Mountain man. Indian trader. Frontier businessman. Community Founder. Family man. Explorer. Rancher. All these are labels that can be attributed to John Baptiste Richard — whose name is sometimes spelled Richeau, other times rendered as it is pronounced — Reshaw.
A contemporary of Jim Bridger and Kit Carson, Richard is not so well known, but he is perhaps as important as those two men. Richard started his career as a fur trader, but he quickly found it was more lucrative to sell whiskey to emigrants and trade it to the Indians, all while eluding the watchful eyes of Indian agents. Richard first headquartered near Fort Laramie, making trips to Pueblo for supplies including the whiskey he traded at his post.
Recognizing the opportunity to trade with overland travelers as well as Indians farther west, before long Richard established the Richard Trading Houses at a site that would ultimately become the town of Evansville, Wyo. When he recognized that a bridge across the North Platte River could serve emigrants — and line his own pockets — he built a toll bridge across the river. The first bridge was quickly washed out in the spring high water. Undaunted, he constructed a second bridge and this gave him a firm place to see western migration, while making a bit of money.
Author Jeffrey Glass began a study of the Reshaw Bridge, and before long realized there was an untold story about the man who built the bridge. In his research, Glass found someone full of contradictions: Richard was both generous and a scoundrel. He would feed anyone who came to his trading post, whether or not the individual has resources to pay, but he also served whiskey to Indians of the era, in violation of federal policies.
Richard married into the Sioux tribe, which certainly extended his trade network; he had the women make moccasins and leggings, which he sold at his trading post. While Richard’s first trading took place along the Oregon-California-Mormon Trail route in Wyoming, he soon branched out and had operations in Colorado with a successful trading post on Cherry Creek during the era of the Pikes Peak Gold Rush.
The Richard story Glass has written is about far more than John Baptiste Richard and his immediate family. It also includes some of his business associates and employees such as Baptiste “Big Bat” Pourier, Baptiste “Little Bat” Garnier, and California Joe Milner. This pioneer of Wyoming also had dealings with Red Cloud, Spotted Tail, and other Sioux leaders.
The Reshaw Bridge was a launch point for travelers who took the Bozeman Trail north across Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to the gold fields around Virginia City, Mont., and Glass chronicles many of the harrowing experiences of those who followed that route.
The interconnections of people and place that tie to John Baptiste Richard’s story are interesting and literally a chronicle of the earliest business dealings in Wyoming as this man could be called Wyoming’s first rancher, who also mined and sold coal, traded in buffalo hides, furs, whiskey and transportation.
The research is evident, and Glass has provided an important book for anyone interested in that early fur-emigrant-Indian war period in Wyoming and eastern Colorado. However, this is not always an easy book to read and follow. There are many players in the story, some with very similar names (just the name Baptiste is connected to at least half a dozen cronies/relatives of Richard). At times the tangents to talk about those other interesting folks, means the primary subject of the book: John Baptiste Richard, gets left by the side of the river while the author has taken you to another region or into the story of an acquaintance or other family member. Some better transitions and tighter editing would have improved the overall book.
There are a few technical/historical errors (as an example, Glass consistently refers to the northwest Nebraska post of Fort Robinson by that name during a period when it was still CAMP Robinson), but overall this is a book that adds to the historical record. That gives it great value to readers who want to know the details of Richard’s life as well as have a glimpse into the complex family tree he created in the West.
The book is published by High Plains Press in Glendo, Wyo. ❖