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Friday, June 15, 2012

Home, Home on the Range, Where the Deer and the Antelope and the British-Owned Cattle Play...

The American West of the 19th and early 20th centuries was a place filled with colorful characters and fascinating stories. The new opportunities of the West attracted people of all classes and nationalities, in search of fortune, adventure, or escape. Even as seemingly unlikely a figure as an English aristocrat, such as Sir Redmond Hayes in Her Prairie Knight, was by no means a rarity on the plains of Montana.

In the 1870s and 1880s, when the cattle boom was in full swing, many wealthy Englishmen saw the ranching business as an excellent opportunity for investment, and American ranchers welcomed the capital the English could provide. “[English] drawing rooms buzzed with the stories of this last of bonanzas,” wrote John Clay, a Scotsman who eventually became a highly successful ranch manager himself; “staid old gentlemen, who scarcely knew the difference between a steer and a heifer, discussed it over their port and nuts.”

By the mid-1880s there were dozens of foreign-owned cattle companies with millions of dollars in assets operating across the West. One example was the XIT Ranch, one of the largest and most famous of its time. At its peak the XIT, which covered more than three million acres in ten Texas counties, employed around 150 cowboys to work 160,000 head of cattle. The American syndicate that ran the ranch was in turn financed by the Capitol Freehold Land and Investment Company, organized in London in 1884, whose wealthy English shareholders included the Earl of Aberdeen and Sir Henry Seton-Karr.

Another type of Englishman frequently found in the Old West was the “remittance-man.” These were often younger sons of wealthy or aristocratic families who, since they would not inherit a title or fortune like the eldest son, went abroad or were sent abroad by their parents to make a fortune of their own. In the meantime they received a monthly allowance or “remittance” from their family on which to live. The American cattle business was seen as a good business opportunity for these young men, and some of them became successful ranchers on their own account. The term “remittance-man” could also be one of disgrace under some circumstances—sometimes these aristocratic younger sons were dissolute or had gotten into disgrace in England, and were packed off to America either as a last hope of reforming them or to keep them from damaging the family reputation any further.

One of the most colorful British figures to grace the cattle-ranching scene was Moreton Frewen, who settled in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin in 1879. Frewen was the third son of a wealthy Sussex family, an adventurer and visionary whose many reckless financial schemes and accompanying failures earned him the nickname “Mortal Ruin.” Having squandered his own inherited fortune, he had to borrow money to set up his Wyoming venture. He bought livestock and built a two-story log house that was the height of luxury for the time and place—it included a solid walnut staircase, a musicians’ gallery in the dining-room and furnishings imported from Chicago and England. It even had a private telephone line that ran twenty-two miles to Powder River Crossing. The American cowboys dubbed the structure “Castle Frewen.”

In 1881 Frewen married New York socialite Clarita “Clara” Jerome (whose sister Jennie became the mother of Winston Churchill), and the couple entertained in style at Castle Frewen, hosting lavish hunting parties for their guests, who included titled English aristocrats and New York society connections. But after becoming ill on one of these expeditions and suffering a miscarriage, Clara went back to New York, never to return to Wyoming. Moreton Frewen left Wyoming in 1885, after being dismissed from his position as manager of the failing Powder River Cattle Company.

The foreign-controlled cattle empires were not destined to last. The very success of the cattle boom eventually led to overcrowding and overgrazing of the open ranges. Droughts led to prairie fires, further damaging the grazing lands, and on top of that, in 1885 the United States Government ordered all cattle removed from Indian Territory, forcing those herds onto already crowded ranges. Cattle prices were beginning to drop. The final blow came in the terrible winter of 1886-87, as raging blizzards and sub-zero temperatures wiped out fifty to seventy-five percent of some herds.

In the wake of the “Big Die-Up,” as the disaster was known, many of the big cattle companies collapsed, went bankrupt or changed hands. Not all of them failed completely, of course. Those that were left adapted to the new methods of ranching, which involved more careful managing of feed and livestock on smaller, fenced ranges, and continued to do business—like the fictional Northern Pool of Her Prairie Knight—into the early 20th century. Instead of grazing their cattle on the shared public domain land of the previous decades, they often depended on land leased from the government, like the ranches in the novel.

Meanwhile, in the 1890s, the XIT Ranch in Texas began selling off its land and cattle in order to pay back their British investors, and in 1912, the ranch ceased operations. “Castle Frewen” in Wyoming was demolished about the same time. The era of the cattle empire and the open range had come to an end.

POSTED BY:  Elisabeth Grace Foley

Her Prairie Knight by B.M. Bower
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