In 1848 Marshall discovered gold in California, and by the spring of 1849 thousands from all over the world were hurrying to this newest and greatest of Eldorados. The American migration favored the old Oregon-California route, as it was shorter, cheaper, and took less time, normally, than did sailings via the Isthmus of Panama. The scenes of the Oregon emigration were repeated on a vast scale, with almost endless trains of "Forty-niners" departing from many posts along the Missouri, chiefly from Independence-Westport, Kansas City, Ft. Leavenworth, St. Joseph, Nebraska City, and Council Bluffs-Winter Quarters.
Most of these routes united near Ft. Kearny, the site of which had been selected by Andrew Sublette in 1847. This post, soon to become one of the most famous in the West, was founded in 1848 to protect the Platte routes. During the summer of 1849 it was commanded by our friend Captain (now Lt.-Col.) Bonneville.1 Onward from Ft. Kearny the white-topped wagons (prairie schooners, or covered wagons) of the Forty-niners crawled like gigantic ants along both margins of the Platte, not finally uniting on one road until Ft. Laramie, founded by Robert Campbell in 1834 as Ft. William (for William Sublette), was taken over for the American Fur Company by Fitzpatrick in 1835 and renamed Ft. John (after John Sarpy), and then removed somewhat later (1846) to the present site, where adobe-walled Ft. Laramie (for Jacques Laramie, a French trader killed on this river by Indians about 1820) was erected. Here the fur-traders remained supreme until the fort was purchased for the United States Army in 1849.2 In the region between the North and South Platte there were a number of alternative routes that varied in difficulty of river fords, steep descents, and water supply. All of these routes, however, were united south of the North Platte by the time Chimney Rock was attained. Therefore, the bulk of the gold-rush emigration passed by Scotts Bluff.
The position of Scotts Bluff blocking the route along the river margin forced the trail southward, away from the river for some thirty miles, and through the Scotts Bluffs by a narrow pass that went by several names: Scotts Bluff Pass, Roubidoux Pass (not to be confused with the pass by that name a few miles to the south), and finally Mitchell Pass. The exact route of this trail, in modern terms, would be skirting the city of Gering on the southwest corner, up the long slope (now badly dissected) to the spring at the base of Scotts Bluff, on by the National Monument headquarters building, and over Mitchell Pass. As a result of the movement through this locality, an enterprising Frenchman set up here -- a few rods away from the spring -- the first European post in the immediate area.
The accounts left by travelers of this Frenchman agree only that he was a blacksmith, trader, and squawman. This Frenchman, Basil Roubidou (variations include Roubidoux, Rubedo, Robidoux, Rubidere, Rouberdeau, and even Thibbadoux), was evidently not a member of the great St. Louis family of fur traders, as he is always mentioned in menial positions. Our first account of Roubidou is in Parkman's mention (op. cit., p. 160) of a blacksmith by that name at Ft. Laramie in 1846. A number of forty-niners mention the establishment of Roubidou at Scotts Bluff as early as May of 1849. William Kelly (op. cit., pp. 112-113) states that "close under one of those fantastic cliffs we found a rustic log-hut, the country residence of a Mr. Rouberdeau, of St. Louis, a blacksmith by trade, who, foreseeing an active business from the overland emigration, settled himself in this sequestered nook . . . taking unto himself a Sioux spouse."
On June 10, 1849, Joseph Heckney wrote in his journal that near a spring of cold water, "there is a trading post . . . a man keeps it who has lived here for 15 (sic) years he has an Indian wife and 3 children he has a blacksmith shop and tin shop." This Roubidou had already counted 1,090 wagons past his place that spring.3 John Brown, in his memoirs of 1849, clears up the matter of 15 years residence in this fashion: "By the spring at Scotts Bluff, there is a store and blacksmith's shop, kept by Rubedue, a trader who has resided among the Sioux Indians for 13 years. Grass is very good and water excellent."4 Major Cross, in his journal of 1849, adds emphasis to description by remarking, "Here was a blacksmith's shop and trading-house, built in the true log-cabin style."5
One of the most detailed accounts is that of Stansbury (op. cit., p. 52). His account, for July 9, 1849, runs:
Dr. Tompkins, who journeyed past Scotts Bluff in 1850, commented in his diary: "The emigrant road passes to the left of Scott's Bluffs . . . At the west end of this valley lives a blacksmith by the name of Thibbadoux who has 3 squaws."6
James Bennett, another emigrant in 1850, helps clear up a problem in his Journal remarks. He states:
Bennett's reference to "a regularly established trading post 3 miles to our left" is undoubtedly the one projected in 1849 to which Stansbury (op. cit., p. 273) refers: "Robideau has a trading post and blacksmith's shop here (Scott's Bluff), but the post is to be removed to a creek south, and over the bluffs." That this was an American Fur Company post is evident from a Missouri newspaper story of August 1, 1849, "The American Fur Co., having sold Laramie, intend to erect a trading post of Scott's bluffs, some 40 miles below;"8 and another news item, of February 10, 1851, "Pawnees recently dropped down on traders and Sioux at Scott's Bluffs and escaped with a large band of horses," (op. cit., p. 231). Our assumption is strengthened by a comment in Lowe's "Five Years A Dragon" (p. 70), who, in 1851, says, "Having crossed to the east side of Scott's Bluffs, about 50 miles east of Laramie, we turned south and camped near a trading post belonging to Major Dripps, who was or had been an Indian agent."
Apparently, the American Fur Company, after selling out Ft. Laramie to the government, obtained or took Roubidou's trading equity and set up a post in what is now known as Roubedeau Pass at the head of Cedar Valley. Vestiges are quite evident there, even at the present. The blacksmith, Roubidou, probably continued to carry on trade with the emigrants -- which would explain later references to the Scotts Bluff site as a trading post of Roubidou. Crawford, in 1851, does this very thing: "We reached the Bluffs at 9 o'clock at night; found water and wood; pitch pine and red cedar both grow here. Here we found a trading post belonging to Rubedo, a Frenchman."9
Dr. Thomas Flint, in 1853, has a more circumstantial account: "Came to a trading post and blacksmith shop run by a French Canadian living with Sioux wife or wives. The place is a little way below Scott's Bluff. His prices, $6 for shoeing an ox, $1 per pair (one foot) for shoes and and 4 cents apiece for nails.10 As late as 1860 we have Burton mentioning Roubidou, "We passed a ranch called "Robidoux" Fort from the well-known Indian trader of that name; it is now occupied by a Canadian or a French Creole . . . with a Sioux squaw."11
The daily life of a gold-rush caravan was far more intense and hilarious than had ever been true of the preceding emigrations. Untold wealth awaited all in California -- so what mattered the daily toil with plodding oxen, the broken wheels and axles to be repaired, livestock to be protected from thievish Indians by weary night watches, the nightly chore of setting up the circular compound of echelon wagons, gathering the scanty fuel of driftwood of buffalo chips, or even the malignant cholera. Dull care was banished by the singing and playing of the countless refrains and parodies that sprang up overnight with the gold-rush of 'forty-nine.' The late forties were dominated by the Negro minstrels, and the works of Foster, Power, Christie, et al., were sung universally. "Oh! Susanna" was one of the favorites, with "California" substituted for "Alabama" as the place of destination. Equally favored were "Dearest Mae," by James Power, and the anonymous "Mary Blane." Dozens of other light pieces, such as "Crossing the Plains," "Seeing the Elephant," "Sweet Betsey from Pike," "The Happy Miner," and "I Get in a Weaving Way" helped enliven the evenings. So went the days and nights of the adventurous Forty-niners.12
The gold-rush to California had not yet abated when strikes of precious metals were made in Nevada and Colorado, then (1858-9) parts, respectively, of Kansas and Utah. These discoveries developed the slogans, "Ho! for Washoe," and "Pike's Peak, or bust." Soon after there came reports of gold in Montana, Idaho, and elsewhere in the Rocky Mountain region. The result was a ramification of the old Overland Trail, and a dissemination of prospectors over all of the West. These movements conditioned the next two great series of events affecting the Scotts Bluff area: the development of rapid trans-continental communication; and the Indian wars of 1862-77.
12A. B. Hulbert's "Forty-niners" (1931) contains the most spirited account yet published of the life en route to the "diggings." An excellent contemporaneous account is that of A. Delano: Life on the Plains and Among the Diggings (1857), based on a trip across in 1849.