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Across the Fence: Connections
November 24, 2011 M. Timothy Nolting   

Read more by M. Timothy Nolting
I am always intrigued by the connections I often find in the history of the places where I have lived. Of course I realize that all of history is interconnected and the events, as they unfold, become a part of the collective story of humankind. However, for someone like me, who is keenly interested in local history, those connections often present doorways for new discoveries and interesting stories.

One of these interesting pieces of history, that I most recently discovered, took place on November 20th, 1843. It was on this date that an important fur trading post on the banks of the Missouri River had a change of name. Prior to the name change, this early western trading post in the Platte Territory was known as The Blacksnake Hills Trading Post. The picturesque location in the hills above the Missouri river was a major gathering place for the surrounding native tribes of Ioway, Sac, Fox, Sioux, Kickapoo, Delaware, Pawnee and Winnebago.

Native legend tells the story of how this area gained its namesake. According to Indian stories, many thousands of moons ago, two enemy tribes, one being the ‘Black Snakes,’ engaged in a terrible bloody battle that continued for days. At the end of the battle the Black Snake tribe was driven to the top of a nearby hill called ‘Kings Hill’ where they were brutally exterminated.

From that time forward the place was known as Black Snake Hills and was regarded as sacred ground. It was near the Black Snake Hills on the river bluffs behind, known to the Indians as Council Hills, that the native people believed the souls of their ancestors came for their departure to the Great Spirit on the rays of the setting sun. They called the place La-No-Wah, the ‘sunbridge.’ The area surrounding Black Snake Hills and Council Hills was called ‘Wah-wah-lanawa,’ a holy place of peace, a refuge where weapons and bloodshed were forbidden. It was to them, ‘the holiest place on Earth.’

Seventeen years before the historic name change, in 1826, French-Canadian Joseph Robidoux III established the Black Snake Hills Trading Post. This was one of the earliest posts of the American Fur Trading Company and was shrewdly operated by Robidoux. After the decline of the fur trade, Joseph Robidoux continued living in Black Snake Hills and became a successful and prominent businessman. By 1836, the Indians in the area had been forced out by encroaching settlement and the former Platte Territory became the state of Missouri. In 1843, the fledgling post had become a growing and wealthy town and its citizens decided a more respectable name should be given. And so, Black Snake Hills became Saint Joseph, Missouri.

The thriving town became a gathering place for westbound immigrants where wagons, oxen and supplies could be gathered for the trip. In 1849 alone, more than 2,000 wagons crossed the Missouri River at St. Joe. Later, in 1860, St. Joe would become the eastern terminus of the famous Pony Express. It would become a major shipping point for Texas Longhorns driven north to the cow towns of Kansas, then by rail for slaughter in the packing plants of St. Joseph, Missouri and Chicago, Illinois.

I was born and raised a short 50 miles south of St. Joseph, Missouri, where my ancestors settled, a stones throw off The Old Santa Fe Trail. At various times I have immersed myself in the history of that area. From the romance of the Pony Express to the drama of the assassination of Jesse James, the happenings in St. Joe were a part of my own history. And the connections between family and the events of history continued.

Joseph Robidoux III had six sons. At least two of those sons were raised under the tutelage of their father in the business of trade. Both Joseph Robidoux IV and his brother Antoine Robidoux were active in the settlement of the west as traders along the Oregon Trail from St. Joseph, Missouri to Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff and beyond.

It was either Antoine or Joseph Robidoux IV who founded and operated the trading post and blacksmith shop on the Oregon-California Trail in the Wildcat Hills near present day Gering, Nebraska. The pass, now known as Robidoux Pass, was first used by early fur trappers in the 1830s. It was there, in 1841 that the first transcontinental wagon train, the Bidwell-Bartleson Expedition, with 80 emigrants and Catholic missionary Father De Smet crossed over the pass to the western plains toward Oregon. Robidoux came to the area in the later 1840s and saw the heaviest use of the pass during the California gold rush. In 1851, Mitchell Pass became the more popular route through the Scotts Bluff area and Robidoux Pass and the trading post faded into history.
Today, my wife Deb and I live about 50 miles to the south of Robidoux Pass and I have begun to immerse myself in the local history of Nebraska. If you haven’t been up Robidoux Road, south of Gering, through the rugged canyon to the recreated trading post and on up through the pass, you owe it to yourself to make the short journey. At the old post and at the summit of the pass you can almost hear the rattle of wagon wheels and the plodding hooves of oxen teams. Listen to the ring of hammer and anvil as oxen shoes are made and wagon wheel rims are repaired. Listen to the wind galloping across the prairie and hear the excitement of adventure, the voices of the past and make your own connection with our history.

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