Notorious Trapping and Trading Entrepreneur
by Paul O’Rourke
Excitement reigned during the annual spring homecoming of trappers and traders. Oxcarts and overburdened pack mules entered the courtyard where buckskin-clad men, as mud-caked and beleaguered as the beasts they drove, unloaded their charges. The mountain of beaver pelts grew taller with each disencumbered animal, and Antoine Robidoux realized, with pride and a little relief, that this year’s trapping season was another unconditional success.
From the tangle of men and animals, Antoine’s older brother, Joseph Robidoux III, approached, a leather satchel in hand. Eze a letter from our friend Auguste Chouteau, he said earnestly. He says our future lies to the south, in New Mexico and in the country north and west of Santa Fe. Both brothers understood their days working the tributaries of the upper Missouri River were numbered. The region was overrun with trappers from competing companies, and the once-plentiful supply of beaver was depleted. It would be left to Antoine to seek out new territory for the Robidoux family. I must stay here and watch over the business, said Joseph. Now that Mexico is free of Spain,* there may be a place for us there. Eze your time now, mon frere.
Joseph, head of one of the more prosperous French-Canadian merchant families in St. Louis, left Antoine to ponder the impact of his words. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the demand for beaver fur, used in the manufacture of wildly popular men’s top hats and fashionable outer garments for women, had made their family rich. To preserve that prosperity and extend the family business into a rugged, potentially dangerous and almost entirely unknown frontier would be the younger sibling’s responsibility. Antoine Robidoux, just a few months shy of his thirtieth birthday, set out for Santa Fe, 800 miles away, in the spring of 1824, determined to repay his brother’s faith in him.
There, the younger Robidoux was inducted into Santa Fe society by Auguste and Pierre Chouteau, his well-connected family friends and business associates. Antoine was introduced to veteran American trapper William Huddart and joined him on an expedition that took them north from Taos, across the San Luis Valley and over the Continental Divide at Cochetopa Pass. They followed the Rio San Xavier (Gunnison River) west through country teeming with beaver and occupied by friendly Natives to reach their destination at the Green River in what was to become eastern Utah. Antoine returned to Missouri the following fall to the new home of the family’s business, 200 miles upriver from St. Louis, at St. Joseph, a bustling commercial outpost named for his older brother. He brought bad news: Mexican officials had passed laws forbidding American incursions. However, with the understanding that French trappers would be allowed to ply their trade in the region if they first obtained Mexican citizenship, Antoine returned to Santa Fe in the spring of 1826.
For all his grit and drive, Antoine was a charmer, as comfortable in the backwoods as he was on the dance floor at the governor’s palace. His good looks and articulate Spanish bolstered his rising status in Santa Fe. In 1827, he was elected to the Santa Fe Junta del Ayuntamiento (town council), where he loudly condemned foreign (American) trappers and traders for exploiting the resources and flouting the laws of “his” country.
Despite gaining favor and commercial influence in Santa Fe, Antoine grew impatient. The two-year probationary period prior to receiving citizenship did not partner well with his insatiable need to keep on the move. And for Antoine, there was more than one way to skin a beaver. She was vivacious, a dark-haired beauty. According to stories, the señorita loved to ride to fiesta in Albuquerque on horseback; from a far bank, she would dare her sheepish male companions to swim their mounts across the flooded Rio Grande. Carmel Benevides, adopted daughter of the governor, was just what Antoine needed. Within weeks of his marriage to her, Antoine received what amounted to an almost exclusive license to trade and trap in the Ute country of present-day western Colorado and eastern Utah.
The Utes had traded with New Mexicans in Taos and Santa Fe for decades, and Mexican traders were equally familiar with Ute country. They told Antoine that the confluence of the Rio San Xavier and the Rio de San Francisco (Uncompahgre River) was a favored Ute gathering place and an ideal site for a trading post. Fort Uncompahgre was erected in 1828 and became the staging ground for Antoine’s trapping and trading operation. The 300-mile route from the fort to Taos, over the same path taken four years earlier by Antoine and Huddart, became a well-traveled thoroughfare. It linked, both commercially and culturally, Missouri, New Mexico and the Ute-inhabited western frontier.
Happy to avoid the lengthy travel to markets in Santa Fe or Taos, the Utes welcomed Antoine and his Mexican traders. The Indians became the mainstays of the business at Fort Uncompahgre, both as suppliers and as consumers. Intimately acquainted with the streams adjacent to the Uncompahgre and Gunnison, including what are now Leopard Creek and the San Miguel River, Ute trappers spread out over the region in search of valuable beaver.
Trapping was prosperous work. During the late 1820s, high-quality beaver fur could fetch anywhere from $5 to $6 per pound—the average pelt weighed about 1.5 pounds—and an ambitious trapper could earn from $150 to $250 in as little as two weeks. At the same time, good agricultural land in the East was going for $1 per acre and wages for an average laborer ran $200 for an entire year. The Utes had no particular interest in dollars, yet they quickly learned that Antoine’s fur-trading business meant material wealth and cultural and social benefits. Butcher knives, axes, copper kettles, iron arrowheads, blankets, cloth, needles, trousers, shirts, jackets, combs, mirrors, beads, tobacco, coffee, tea and Mexican sugar were in great demand at the fort, and the ample supply of beaver pelts during the early years drove what appeared to be a surplus of riches for both trapper and trader. Homecomings in St. Joseph were festive those first few springs, for as long as they could supply him with beaver, Antoine was ready and all too willing to ship to Fort Uncompahgre whatever goods the Utes desired.
Antoine also traded guns to the Utes at Fort Uncompahgre. In an arrangement that appeared to favor trader over trapper, a smoothbore flintlock rifle purchased in Missouri for $10 could be exchanged for $700 worth of Ute-supplied beaver pelts. The guns were valuable to the Utes, though, because the Shoshone and Comanche to the north of their territory were receiving firearms from the Hudson Bay and American fur trading companies. Obtaining their own weapons might help the Utes level a growing imbalance of power among the Native tribes in the West. That this beaver-for-guns trade did not sit well with Mexican or American authorities— both countries had made such commerce illegal—proved only a minor annoyance for Antoine. He simply cut a bypass from the main route through present-day, south-central Colorado—connecting with the Santa Fe Trail near what is now Walsenburg—thus avoiding, for the time being, any contact with New Mexican officials. What did concern him, as his enterprise was maturing in the mid-1830s, were things over which he had no control— like the demand for beaver pelts.
Chinese silk had arrived in European markets during the early 1830s. Lighter and decidedly cooler than beaver, silk hats, for both men and women, quickly became the rage among Europe’s upper and middle classes. Nutria, an aquatic rodent from South America, was imported to Europe in great quantities during this same time and soon displaced beaver as fashion’s fur of choice. A prime beaver pelt worth $7 to $8 during the late 1820s fetched no more than $2 in 1835. This adjustment in the supply and demand affected the Ute trappers, who couldn’t quite understand why the same number of pelts brought them fewer and fewer finished goods.
Possessing a certain entrepreneurial dexterity, Antoine located new markets for alternate Ute products, finding a use for beavers beyond their furry skins. Castoreum, a glandular fluid secreted by beavers, was gaining popularity in the treatment of such maladies as earache, gout, epilepsy and even dementia. The gland’s apparent healing power derived from the beaver’s diet of willow bark, which contains salicin, a chemical used as an analgesic and to treat fever and rheumatism.
Aside from miracle drugs, Antoine also capitalized on the demand for contraband, even if it was obtained by questionable means. He soon realized that there was a need for horses and mules in northern New Mexico and on the western frontier of the United States. Allowed to roam free in California, equine mounts were often spirited away from western pastures by overly ambitious Mexican and Ute traders and, not surprisingly, found their way to Fort Uncompahgre. From there, they were moved south and east and quietly sold to eager buyers. Like horses, Native slaves were also a desired commodity in the northern regions of New Mexico, where domestic and agricultural labor was scarce. Powerful tribes such as the Utes were not at all reticent to raid weaker bands in search of “tradable” human flesh. Though slavery was declared illegal in all the territories governed by Mexico in 1830, boys from eight to 12 years old might bring $50 to $100 in trade at Fort Uncompahgre, and young girls could bring perhaps twice that much. In Santa Fe, Antoine discreetly sold young captives for much larger sums of Mexican silver. It’s probable that Antoine paid officials in Santa Fe to overlook his illicit trading; such was the level of authority he could exert over the management of his own business affairs. His influence, however, could reach only so far.
Antoine was no peace negotiator. Though they viewed the permanence of Fort Uncompahgre as a sort of necessary evil, the Utes and other tribes grew increasingly agitated as Mexican farmers moved north from Taos into the San Luis Valley. Responding to a Navajo raid on a New Mexican frontier settlement, Mexican troops retaliated against the first Native village they encountered, inhabited by innocent and unsuspecting Utes. Five Ute chiefs and 100 warriors, in September 1844, traveled to the governor’s palace in Santa Fe—not to seek revenge, but to negotiate peace. The inexplicable murder of one of the chiefs in the governor’s office enraged the Ute delegation and set off a killing spree that ran from Santa Fe to Abiquiu—violence that ultimately made its way to Fort Uncompahgre, where three Mexican employees were killed and all of the trade goods stolen.
Antoine was blamed for the outbreak of Ute hostilities. It was he, according to reports, who had supplied weapons to the Utes. Alarmed by the cries for her husband’s arrest, Carmel, along with their adopted daughter, packed up their belongings and moved to St. Joseph. Aware that things were faring poorly in Santa Fe as well as at the fort, Antoine left for Wyoming and, after arranging for the liquidation of most of his business holdings in New Mexico, rejoined his family in Missouri during the fall of 1845.
Fort Uncompahgre, the first permanent American settlement in western Colorado, was more than a commercial outpost. It was, for Natives in the area, that life-altering moment of first contact with Anglo-Americans. The fort was also a destination, a reference point for westward-moving Americans. Antoine, by making the passageway from Missouri to eastern Utah accessible, essentially shortened the distance— geographically and psychologically—between what was known and what was not. Without Antoine and other entrepreneur-explorers of his time, the span of territory from the Continental Divide to the Pacific may not have been bridged as quickly as it was, and Californians might well have been pledging allegiance to the Queen rather than to the United States. By the mid-1840s, Britain, along with Russia, had established strong commercial interests in northern California. When Mexico offered the territory to England as collateral for a loan, Parliament was more than a little interested in exploring the possibilities. The United States, not about to let that happen, immediately offered $25 million for the purchase of New Mexico and California, which was, just as promptly, rebuffed. Following a well-publicized Texas border skirmish provoked by American troops, Congress—in full agreement with President James Polk’s call for aggressive expansionism—declared war on Mexico on May 12, 1846. Just over three months later, Antoine Robidoux, a soldier in Colonel Kearny’s Army of the West, stood on the roof of the governor’s palace in Santa Fe and interpreted into Spanish Kearny’s call to the citizens of the city to swear allegiance to their new American governors. For Antoine, it must have been a memorable and bittersweet homecoming.
(*From the late sixteenth century until 1821, the state now known as New Mexico was part of Mexico and under Spanish colonial rule. After Mexico was liberated from Spanish rule and for the next 25 years, until 1846—when the United States assumed possession of it—the territory of New Mexico was governed by Mexico.)