Regarded as the ablest of the leaders during the Great Trek, the migration of independenceminded Boers from British rule in Cape Colony to uncolonized lands in the interior of South Africa.
Better educated than most Boers he combined farming with business mainly as a building contractor.
In 1814 Retief moved to the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony where he soon gained a reputation as a field commandant fighting in frontier wars.
He also acted as a spokesman for the Boer settlers, expressing their grievances over the native question to the British authorities.
When the government appeared to sympathize with the tribesmen, the Boers decided to migrate or trek. Retief issued a historic proclamation in February 1837 explainig the trekker´s reasons for leaving the colony.
North of the Orange River his party merged with other trekkers and he was elected governor and head commandant. Under Retief they crossed the Drakensberg into the promised land of Natal (October 1837). To establish their right to the land he negotiated with Dingane the Zulu king who insisted that before an agreement could be made the Boers would have to assist him in recovering some stolen cattle.
The task accomplished, Retief and his party returned to Dingane´s kraal, and while partaking of the King´s hospitality, they were murdered.