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
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