SI Vault
 
'Thar Was Old Grit In Him'
Bil Gilbert
January 17, 1983
When the West was young a Scottish nobleman beat the mountain men at their own rough games
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
January 17, 1983

'thar Was Old Grit In Him'

When the West was young a Scottish nobleman beat the mountain men at their own rough games

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5

With Bill Sublette serving as field commander and recreation director, Stewart gathered around him some 60 young gentlemen and their servants from the better families of St. Louis and New Orleans for what awed Western newspapers referred to as a "grand pleasure trip and hunting frolic." The party included sport hunters, naturalists, an embezzler on the lam (who was discovered and discharged) and various gentlemen seeking escape from booze, boredom or social entanglements. On Stewart's tab, they secured the best horses and equipment; they were provided with new, roomy canvas tents and servants. Stewart's personal quarters would have done credit to a khan or a czar. His tent was a 14-foot-square, scarlet creation. The mattress was made of two buffalo robes and was covered with Irish-linen sheets and a blanket of Russian sable. A Persian rug lay on the dirt floor, and otter and leopard skins draped the tables. A huge brass Turkish incense burner sweetened the air. As body servants, Stewart brought a valet and an odd-job boy from Murthly. And Clement was made the master of the hunt.

Despite—or perhaps because of—these preparations, the trip didn't live up to its expectations. At first, many of the young men, especially the naturalists—Sublette labeled them "the bugg ketchers"—and the hunters, had a fine time. They acted out what they were, playboys on a kind of Outward Bound lark. They had no inclination to suffer great hardships in pursuit of anything. They liked their wine and hot meals. They sang campfire songs, repaired to dry tents and sheets and rose at a decent hour in the morning. But Stewart had them cast in quite a different role. He wanted them to be Oriental courtiers to his caliph and also the hard-bitten mountain men he had known 10 years before. It was a conceit that history had already made into an anachronism.

The first Western frontier, of which Stewart had a last glimpse during the mid-1830s, was finished by 1843. That year there were no more than 50 white fur trappers left in the mountains, but about 1,000 pioneer families were slowly rolling across the plains toward the Pacific coast in covered wagons. These men, women and children represented the second phase of the American westering movement. The best and brightest of the trappers, such as Bridger, Fitzpatrick, Carson, and Joe Walker (one of the few true explorers among the mountain men and the subject of one of Miller's most famous portraits), recognized the wave of the future and were riding it as Indian fighters, pilots of caravans and guides for military, surveying and prospecting parties.

Sir William Drummond Stewart, the foreign tourist, seemed to be least able to adjust to this change. He spent the summer and the treasure of Murthly trying to turn back the clock to 1833. As the pleasure tour proceeded, he became an increasingly unreasonable and often savage martinet in a vain effort to make his playboys deport themselves as old-fashioned frontiersmen. The young gentlemen were cowed, but not convinced. The more sullen of them began to speak of their demanding host as "His Omnipotence." After a make-believe rendezvous was staged on the Green River, where the last genuine gala of this sort had been held three years before, about half the party deserted, the bad sports making their way back to Missouri in high dudgeon. Stewart and the good sports followed in late September. Then, in New Orleans, for reasons never explained, Stewart had an emotional and terminal quarrel with Clement. This odd couple didn't meet again.

Stewart, now 48, returned to Murthly for good. The course of the last 25 years of his life was pretty much downhill. His relatives and tenants found him to be a contentious man whose one source of pleasure was his American acquisitions. One of the last of these was a 12-year-old boy. Franc, the son of a former New Orleans business associate. Franc came to Murthly just before the Civil War to have his manners polished and stayed on to become, by all accounts, a singularly foppish and snobbish young man. He was widely disliked, but Sir William doted on, and eventually adopted, the young American. This led to an open break between Stewart and George, his heir and natural son by Christina.

When Stewart died in 1871, apparently of pneumonia, there were persistent rumors that Franc had murdered him. However, the charges were never proved and Franc did not in fact inherit any of the Stewart lands or fortune. (Perhaps as something of a consolation prize, Franc stripped Murthly of some $40,000 worth of furnishings and decorations and returned with them to Texas. There, he passed himself off as Lord Stewart until an enraged British House of Lords exposed his deceit.)

Stewart's final bitter years may have been no more or less than he deserved; he was a man whose character determined his fate. Yet, somewhere in the Western wing of our gallery of folk history there should be a special niche for him. The Seventh Baronet of Murthly was the original American dude, the flashy, ornate mirror in whose reflection we see our wild and woolly heritage.

1 2 3 4 5