- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
The matter of Christina added further fuel to a flaming sibling quarrel about money. Bickering between William and John, the new baronet, was constant. Eventually the two had such a violent confrontation that it was said the ancient walls of Murthly trembled. William stormed out, shouting that he would never again sleep a night under that roof. And he didn't, but it was a vow that, as we shall see, was later to cause him some considerable inconvenience. Stewart thereupon exiled himself to the uncharted wilds of western North America, territories which were then regarded by Europeans as among the most savage and mysterious on the globe.
Stewart later gave the impression that the miserliness of his brother forced him to travel virtually as a pauper. In fact, he set off in high style. He brought a number of wardrobe trunks containing fashionable gentlemen's sporting outfits—for which he owed several tailors. Stewart's most practical and prized possessions were a matched pair of rifles made by the brothers Manton, the leading London gunsmiths. Mantons—big, beautiful .70-caliber guns—were esteemed as the finest hunting pieces in the world and today have rarely been surpassed.
Stewart arrived in New York in May of 1832. After shipping most of his baggage by water to St. Louis, he procured a good horse and rode west—at a leisurely pace, en route enjoying squirrel and bird shooting in the still largely unsettled forests of the Midwest. Arriving in St. Louis that fall, he took a suite at the Mansion House, thought to be the finest hostelry west of the Atlantic seaboard. For the next six months he charmed—or perhaps more accurately, overawed—the St. Louis upper crust with his aristocratic manners and arrogance. "His general conversation and appearance was that of a man of strong prejudices and equally strong appetites," remarked an American acquaintance, who, being a staunch republican, disapproved of Stewart on principle but was, like most St. Louisans, impressed by his style.
Captain W.D. Stewart, British Army, as his calling card read, attended race meetings, shooting matches, cockfights and gambling parties with the gentlemen of St. Louis. He attended their ladies at teas, dinner and gumbo balls, which, despite the name, were the toniest social events in town. But these diversions were scarcely enough to quell Stewart's restlessness while he waited out the winter. He wanted to get at the real fun in the Wild West. At first, he may have planned only a bit of shooting on the Plains, but in St. Louis he heard about the mountain men and their rendezvous and determined to make their acquaintance. Luckily, he met one of the few men in the settlements who could provide an alien such as himself with an entree into the society of white savages. This was Bill Sublette, who was to become Stewart's lifelong friend. Sublette was among the first white men to work in the Rockies, going in 1823 as a beaver trapper. By 1833, Sublette and his partner, Robert Campbell, had prospered enough to win the contract to supply the rendezvous of that year, and they agreed to take Stewart with them.
Stewart left St. Louis in May, riding with a pack train commanded by Campbell. (Sublette took the heavier freight on flatboats up the Missouri and then went overland by another route to the rendezvous site.) The Scotsman had managed to replenish his finances by then—a knack that was to serve him well several times during his American career—by agreeing to chaperone the son of future President William Henry Harrison. Young Harrison, a doctor with a drinking problem, was put into Stewart's care to dry out on the trail, for which service Stewart was paid $1,000.
On such expeditions it was the custom for even the leaders to start letting themselves go to greasy buckskins, flowing beards and matted hair as soon as they cleared the settlements. Stewart, however, had no inclination to go native, and besported himself more or less as if he were a member of a shooting party on a grouse moor. Each morning, after ostentatiously arraying his toiletries outside his tent, he would meticulously shave and perform his ablutions. Among the mule skinners Stewart found a man who had done some barbering and arranged for the chap to trim his hair every few days. Also, he either brought with him or found in the caravan a young New Yorker, George Holmes, of some breeding and probably of good if effeminate looks, because he came to be called Beauty. Holmes occasionally served Stewart as a valet.
All of which understandably gave rise to snickering in the ranks—until the caravan reached the big-game country, where vast herds of buffalo, antelope and elk roamed. There, it became evident that Stewart had the best horse in the party; that his Mantons were superior to anything the frontiersmen had ever seen, including their treasured Hawken rifles; and that he had the skills to match his equipment. Stewart was later to write that hunting on the Plains was a sportsman's dream, but at the time he could not resist a certain nonchalance. The buffalo, he suggested, were rather impressive by reason of their size and numbers, but a bit unaggressive for his sporting tastes. To compensate, he began taking them Indian-style, running his horse flat-out for five miles or so across the open prairie until he drew abreast of one and brought it down with a shot in the ear. He also made repeated attempts to run down antelope, which he admitted moved like "streaks of lightning." In this he was unsuccessful, but said that if he had a decent English hunter (a horse trained for jumping and pursuit), he would wager £1,000 he could turn the trick.
In the Laramie Mountains of what would later be Wyoming, a party of French-Indians who served as the caravan's meat hunters surprised a grizzly sow with a cub. The bear proved aggressive enough to satisfy even Stewart. The hunters fired on and hit the animal, but their light muskets had little effect beyond causing the enraged grizzly to charge and scatter them. Hearing the commotion, Stewart galloped up, sat his horse down on its haunches and dismounted. The bear wheeled and came toward him like a big, bloody, runaway locomotive. Waiting until the roaring animal reared up over him, Stewart dispatched it with a single shot from his heavy Manton. It was an act of skill and daring that more or less instantly earned him his frontier spurs. (Later Stewart and his 6-foot grizzly were re-created in wax for permanent display in the mountain man museum in St. Louis.)
After the Laramie bear episode, Stewart probably could have worn lace on his drawers without being mocked. In fact, he committed almost as outrageous a sartorial act. On the morning the caravan arrived at the rendezvous site on the Green River, he retired to his tent with a bundle that hadn't been opened during the crossing of the Plains. Stewart emerged resplendent in a white leather hunting coat, soft ruffled shirt and a pair of trews, the close-fitting trousers of the Scottish gentry, cut by a London tailor from the green, red, yellow and royal-blue Stewart hunting plaid. On his head he wore a spotless, broad-brimmed Panama. It was reported that even Robert Campbell, no country bumpkin, was dumbstruck by the costume.
Stewart's intuition about rendezvous finery was right on the money. These were indeed occasions when everyone put on the dog, flashed and pranced with their beads, quillwork, bones, feathers, furs and scalps. Among these savage fashion plates Stewart was as much a marvel as they would have been in Piccadilly. More important, he had won their respect. Not only at the rendezvous of 1833, but also in his subsequent dealings with the mountain men, he was to demonstrate an unfailing rapport with them. There is a sense that the wild whites and reds of the mountains were the only Americans whom Stewart accepted as peers. In any event, when he strutted down to the Green River in the plaids of his ancient clan, Stewart commenced what he was to remember as one of the best months of his life.