Talk about your unsung Westerners. John Baptiste Richard (“Reshaw” was a common variation of his surname) was a frontier entrepreneur involved in fur trading, freighting, whiskey smuggling, bridge and ferry construction, trading posts, ranching and raising livestock. Much of his varied activity (“John Richard was not a man to keep all of his eggs in one basket,” writes author Jefferson Glass) took place in the vicinity of Fort William/John/Laramie, on the North Platte River in present-day Wyoming. He is perhaps best known for spanning that river in 1853 with a substantial structure that became known as Reshaw’s (or Richard’s) Bridge and then charging Oregon Trail emigrants and freighters—as many diarists attest—varying toll rates. “As the water in the North Platte River rose,” writes Glass, “so did the toll, and so did Richard’s reported financial investment in the bridge.” A small settlement (60 to 100 civilian residents, along with various military and Indian encampments) grew up next to the sturdy bridge, and early Bozeman Trail traffic in 1864 departed the Oregon Trail from the vicinity. But in the winter of 1865–66, while Richard was away, the command at the growing Fort Caspar dismantled the bridge and several adjacent buildings to provide much needed firewood.
The author lives in Evansville, Wyo., a few hundred yards from the site of Reshaw’s Bridge, and was naturally first interested in that historic location before becoming intrigued by the man behind the bridge. Historians can be thankful he decided to research John Richard, as his largely overlooked life story is compelling. The toll bridge is only part of the picture. Richard (1810–1875) had a series of successes and failures as a trapper and trader; his ability to bounce back and launch new ventures made him stand out among his peers. “The whole man wore an air of mingled hardihood and buoyancy,” wrote historian Francis Parkman, who in June 1846 invited John and Mary Richard to join his hunting party for coffee along the Platte. Richard was a man of contradictions. A skilled and ruthless barterer, he was not above smuggling contraband whiskey into the northern Plains and trading it to Indians. “Given the opportunity, he would trade white man, Indian, friend or foe out of everything he owned,” writes Glass. Away from the bargaining table, though, Richard was often generous and compassionate, willing to share food and shelter and knowledge of the region with newcomers and those down on their luck. For instance, in the winter of 1856 he butchered several of his oxen and sent them by pack train to men on the verge of starving to death at Devils Gate fort. Richard, the author says, also boasted a few firsts—the first to import food products to trade with the tribes of the northern Plains, and the first to report news of the gold strike on Cherry Creek that triggered the Colorado Gold Rush.
A savior to some and a scoundrel to others, Richard made plenty of money from his commercial ventures but was not a wealthy man when he died a violent and somewhat mysterious death on a lonely trail in late 1875. As the title of the book suggests, Glass covers more than just the life of the main character. Some of the adventures the author relates involve Richard’s family members, including sons John Baptiste Jr. and Louis, and friends, such as prominent scouts/interpreters Baptiste “Little Bat” Garnier and Baptiste “Big Bat” Pourier. The story of John Richard, his family, friends and enemies will delight anyone interested in the spirit of the Wild West or the spirits (alcohol) so much in demand by white men and Indians alike. As Glass concludes, “John Richard influenced the development of nearly every phase of the economy in frontier West.”
Reshaw: The Life and Times of John Baptiste Richard, by Jefferson Glass (High Plains)
John Baptiste Richard was an early frontiersman and entrepreneur. He established trading posts, built toll bridges and may have been the biggest whiskey seller on the Great Plains. You’d think he’d be better known.
In “Reshaw” (the French pronunciation of Richard), author Jefferson Glass describes his hero as “a shrewd and ruthless trader and a smuggler. On the other hand, he was a kind and hospitable Westerner who would share his last scrap of food with a stranger.” He had not only a sense of opportunity but an uncanny ability to rebound from failure. In his lifetime, he came across almost everyone of note in the West — Brigham Young, Jim Bridger and Francis Parkman, to name a few.
When gold was discovered along the Cherry Creek in 1858, Richard was one of the first to take advantage of the strike, not as a miner but as a supplier.
Despite his questionable ethics, which weren’t so questionable at the time, of course, Richard was a devoted husband. He married a half-Indian woman, Mary, whom he loved dearly. When Richard failed to return from a lengthy trip, Mary’s relatives persuaded her he was dead, and encouraged her to marry an Indian, Black Moon. When Richard returned, Mary was pregnant by her second husband.
Undaunted, Richard tried to buy her back, but Black Moon refused to sell and threatened Richard. Before he could act, however, Black Moon went off to the war and was killed, and Richard bought Mary from her relatives.
By Sandra Dallas – The Denver Post – April 24, 2014
Jefferson Glass’s Reshaw—The Life and Times of John Baptiste Richard (High Plains Press) offers a fascinating look at the “middle years” of American expansion, 1840 to 1876, a time when life was cheap and often violent.
Throughout Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado and Montana, John Baptiste Richard, or “Reshaw,” as the French called him, traded whiskey illegally with the Indians, married Red Cloud’s cousin, and, yet, managed to emerge a legitimate businessman who understood both sides of the disputes that eventually escalated into the Indian Wars. The book is multi-generational in its scope and extremely well documented—sometimes to the point of distraction. Still, I found it a good read and highly educational.
Bruce Bradley, author of Hugh Glass
“His [Richard’s] daily life adventures as an early times businessman cannot be made up. The book was well researched and well written, Anyone who sits down to read it should have plenty of time. A real page turner. I didn’t want to put it down.”
Dennis Sun – editor, Wyoming Livestock Roundup.
‘Throughout the book, Glass presents a well-researched and engaging narrative illustrating the life of John Baptiste Richard… his book provides a great insight into developing economies and trade routes in the early American West.”
John P. Woodward, Annals of Wyoming
“Mountain man. Indian trader. Frontier businessman. Community founder. Family man. Explorer Rancher. All these are labels that can be attributed to John Baptiste Richard… Glass has provided an important book for anyone interested in that fur-emigrant Indian war period in Wyoming and eastern Colorado.
Candy Moulton, The Fence Post, Encampment, WY
“A Frenchman, his surname Richard was pronounced “Reshaw” by those who knew him, and this 1850s Old West character crisscrossed the frontier in now what is known as Wyoming and Colorado. While reading Glass’ book, it occurred to us that Reshaw was the inspiration for the Pasquinel character in James Michener’s Centennial.”
Old West Book Review
“Jefferson Glass brings to light the long-overlooked story of John Baptiste Richard, mountain man, fur trader, and entrepreneur, whose career spanned more than half of the nineteenth century and ended with his tragic death late in 1875. This well-researched and compelling history details Richard’s integral role in nearly every phase of economic development as well as the dramatic events on the Northern Plains in the mid-nineteenth century.”
Susan Badger Doyle, Ph.D., Emigrant trails scholar, author, and editor.
“John Baptiste Richard in an important character in both Wyoming and mid-nineteenth century western history. Glass has provided us with an in-depth study of Richard, his family, business partners, and his interactions with native tribes of the area.”
Richard L. Young, Museum Manager, Fort Caspar Museum, Casper, Wyoming