said of Robidoux: "This man is truly wicked, cunning, cheating and a rogue..."

Nor was Antoine Robidoux a saint. He was active in the Indian slave market in the Southwest, Willoughby writes.

The story of Antoine's survival at the Battle of San Pasqual in California earned him a spot in many history books. Grievously wounded by an enemy lancer, Antoine seemingly lapsed into delirium, calling out that he smelled coffee, and that a cup of it would save his life. As no one had coffee, Antoine was thought to be hallucinating. But on investigating, a cook was found to be heating coffee nearby. Antoine got some, and survived.

The Robidoux brothers generally rate only passing mention in the major histories of St. Louis. The men, though in some cases retaining property and business interests here, preferred the rawer civilization out West. In addition to families in St. Louis, the brothers, like many of the French traders, took Indian women as "country wives." Willoughby writes: "The moral questions that might attend to such an affair in the confines of white civilization seemingly vanished in the wilderness as nature called."

Willoughby uses legal documents, newspaper accounts and the written correspondence to guide his story, and the book is a worthwhile addition to the literature of the opening of the West. At times, though, Willoughby stays too long with the verbatim accounts of lawsuits and newspaper stories, to the detriment of his narrative.

The major obstacle to story-telling, though, is the lack of raw material from the subjects. If only one of them had been like the redoubtable Kit Carson, who, though illiterate, dictated a valuable memoir. …