British Gentlemen in the Old West

When one thinks of the Old West, images of cowboys, saloons and rustlers come to mind. But the British aristocracy? When was the last time you envisioned an earl or baron working side-by-side with cowpokes and range cooks? Believe it or not, they were indeed, in Wyoming with the cattle. And although their visit was brief, from about 1867 through 1887, they came, made their mark, and departed. This article will explore events leading up to their arrival, their lives in cattle country, and circumstances that forced them to leave.


The Beginning

As of the middle of the 19th century, the western states still weren't formed and were merely barren territories. Travelers passed through to get to the opposite coast, but they didn't settle on the exposed plains where Indians were a problem. Developments in technology and transportation changed all this, however.

In 1861, a telegraph line was completed that stretched from St. Joseph, MO to Sacramento, CA. Later, railroads appeared. The Union Pacific had growing pains during the Civil War, reaching only as far as Fremont, NE by 1865, but once the war was over, construction continued. By 1866 the Union Pacific reached North Platte, and by mid-1867, the new city of Cheyenne was laid out near the railroad at the crossing of Crow Creek. On May 10, 1869, the Union Pacific Railroad met the Central Pacific in Promontory, Utah, connecting the east and west coasts of the United States.

The railroad crews wintered in Cheyenne, and of course, they had to be fed. Suppliers soon discovered that the winter grasses were excellent for their cattle. So what grew out of necessity was discovery. Cattle ranching could be successful in that area. Also, the railroad could now take the cattle east to markets. The seed for cattle ranching in Wyoming was thus planted.

Another factor contributing to the rise of the cattle industry was The Homestead Act of 1862. It lured settlers west with the promise of land if one lived on it and made improvements. This worked well in fertile, moist areas, but not in arid land like Wyoming territory. Cattle ranching helped to bring American settlers there. So many came, that by the 1880s public-land frauds were at an all-time high. Ranch owners paid their cowboys to file claims, but later had them assign title to the company. Employees made the necessary filings, then turned the land over when it was "proved up on."

Subterfuge was sometimes used to verify that land had been improved. Dimensions of the 'dwelling' might be listed as "12 by 14," but were not specific as to inches or feet. The water that had to be conveyed to the land might merely be barrels at each corner of the property.

Another stipulation of the Homestead Act was that a grantee had to be a citizen of the U.S. or 'intend to become one.' Companies that were more than 10 percent foreign-controlled were not allowed to own land, either. Railroads were excepted from this rule, as investments were necessary for financing the project. To bypass alien restrictions, the title was taken in the name of a domestic entity, with the benefits flowing to the foreign beneficiary. And some non-citizens conveniently claimed they had merely forgotten to apply for citizenship.

Then in 1880, the first meat cargo was sent overseas to England on the steamer Strathleven using mechanical refrigeration. This opened the Brits' eyes to the concept of ranching. While there were a few Englishmen ranching already, once the beef reached England, this provided an incentive to invest in American business. After all, in the ten-year period up to 1881, capital invested in the American cattle industry had earned over 33 percent annually.

Investing in the United States wasn't new to Scotland and England. Since the advent of railways in the 1840s, railroad securities had been traded in London.

This wasn't the first time the British visited the west, either. The British gentleman was passionately devoted to the hunt. This devotion had brought him to the U.S. in earlier years. Some gentlemen were attracted by the lucrative cattle business even then, but didn't always stay in the states. They invested in a cattle business and organized their companies, then hired ranchers to run the business in the U.S. while they went back to England. Back in England, the boards of directors of these cattle companies included the aristocracy--dukes, earls, barons, etc.


Life On The Range

Of the Brits who stayed in America, they soon realized ranching was hard work. Horses needed to be cared for, wagon axles had to be greased and cattle had to be branded whether servants were present or not. And because the West was not very settled yet, ranch headquarters were sometimes 200 miles from the nearest major transportation. In summer, rains flooded the roads, and in winter the weather was unpredictable. So many gentlemen visited their home countries during that time.

Not all Englishmen came to America for the sole purpose of ranching, though. Some came for health reasons--to escape the cold, damp climate of the British Isles. Others, like Oliver Henry Wallop, younger son of an earl, realized the need for horses when the Boer War broke out. So he went into partnership with a Scot, Malcolm Moncrieffe, son of a Scottish baronet. They ran a 2700-acre ranch in Wyoming and brought the first thoroughbreds to that part of the country. In Colorado, a British earl ran a ranch and resort near Estes Park.

And not all ranchers lived on the range like nomads. Some of the wealthier ranchers had decent living quarters. Moreton Frewen, who married Clara Jerome, elder sister of Jennie Jerome (Winston Churchill's mother), built a large house for his new bride, including papered walls, English woodwork, a piano from Chicago and telephone lines. The isolation and a miscarriage were too much for Clara, however, who returned to New York within a year.

The British also owned ranches farther south in Texas. The Scots mainly went to Texas. There, unlike their English counterparts to the north, they went through the expense of fencing their land. It was prohibitively expensive to fence in one's property, especially on that grand a scale. But by fencing in one's property, they had restricted use of watercourses and feed. Ranchers in Wyoming bought only what was necessary to operate their business, then used public lands for their cattle to graze. They only fenced in exceptional pasture and enclosures for breeding. Ranchers moved on when lands became overcrowded. Eventually the land became overgrazed and the entire system collapsed.


The End

The end was brought about by the problems of the industry itself. The English based their business solely on the availability of free grass, promising a high return if it succeeded, carrying a high risk if it failed. This resulted in overcrowding and scarcity of food. Some ranchers moved their herds to Canada while that was still legally possible. Others bought more land outside of Wyoming Territory. But a lower profit margin meant a reduced scale of wages for the cowhands, as well as other cost-cutters. Free boarding and meals had come to an end. Suddenly, men were looking elsewhere for work.

Problems in Texas began as early as 1883-1884 where forest fires raged for six days and nights. Ranges were ruined and ranchers were forced to cut their fences down to let the cattle drift to food. This was followed by a severe winter.

Then, in 1885, President Grover Cleveland gave ranchers only 40 days to remove their herds from Indian Territory. Thus, many southern herds were introduced into the already crowded north. Cattle prices were low in 1885, and even lower in 1886. On top of that, Montana had a plague of grasshoppers, and rain came late so there were range fires. Then winter came early and was severe in 1886-1887. January's storms produced temperatures of - 47 degrees in Montana.


Fat young steers froze to death. Healthy herds estimated their losses at 50%-75%. But when the actual counts came in, they realized even more severe losses. During that harsh winter, 300 people died and the toll on unprotected livestock was colossal. In one herd of 5500 head, only about 100 were found. In another herd of 35,000, there were only 300 cattle left. Many smaller firms were destroyed, while the bigger firms were badly hurt. Most of the men from the Eastern U.S. and Britain merely packed up and left. The ensuing summer was dry, and the few survivors had to ship to a market fed by continuing liquidation sales.


What Legacy Remained?

This brief era was a time when Englishmen confronted the savage country and tried to wrest financial reward from it. They carried out their work with little thought of compromise or adaptation. They were described as profligate and arrogant by their critics, and their management style was flawed. But much of this was because of the long-distance communication problems with the boards of directors. Yet the technology and science of animal husbandry they introduced had a lasting effect on the development of the West. And because they bred their cattle carefully, the pedigrees were improved upon.

Scotsmen, however, were in the real-estate business from the beginning--owning and fencing in the land they ranched. They wanted to guarantee their land tenure as they did back home. And while the return was lower, in the long run they made more money by selling off that land when the Scottish parent companies liquidated.

The English had built their business on the public domain. They had been schooled for leadership and great enterprises, so they aimed high. The risk was greater, the annual rewards higher. But they suffered more in the end, often having nothing left but their title. They also faced the end differently. The Scots cut costs, adjusted to new environment, and turned their cattle companies into land companies. The English were no longer interested. The game was up. They packed up and left, falling back on their training as leaders. They began military and parliamentary careers. Not even much of a paper trail remained behind, as many companies did not even register to do business in the territories.

The economy did not collapse after these hard times, despite what the industry suffered. While foreign investment was substantial, it only accounted for less than 10 percent of the ranches. By the 1890s, settlers finally came west, as did new cattlemen, though not on such a grand scale. In 1889, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Washington were granted statehood. Idaho and Wyoming followed in 1890.

And the British Gentlemen were merely memories of an era passed.



For more information on this topic, see British Gentlemen in the Old West by Lawrence M. Woods. This book is available through our on-line Bookstore in the Non-Fiction section.

See also Researching the Romance for a more detailed research bibliography on this and other topics.

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