Kingpin of the Rocky Mountain Corridor

Aug 19, 2015 by     No Comments    Posted under: History

Antoine Roubideaux: Trapper, Entrenpreneur & Guide

One of the more colorful, and conflicted, characters from Delta County’s history may be Antoine Roubideaux known variously as the “King of the Colorado fur trade,” the “Prairie Wolf,” and “Kingpin of the Rocky Mountain Corridor.”

Antoine Roubideaux was an early route-finder and guide in what was then wilderness beyond the western frontier of the United States, and is widely considered the founder of at least two major western trading posts in the 1830s and 40s.

Roubideaux was born in 1794, one of six brothers in a family already renowned for its involvement in the business associated with the early days of migration beyond the ‘mountains’ (Appalachians), when places like Ohio, Kentucky and Missouri were the westward extent of a young nation.

In these early years Antoine accompanied the 1818 Atkinson-Long Expedition that explored up the headwaters of the Missouri into Yellowstone Country.

…the first scientific expedition of US government-funded ‘Army Engineers’ chartered with mapping, studying, documenting and exploring the vast area of uncharted land to be traveled between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.

articleRoubideaux made his way south from the Northern Rockies, where mountain men like Jedidiah Smith and Jim Bridger were already establishing themselves in the Upper Green River Basin, down through Browns Park.  Around 1830 the fort most associated with Roubideaux, Fort Uncompahgre, was established on the Gunnison River near its confluence with the Uncompahgre River, at Delta Colorado.

While there are not many records from this time, what is known is that Ft. Uncompahgre, in what was then part of Mexico,  was one of a handful of early outposts in present-day Colorado, which also included ‘Fort Davy Crockett’ at Brown’s Park, a fort at ‘El Pueblo’ along the Arkansas, and a series of forts that followed the South Platte.

These outposts connected a network of trading routes, plied by famous mountain men like Jim Bridger, Jebidiah Smith, Kit Carson, and Antoine Roubeaux. The traders moved goods from the east to Indians, trappers and settlers in the west, and furs and pelts from trappers in the west back, to urban markets on the eastern seaboard and in Europe.

With the majority of competition for trapping territory occurring in the Northern Rocky Mountains, the Western Slope of Colorado provided virgin grounds for the Robidoux brothers. Antione moved trade goods for three hundred miles over the “Northern Branch” to his outpost, these goods would be traded to the local Utes, as well as to trappers for beaver pelts.

Outposts like Ft. Uncompahgre served as places that traders and trappers could resupply and exchange goods.

Accounts indicate that between 15 to 18 individuals were employed at the fort.

These men would have been responsible for trading, limited trapping, preparing hides and skins, and bundling fur packs.  Additionally, the cottonwood pickets and log structures would have needed continual maintenance and replacement as the soft cottonwood rotted out.  Transportation to this location was difficult and expensive and anything that could be made or grown locally would reduce costs significantly.  Employees probably raised a garden which may have included corn, wheat, beans, lentils, potatoes, melons and squash.  Sheep or goats were probably also kept at the fort.

Robidoux’s employees were all Mexicans, probably from the Santa Fe area.  Employees typically worked under a one-year contract, and would be paid in trade goods, most of which they would receive at the end of their service.

Quite a bit is known about Antoine Roubideaux although very little of it is from him. Many others recorded encounters and business with the mountain man across a wide region.  That so many recorded in their journals the encounters they had with Roubideaux attests to both his wide ranging travels and his far flung reputation.

Hugh Lewis’ “Antoine Roubideaux, The Last of the Mountain Men” includes a wealth of information, including many of these firsthand accounts.

Besides Kit Carson’s autobiography that briefly mentions visiting Antoine Robidoux at these sites, there are several known eyewitness accounts of Fort Uintah. These are given by a Methodist Clergyman, Joseph Williams, who passed through Gunnison Country in 1842 on a return journey from Oregon country, an account by Rufus Sage of approximately the same time, made of the return journey by Antoine from his fort Gunnison to Fort Uintah, and later, on June 1st, 1844, an account of Fort Uintah given by John C. Fremont on his expedition.

In addition to founding Ft. Uncompahgre, Roubideaux is also known for guiding a ‘shortcut’ to the more common route on the ‘Santa Fe Trail’ that followed a northern branch up through the San Luis Valley and across the Cochetopa Hills, into the Uncompahgre Valley and northward along the Gunnison River, sometimes referred to as “Roubideau’s Route.”

Within this large region, the exact Intermontane Corridor appears in part to follow the Old Spanish Trail, to reach up to the Gunnison river from old Taos and Santa Fe, and to nearby Grand Junction, then to go north and west up to where the Green River emerges from the Uintah Mountains.  …a subsidiary branch called the “Grand River Trail” led from the San Luis valley over the Cochetopa pass to the junction of the Uncompahgre and Grande rivers, where Antoine established, apparently, his first post.

…It then continued past Fort Uncompahgre of Robidoux (near the present town of Delta Colorado), and thence westward, beyond the present town of Grand Junction, one branch trail striking northwesterly to White River, by way of Two Water Creek, and then following down along the White River to its junction with the Green River.

Most historians also associate Roubideaux with at least one outpost, Ft. Uintah, in northeastern Utah.  And some accounts have Roubideaux establishing a southern post near Navajo territory, around the San Juan River, and perhaps others as well.

It seems also possible that Robidoux built, kept and periodically relocated during the 1830’s a number of posts cum trading forts both in the vicinity of the Uintah River and the Green, as well as in the vicinity of the headwaters of the Grand (or Gunnison) rivers, San Juan and Rio Grand Rivers.

And although most of what is known of Roubideaux comes from the accounts of others, he was not illiterate.  Business receipts exist that document his trades, and in 1837 Antoine left an inscription chiseled in the Roan Cliffs along Westwater Creek (north of where it enters the Colorado and gives that stretch of river its name).Robidoux_inscription__large

Some distance up the Westwater Creek road, a sandstone wall about 9 feet high and 4.5 feet wide overlooks the west bank of the stream. On this wall is a prehistoric pictograph of a red shield. Above the shield is an inscription that reads:

Antoine Robidoux passe ici le 13 Novembre 1837  pour etablire maison traitte a la Rv. vert ou wiyte

Translated from the French, this means: “Antoine Robidoux passed here 13 November 1837 to establish a trading post at the Green River or White.”

The inscription is interesting to historians for several reasons, some which remain subject to debate. Roubideaux seems to have been seeking a new route that bypassed the usual route over Douglas Pass and into the Uintah Basin through Browns Park, perhaps to avoid increasing competition.

By the early 1830s Antoine was developing his own trade route along the Spanish intermountain corridor between Santa Fe and the Uinta Basin. He even became a Mexican citizen to facilitate licensing and partnerships, and he built Fort Uncompahgre on the Gunnison River. Another of his posts was the Fort Uintah referred to in the Westwater inscription.

In 1842, Minister Joseph Williams describes following the Roubideaux Route from Fort Uintah to Forth Uncompahgre:

July 27th. We started from Rubedeau’s Fort [Uintah] and cross the Wintey [Uintah] River, and next crossed Green and White rivers. Next night we lay on Sugar Creek, the water of which was so bitter we could scarcely drink it. Here two of Rubedeau’s squaws ran away, and we had to wait two days till he could send back to the Fort for another squaw, for company for him.

August 1st. We camped under a large rock, by a small stream, where we could get but very little grass for our animals. Next night we lay under the Pictured Rock, and being sheltered from the rain, slept very comfortably. Next day we traveled over rough roads and rocks, and crossed the Grand River, a branch of the Colorado, which runs into the Gulf of California, at the head thereof. Next day crossed another fork of Grand River, and came to Fort Compogera, below the mouth of the Compogera River.

fur buffaloThe fur trade was the Mountain West’s first ‘boom and bust’ economy.

In a matter of a few decades the fur trade had run its course, leaving a devastated wildlife populations in its wake.  This description (of those early Colorado outposts) notes: 

Out of these eight forts were sent many millions of dollars’ worth of furs and skins, to New York, Boston, Paris, Berlin; so many, in fact, that the beaver and buffalo were depleted and the era of the mountain man, the trading post, the rendezvous was on its way to extinction.

The devastating effect that this trade network had on wildlife was not its only dark side.  According to many accounts, a slave trade also flourished alongside the business of furs and pelts.  Various account describe gambling for “wives,” and even transporting women and children south into New Mexico–activity that may have increased as the number of fur-bearing animals crashed.

From the account of the minister, as he was left waiting at Fort Uintah for Roubideaux to arrive:

This delay was very disagreeable to me, on account of the wickedness of the people, and the drunkenness and swearing, and the debauchery of the men among the Indian women. They would buy and sell them to one another. One morning I heard a terrible fuss, because two of their women had ran away the night before. I tried several times to preach to them; but with little, if any effect.

In any case, as the fur trade declined in the 1840s, opportunities grew to guide the increasing flow of traffic across the region.

Meanwhile tensions were increasing between the Indians, the Mexican Government that controlled the region, the United States, and this growing influx of settlers, traders, and more and more, of scofflaws, hustlers, and thieves.

Describing a contemporary of Roubideaux, one scholar notes:

“Men like Smith – and there were many – actually affected the geography of their country,” says Professor Ann M Carlos of Colorado University. Although the mountain men’s time on the national stage was short, their impact was far from trivial.

The paths into the American hinterland that the men like Smith had cut were soon swamped with tides of settlers, all keen to make good on the trappers’ discoveries. The great move west had begun: America was growing and the fur trade was leading the way.

Fort Uncompahgre was destroyed by the Utes in 1844, by some accounts over a feud with the Mexican government, by others over grievances including slavery and forced prostitution with the trappers and the Fort itself.  By then Roubideaux was already spending much of his time back east.

By 1841 Antoine, approaching age 50, began wintering in the Midwest. His speech on California delivered in Weston, Missouri, inspired John Bidwell to mount the first covered wagon expedition to the Pacific. Perhaps Antoine helped his father–then age 70–found St. Joseph in 1844. Within five years it had a population of 1,800 and for a decade was the main jumping-off point for the Oregon Trail.

Still although Ft. Uncompahgre was no more, and Roubideaux had moved on, he did not sit idle.  After fighting in the Mexican American War and moving around the West a bit more, Antoine Roubideaux returned again to Missouri in the mid-1850s where he mostly remained until his death in 1860.  The St. Joseph [Missouri] Gazette ran his obituary:

Departed this life, at his residence in this city, on Wednesday, the 29th day of August, 1860, after a long illness, Antoine Robidoux, in the sixty-sixth year of his age. Mr. Robidoux was born in the city of St. Louis, in the year 1794. He was one of the brothers of Mr. Joseph Robidoux, founder of the city of St. Joseph. …When not more than twenty-two years of age he accompanied Gen. Atkinson to the then very wild and distant region of the Yellow Stone. At the age of twenty-eight he went to Mexico, and lived there fifteen years. He then married a very interesting Mexican lady, who returned with him to the States. For many years he traded extensively with the Navajoes and Apaches.

…In 1846 he accompanied Gen. Kearney, as interpreter and guide, to Mexico. In a battle with the Mexicans he was lanced severely in three places, but he survived his wounds …His conversation was always interesting and instructive, and he possessed many of those qualities which, if he remained in the States, would have raised him to positions of distinction.   … He will be long remembered as a courteous, cultivated, agreeable gentleman, whose life was one of great activity and public usefulness, and whose death will long be lamented.”

Roubideaux’s legendary reputation preceded him even in death.  In 1853 the ill-fated Gunnison – Beckwith Expedition camped near the ruins of Fort Uncompahgre, describe the remnants of “Roubideaux’s Fort” and its location in some detail.  The obituary written at his passing spoke only of his glory.  And while perhaps he also engaged in unsavory activities that shook sensibilities of clergy in his time and most of us today, Antoine Roubideaux played a significant role in shaping the Mountain West.

So even if he is not necessarily a familiar figure to many in Delta County today, his name still hangs around nearby, in the montane-to-desert riparian canyon that drains from the eastern flanks of the Uncompahgre Plateau.

And on a hike in Roubideau Canyon one is still almost certain to see sign of beaver and might catch a glimpse of ancient paths that pass across cultures and time, leading us to where we stand today.

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