William Drummond Stewart was a Scottish nobleman with a solid military record before coming to America for adventure. He quickly became friends with some the greatest mountain men in American history — among them, William Sublette, Jim Bridger, William Ashley, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Benjamin Bonneville and even Sacagawea’s son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau.
For nearly 10 years, Stewart roamed the Rockies and other parts of the Northwest wilderness, soaking up the Wild American frontier. He loved attending annual trapper rendezvous where whites and Indians gathered to have a good time, trade furs and buy supplies for next year’s trapping.
His adventures ended however when he threw a party in the wilderness that turned out to include homosexual activities.
When word got out, a scandal erupted and he fled back to Scotland and never returned.
William Drummond Stewart was born Dec. 26, 1795, at Murthly Castle, Perthshire, Scotland, second son of Sir George Stewart, 17th Lord of Grandtully, 5th Baronet of Murthly. His mother was Catherine, eldest daughter of Sir John Drummond of Logiealmond. They had five sons and two daughters.
John and William, the two oldest boys, never got along with each other. John would inherit the title, while his younger brother was taught at home and groomed for the army.
After he turned 17 and was eligible for military service, William asked his father to buy him a cornetcy (obsolete rank equivalent to today’s second lieutenant) in the elite 6th Dragoon Guards — which he did. Soon he joined the 15th King’s Hussars as a lieutenant and was off to fight the French in Spain and Portugal in the Peninsular War — the French giving up on April 18, 1814.
He stayed in the army until about 1820, rising to captain. Then it was wandering around Europe meeting peers while attending parties and balls — as the upper crust traditionally did in those days.
In 1827, his father died and elder brother John became the next baronet. William received a Ł3000 inheritance but it was controlled by John.
About two years later, William met a gorgeous young servant maid named Christina Marie Battersby, and they had a son, William George, out of wedlock. They married three months after the birth but lived apart. He freely acknowledged the son, promising to care for him.
The boy grew up to have a stellar career in the British Army, earning the Victoria Cross for his actions in the Siege of Lucknow during the 1857-58 Indian Mutiny — an unsuccessful rebellion against British rule. He survived the war but died while drunk and attempting to swallow a sword.
Tiring of the elite London social routine and trying to keep up with his peers financially, William set his sights on travel and adventure. His target was the American West, and after a big fight with his brother, that’s where he went.
By 1832, armed with letters of introduction to bigwigs in the Hudson’s Bay Company, William was in New York and planned to go to New Orleans, but skipped it because of a cholera epidemic. Instead, he headed overland on horseback through Ohio, Indiana and Illinois to St. Louis where he would find a way to the mountains.
He arrived with a wardrobe of high society finery and two Manton hunting rifles — the finest firearm of those days.
Within a few days, he called on famed explorer William Clark (Lewis and Clark), then superintendent of Indian Affairs, and also mountain men William Sublette and Robert Campbell — outfitters and suppliers for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. They would form a lasting friendship.
He also met William H. Ashley, founder of the rendezvous system.
Stewart joined Sublette and Campbell’s supply train headed for the 1833 Horse Creek Rendezvous in Wyoming’s Green River Valley, and insisted on paying $500 for the privilege.
It was at that rendezvous, that he met legendary mountain men Bridger, Bonneville and Fitzpatrick.
He also met a French Canadian Cree hunter named Antoine Clement — beginning a gay relationship that lasted almost 10 years. He detailed that relationship later in two autobiographical novels.
In 1834, Stewart was with Nathaniel J. Wyeth when he built Fort Hall in Idaho.
Stewart spent the winter of 1836-37 developing business interests and socializing in St. Louis and New Orleans. He also hired artist Alfred Jacob Miller to go with him to the 1837 Rendezvous “for the purpose of recording the sights, people and spectacle of this annual event.”
The rough sketches would eventually be transformed into paintings for Stewart’s castle in Scotland.
Those historically significant paintings are priceless today.
Photography had not been invented until 1839, with early cameras big, boxy and clumsy, using large sensitized glass plates for film that had to be processed in the field. None of that was suited for travel in the wilderness — making artwork by early frontier artists like Miller important to American history.
One magnificent painting was about a tense moment when Stewart was confronted by Crow Indians, while mountain man Thomas Fitzpatrick was away, leaving him in charge.
The Crows took the livestock, pelts and other property. Then Fitzpatrick returned and they stripped him of his valuables. There was no violence because the Crow medicine man warned the marauding braves that they’d lose if they struck the first blow.
The braves tried to provoke the mountain men into making the first move, but they stood their ground without reacting. Fitzpatrick managed to defuse the situation — and also get back most of the stolen property. It was a narrow escape.
Miller didn’t witness the incident but was told about it in great detail by Stewart. He made several copies of the painting — including one about 6-foot-by-9 large for Murthly Castle.
In 1838, Stewart’s older brother, John, died and had no heirs, leaving the baronetcy and estate to him — as next in line. William returned to Scotland to settle the estate.
While he was gone, the trapper rendezvous gatherings that he enjoyed so much ended, as the fur trade had been on the decline after silk top hats became the fad, replacing the ones made from beaver fur.
The last rendezvous was in 1840.
Two years later, Stewart returned to America, and with William Sublette organized a large party of only males to frolic at what is now called Fremont Lake in western Wyoming. More than 40 men attended.
The outing was socially similar to the old rendezvous, except that Stewart brought fine wines, foods, and a large selection of velvet and silk Renaissance costumes for his guests to wear.
A historical report entitled “Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky Mountain West” said, “With a few notable exceptions, the men he planned to take with him were young and inexperienced in the ways of the mountain. He planned to run the trip under a form of military discipline, but he also planned on having available all those luxuries which could be transported to the wilderness.”
It was an interesting group at the frolic. It included Sacagawea’s son “Pomp” Charbonneau who was hired as a driver; four European botanists, an American physician, and a group of Catholic Missionaries who would travel only as far as the Rocky Mountains.
Several of the “young gentlemen” brought servants, and Stewart and Sublette hired another 30 to 35 hands to handle the cooking and other chores.
Sublette wrote in his journal, “We have Doctors, Lawyers, botanists…hunters and men of nearly all professions.”
The Old West had never seen anything like this before.
When the party was over, Stewart was planning to spend the winter in New Orleans, then visit Taos and Santa Fe in the spring, but that all changed quickly when the word got out about homosexual behavior at the Renaissance gathering.
The scandal that followed forced Stewart to button up his business activities in America and hightail it home to Scotland.
He never saw America again.
He relished the rough life on the American frontier — but not the rough times he would face the rest of his life in Scotland, where he was mired in estate affairs, entertaining and endless family feuds.
William Drummond Stewart died at 75 of pneumonia on April 28, 1871.
Interesting how a Scottish nobleman became one of the more colorful characters in the history of the early American West.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Book on frontier gays…
William Benemann’s book “Men in Paradise” details the William Drummond Stewart story, noting that homosexuality was not uncommon on the Western Frontier.
An Amazon book review says in part, “He describes the wild Renaissance-costume party held by Stewart and Clement upon their return to America — a journey that ended in scandal. Through Stewart’s letters and novels, Benemann shows that Stewart was one of many men drawn to the sexual freedom offered by the West. His book provides a tantalizing new perspective on the Rocky Mountain fur trade and the role of homosexuality in shaping the American West.”
Ridin’ in style…
Preparing for the Green River, Wyoming Rendezvous of 1836, William Stewart filled two wagons with luxury goods, including canned meats and sardines, plum pudding, preserved fruits, coffee, fine tobacco, cheeses and a selection of brandies, whisky and wines. Helping with all that were three servants, two dogs and two horses.
End of the artist’s trail…
“Alfred Jacob Miller never returned to the Wind River country nor witnessed another rendezvous. He completed the bulk of his assignment in 1841 as Stewart’s guest at Murthly.
“Fame arrived more faintly than he might have hoped, but for most of his life, Miller made a living painting portraits and reproducing his vignettes and landscapes for a succession of wealthy patrons enthralled by his images of the Far West and trappers’ society. He never married or had children.”
— Chavawn Kelley, WyoHistory.org
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