Jeffrey Deroin: Founding Father of Northwest Missouri

St. Joseph Museums

Jeffrey Deroin was an unsung hero of the American frontier whose influence shaped the state of Missouri. Because he was born a slave, there is little to no documentation regarding his life. Through extensive research, Missouri historians and the St. Joseph Museums, Inc., have attempted to shed light on this lost legend who was so important to the development of our home city and the whole northwest corner of the state.

Born into Slavery
Jeffrey Deroin was born in St. Louis in 1806. As the son of a French fur trapper and a slave woman, Jeffrey was forced into slavery by the laws of his time. Jeffrey was owned by fur trader Francis Deroin who ran the American Fur Company trading post at Bellevue, Nebraska, in 1810. Joseph Robidoux succeeded Francis at Bellevue and, some time before the 1820s, Joseph purchased Jeffrey from Francis.  
The Blacksnake Hills
Along with two other slaves, Jeffrey worked with Robidoux in establishing a trading post at the Blacksnake Hills along the Missouri River. Fluent in English, French, and several native languages, Jeffrey acted as an interpreter for Robidoux. His knowledge of the languages and cultures of the local Indians made him an invaluable asset for the fur trader.
Suing For Freedom
Unfortunately, Joseph Robidoux was known as a harsh businessman and was abusive to his slaves. Jeffrey attempted to sue for his freedom, but the wealth of the Robidoux family and their legal team kept the case in the court system for 15 years with no result.
U.S. Interpreter
Jeffrey, however, continued to gain fame as an interpreter and became friends with Indian Agent, Andrew Hughes, and Iowa chief Francis White Cloud. Through these friendships, Jeffrey purchased his freedom from Joseph Robidoux and was employed as a freedman by the United States government to work as an Indian interpreter.  
The Shaping of Missouri
From the time Missouri was declared a U.S. Territory in 1812 to its admittance as a state in 1821, the shape of Missouri remained the same, with a flattened western border. Joseph Robidoux, whose trading post and developing city existed west of the border, lobbied for the border to extend along the natural boundary of the Missouri River, making St. Joseph the new gateway to the west. 
The Platte Purchase
In 1836 this plan was finally realized. Presided over by William Clark, representatives of the Iowa and Sac and Fox tribes met at Leavenworth to sign a treaty which would establish reservations in the territory across the Missouri River (present-day Kansas) for the territory east of the river. Jeffrey Deroin acted as interpreter and placed his mark on the historic document which added the northwest corner of the state.
New Counties
The Platte Purchase added six new counties to Missouri and allowed St. Joseph to be incorporated in 1846.
St. Joseph
From the humble trading post where Jeffrey worked, St. Joseph blossomed into a prosperous city. It was the western terminal for river, rail, and trail travel and trade out west. With the increase of western expansion, countless entrepreneurs made their living in this growing town. Now included in the state of Missouri, St. Joseph became a thriving and rapidly expanding community.
Land Owner
In 1841, Holt County granted Jeffrey permission to own land, a luxury which most freedmen in Missouri were not allowed. He purchased a 160 acre farm across the Missouri River from the Iowa reservation and ferried goods across to his friends. This became known as Jeffries Point.
European Travels
After the signing of the Platte Purchase, Jeffrey accompanied his friend, Chief Francis White Cloud, and members of the Iowa tribe on a tour of Europe in 1844. He interpreted their history and legends to royalty and commoner alike from London to Paris, bringing their fascinating culture to the European people.
Red Birds and Black Birds
Unfortunately, Jeffrey's friendship with the Iowa tribe was forcibly ended in 1846. Many slaves fleeing to Kansas came to live alongside the Native Americans on their reservations for protection from the Fugitive Slave Laws. In response, the Indian Agent Thomas Harvey declared that no African Americans, especially Jeffrey Deroin, could live on the Iowa reservation.

Obituary of Jeffrey Deroin

Jeffrey died on March 28, 1859. He was so well regarded that his obituary was reprinted in several newspapers from around the country. He lived his last few years farming in Holt County before selling the farm and returning to St. Joseph, the town he helped create.

Legacy Left
In his obituary, Jeffrey left everything to his two sons, Bela and Jesse. Jesse joined the United States Colored Troops in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1864. After the war, he returned to Agency, Missouri. No further descendants of Jeffrey's family are known. Though his story has been lost for centuries, there is no denying the important role this marvelous man played in the formation of our city, our state, and the American frontier.
Credits: Story

St. Joseph Museums, Inc.
Sarah Elder-Curator of Collections, St. Joseph Museums, Inc.
Greg Olson-Author of "Jeffrey Deroine: Iowa Translator, Frontier Diplomat" and Curator of Special Exhibits and Special Projects, Missouri State Archives
Trevor Tutt-Collections Manager, St. Joseph Museums, Inc.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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