Down by the River: St. Joseph, Part 1

The man who founded St. Joseph, Joseph Roubidoux, foresaw the bustling city of the 1930s dimly, if at all, when he first lay eyes the site in 1825.

Joseph Roubidoux IV had been born on August 10, 1783, to Joseph Roubidoux III, owner of 1,725 acres in St. Louis’ St. Ferdinand’s common fields. In 1789, at the tender age of sixteen, Joseph IV headed north to Council Bluffs, Iowa, and began trading there as an independent agent. In 1822 John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company bought him out and asked him to stay away from Council Bluffs so that they could establish a chain of trading posts. Three years later, the company offered Roubidoux $1,800 a year to work for them on Roy’s Branch, a tributary of Blacksnake Creek, which still flows underneath St. Joseph. He stayed for a year, then moved his post to where the Blacksnake enters the Missouri River, about where the city’s Jules Street–named for one of Roubidoux’s eight children–ends today.

At the time, Roubidoux’s Black Snake Post was not yet in the state of Missouri; it was in Indian Territory, controlled and populated by the Sac, Fox, and Iowa tribes. The Missouri border shot straight north from Arkansas, cutting off what we now know as northwest Missouri. Roubidoux didn’t mind –he relied on Indians for his trade , after all–but the other settlers who were beginning to enter the area did. It meant that they had to cut across Indian Territory to get to the Missouri River, and it also meant that the beautiful, rolling, fertile land was not open to settlement.

In 1835, General Andrew S. Hughes, the first Indian agent for the United States in northwest Missouri, asked to include the land west of the border to the river as part of the state. On September 17, 1836, Superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs William Clark granted his wish. Clark gave the Indians $7,500 for the land, moved them across the Missouri River–partly into what is now Doniphan County, Kansas–and presented them with “five comfortable houses . . . an interpreter, a farmer, a blacksmith, and a schoolmaster,” as well as “rations for one year and agricultural implement for five years.” As an early twentieth century history of Missouri’s Buchanan County romantically put it: “The red man was told to move on, and resumed his pilgrimage toward the setting sun, and the white man promptly built his cabin where the Indian’s tepee erst had stood.”

With the “Platte Purchase” completed, settlers streamed in to be near Roubidoux’s trading post. He began selling and leasing land to settlers, finally having the town platted and registered in St. Louis on July 26, 1843.

A map of Missouri before the Platte Purchase. (Click to expand.)

At the time, the town’s population was five hundred; three years later, it had almost doubled. Of its 936 residents,nearly a third were white men over 45 years of age.

The Platte Purchase territory, in red.

Meanwhile, elements of “civilization” came quickly to the growing settlement. Charles and Elias Perry set up their dry-goods shop in 1843. Hull and carter and E. Livermore & Co. built their “business house” a year later. By 1845, the first three-story building had risen from Main and Francis Streets, and the first newspaper, William Ridenbaugh’s Weekly Gazette, had begun publishing. the years 1848-49 saw “many hopes fulfilled.” According to one history, 143 buildings were built, 19 stores were operating with a combined stock worth some $400,000, and the city’s first brewer appeared–a sign of civilization if ever there was one.

For those who could afford it, a clipper ship could answer California’s Siren call. For everyone else, there was the trail. (Click to expand.)

By the winter of 1849 Gold Rush fever had come to St. Joseph, a jumping-off point for those who dreamed of riches in California and other western lands. Between April 1 and June 15, 508 wagons left the city bound for the west, carrying more than six thousand people. The next year, emigration west was estimated to be more than 100,000 people, half of whom are thought to have left from St. Jo–a staggering number for a town that had been one-fiftieth as large just three years earlier.

This Kurz painting shows the cautious ambiguity Native Americans must have felt toward the new St. Joseph settlers.

“The city was so packed full of people,” Swiss artist Rudolph Frederick Kurz wrote, “that tents were pitchedabout the city and the opposite bank of the river in such numbers that we seemed to be besieged by an army,” but the merchants loved it. Many of St. Joseph’s great fortunes–the Wyeths, the Tootles, the Krugs–can trace their beginnings to the gold seekers of 1849.

Things didn’t turn out as well for many of the adventurers. Having spent most or all of their money on supplies in St. Joseph, they had to come back, tails between their legs, days, weeks, or months later when they found themselves without funds on the unforgiving prairie. It was a hard lesson for them, and one that would shape the city’s identity for decades to come.

Down by the River: St. Joseph, Part 3