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First "Dude Ranch" Trip to the Untamed West

July 2024
11min read

Never again can there be a hunting party as gay or as risky as the one Sir William Stewart devised in 1843

Sir William Stewart is depicted on the white horse in a watercolor by Alfred Jacob Miller.  Courtesy of J.N. Bartfield Galleries.
Sir William Stewart is depicted on the white horse in a watercolor by Alfred Jacob Miller.  Courtesy of J.N. Bartfield Galleries.

In May, 1843, with the first greening of the prairie grass, a strange caravan, billed as a “Sporting Expedition to the West,” rolled spiritedly out from the Missouri frontier past tight-lipped groups of emigrant families grimly preparing what history would call the first great migration to Oregon. It was three years before Parkman, five and more before the California gold rush, and what was still to gain popular calling as the Oregon Trail had never before seen the likes of this train.

Ahead of the carls and wagons rode a company of wealthy young American bloods in fancy and expensive trappings, greenhorns with high-powered European rides, and whiskered sportsmen on high-headed buffalo runners, hung with burdensome equipment for the hunt. The outfit’s long column of pack mules and vehicles groaned under mounds of gay-colored tenting, India-rubber boats that would hold fifteen men, and costly, imported wines, liquors, potted meats, jams and other delicacies for a luxury outing. In the lend rode a beak-nosed, mustachioed Scottish nobleman, Sir William Drummond Stewart, the nineteenth of Grandtully and seventh baronet, and beside him an ill and aging veteran mountain man, the famous trapper of Washington Irving’s celebrated book, The Rocky Mountains , Colonel William Sublette.


“Individual gentlemen,” Sublette described the party in his journal, “Some of the armey, Some professional Gentlemen, Come on the trip for pleasure, Some for Health … doctors, Lawyers, botanists, Bugg Ketchers, Hunters and men of nearly all professions.’ More than half of the 93 members of the group, he added, were “hired men Belonging to Sir William.”

The expedition, bound in style for a summer holiday of pleasure and sport on the plains and in the Rocky Mountains, was of Sir William’s making. A veteran of Waterloo and a former captain in the Fifteenth (The King’s) Hussars, he had first come to the West in 1833 to hunt buffalo and to find high adventure. lie had spent six straight years in the West, living dangerously with mountain men and trappers and hilling in love with the wild beauty and freedom of the plains and mountains. In 1837, he had brought with him a Baltimore painter, Alfred Jacob Miller, to record grand views of the western wilderness to hang in his Scottish castle.

Upon the death of his older brother in 1838, Stewart had had to return to Scotland to assume the duties of his estate, but the memories of his happy years in the American West tugged strongly upon him, and gradually, in correspondence with Bill Sublette, he evolved the idea of returning once more, this time to lead a grand expedition of paying guests back to his favorite lake in the Wind River Mountains.

Sublette was more than game to join the enterprise. One of the greatest of all the mountain men, he had explored and trapped great areas where no white man had ever been before. He had pioneered long sections of lhe Oregon Trail, he had taken the first wagons to the Rocky Mountains in 1830 and had built the post which men were now beginning to call Fort Laramie. Ill health—the initial stages of tuberculosis—had overtaken him, and he was now living quietly in Missouri. A trip to the high, dry land might benefit him.

In the autumn of 1842, Sir William returned to New York. He spent the winter in New Orleans, enlisting members for the adventurous excursion, and purchasing equipment and supplies. In St. Louis, Sublette was similarly busy through the winter, signing up additional recruits, hiring hunters and servants, anil buying pack animals, buffalo-running horses, (arts and other necessities.


In May, the two parties remdezvoused on the Kansas River. The idea of a large group going to the mountains simply for pleasure was brand-new. To the average American, the West was still a wild and dangerous land. Even the first emigrants for Oregon, now also gathering near the Kansas for this year’s great covered wagon trek, viewed the dossing that lay ahead of them as anything but a lark.

But to Stewart, Sublette and the sportsmen and hired hands of the pleasure excursion, the West was already taming. In the hands of the veteran guides and hunters, nothing was to be feared. The party would “rough it” in the greatest wilds of all, the Rocky Mountains, would hunt buffalo and antelope, trade with tribesmen. and fish and frolic in the streams and lakes where trappers had worked for beaver. It would he the first use of the Rockies as a “dude ranch” playland for thrill-seeking sportsmen.

In Sublette’s group at the rendezvous ramp was an assortment of mountain men, including his brother, Solomon Sublette, and the hunter, Joe Pourier. Also, from St. Louis to take the trip, came two U.S. Army officers. Lieutenants Sidney Smith and Richard Hill Graham, on leave from the service, hut under orders to file a report on the country, inhabitants and conditions met by the expedition.

In a painting by Alfred Jacob Miller, Stewart stands his ground against Crow Indians. The Walters Art Museum.
In a painting by Alfred Jacob Miller, Stewart stands his ground against Crow Indians. The Walters Art Museum.

In Sir William’s party were a French-Canadian hunter, Antoine Clement, who had served with the baronet during his earlier years on the plains, and an exuberant gathering of eager young sports from eastern cities and New Orleans. Among them were two botanists, a youthful doctor from Baltimore, and Matthew C. Field, who had tried the stage and newspaper work, and who would write heady letters of the trip back to the New Orleans Picayune .

Prior to setting off, the expedition accepted a company of traveling companions, two Kelgian priests and their retinue, on their way to a Catholic mission among the newly converted Flathead Indians. The group would accompany the pleasure-seekers across the great South Pass, then turn north and continue alone across present-day Wyoming, Idaho and Montana to their charges in the Mitterroot Valley.

The caravan jumped off on May 22. Along the way, the excursionists reveled in every new impression and made adventures out of the commonplaces of the trail. One man was thrown from a horse and another dragged when he became entangled in his stirrup. The hunters served up exotic prairie dishes: turtle soup, antelope steak and, later, when they came on their first buffalo, sizzling hump ribs and marrow bones. The sports raced and cavorted across the prairie, riding to nearby hillocks to peer over them for first sight of buffalo, but careful not to go too far from the caravan, lest they come on Indians instead.

Fourteen days out. the party was treated to its Hist excitement with Plains Indians. First, they came on three blanketed Pawnees, afoot on the prairie, and apparently wandering around without any object in mind. The trio readily attached themselves to the caravan, plodding along behind the wagons with the hopeful look of scavengers patiently awaiting something to fall their way. Soon afterward, the expedition’s advance riders topped a knoll and almost rode into a war party of 25 hideously painted Osages, Otos and Kaws who had been out fighting the Pawnees. The three vagabond Pawnees saw their enemies and in terror tried to hide behind a large Pittsburgh wagon belonging to the priests. The warriors spied them, and in an instant rushed at them. The expedition might have been witness to a triple scalping on the spot, but the priests, assisted by some of the more experienced members of the party, interceded and secured the release of the Pawnees, who scurried back to the wagons and continued walking on with the camp. At nightfall the frustrated war party gave up and rode away.

The Pawnees, too, disappeared, as the expedition moved to the country of the Sioux and Cheyenne. Chimney Rock, Scott’s Bluff and other landmarks of the route were passed, and the travelers continued to experience the usual occurrences of greenhorns on the trail. They imagined near-brushes with deadly rattlesnakes in the rocks, and were uneasy over the possibility of meeting a grizzly bear.

The party passed Sublette’s old post on the Laramie, and in the foothills of the Laramie Mountains the veterans in the caravan had a reunion with a band of grizzled old mountain men, bringing a pack train of furs east from the Green River country. On the Fourth of July, they celebrated with a “munificent and magnificent jollification.” The party sat down to a huge least that included buffalo hump ribs, side ribs, tongues, marrow bones, sweetbreads, elk steaks, corn dodgers and plum pudding, washed down with juleps, milk punches and “excellent hock.”

There were Sioux and Cheyenne all about the party as it proceeded now west of Port Laramie, but the travelers were beginning to feel themselves rugged frontiersmen and professed not to be afraid. “Ahead are 1,000 Cheyenne warriors,” Field wrote boldly in one of his letters to the Picayune . ”We are 93 strong, well-armed and provisioned, and mean to march through them with all ease and confidence.” The Cheyenne melted away somewhere and were never encountered, but one day eight strapping Brule Sioux chiefs came riding breakneck into camp, angry as hornets.

“They were all in high dudgeon with Captain Stewart,” Field wrote, “as they had understood that the white chief and his young men intended a visit to them at their village, some fifteen miles away, for which occasion they had prepared a grand least, and none of us were there to eat it. Hall the dogs in the village had been killed and cooked, robes had been spread for us in the big lodges, all the squaws had been busy with unusual culinary operations, and not one of us attended the feast. The Indians were very angry.”

The day was saved by Sir William who calmed the chiefs by inviting them “to take a shock from an electrifying machine” that he had brought with him. “This,” Field continued, “was about the newest ‘medicine’ that the Sioux had heard of. Bottled Lightning. One of the Sioux chiefs, ‘The Man That Shades the Sun,’ turned pale when he heard of it. A few of us stood around and received a shock before the Indians, that they might gain something of an understanding of the affair and witness what effect would be produced. But though they manifested great wonder at the clicking of the sparks and at our simultaneous start, they didn’t understand it.” When the Indians mustered courage, and allowed Sir William to touch them with the machine, “The Solitary Dog thought the White Bull struck him, and at once commenced pummeling him furiously. They shouted and jumped and tossed their arms in the air. When they calmed, they acknowledged that the dose of lightning was great medicine.” The slighted dog least was apparently forgotten.


The most exciting events of the long journey to the mountains were the buffalo hunts under the expert guidance of Joe Pourier. The first sight of the shaggy game on the hills above the Platte had been the most memorable. Riding one day miles ahead of the caravan with Joe, they had seen two specks, like mice, way off on the rolling plains “at the very kissing of sky and land.” The spots were moving quickly, and foe casually informed them that when buffalo moved that rapidly, it must be because Indians were chasing them. The tourists immediately became frightened, and suggested a hasty retreat to the protection of the caravan, but Joe determinedly drew the cover off his rifle, dismounted to tighten the girth of the mule he was riding and muttered, “Sacre jeengo! Ze red rascal drive off all cow! By damn, we ees four—nuff for whole nation rascal savage. We must have meat zis day.”


With that staunch pronouncement, the Kreuch Canadian hunter hastened forward at a trot, the tourists gripping their rifles nervously and following fearfully in a little knot. Suddenly Joe stopped and pointed. The buffalo were rising into the air. As the men watched incredulously, the hunter started to laugh. The specks were crows. Relieved, the tourists started to laugh too. It had been a good joke.


Riding more easily now. they soon saw the real tiling, a small group of hulls grazing quietly on a slope beneath a rocky eminence. They rode around the bluff, hobbled their mules and, while Joe circled back to the buffalo, the tourists climbed to the top to see the sport. From their vantage point, they watched while Joe fastened a coronet of shrubs on his head, then crawled on his hands and knees up a gully toward the unsuspecting bulls. When he was within range, he rose slowly to a sitting position, made a rest for his ride by planting his ramrod in the ground, aimed at a Iat bull and fired. He dropped Hat right away, as the ounce ball hit the beast.

Field, like so many other Plains travelers before and after, could not resist describing in detail his first sight of a dying buffalo: “The bull was up in a moment, ‘all standing’—the other two hall-rose and glared about. The stricken animal lowered his head, then lilted it again and stared, turned and moved away a lew steps, stopped and looked around again, ran, paused, ran again, walked slowly, stopped, trembled, stared piteously at his companions, his head dropped, his fore knees bent tinder him, his enormous head struck the ground heavily, and he rolled over on his side.”

As the party approached its goal, the Wind River Mountains, Sir William dispatched three men to Jim Bridget’s newly constructed fort on Black’s Fork of the Green River, 200 miles away, to tell Hridger, the trappers and Indians in this area to meet with them for an old-time rendezvous at the little lake in the mountains. Early in August a group of Indians and whites set out from the fort for the festive reunion.

Meanwhile, the expedition reached the Little Sandy Creek, where the priests said good-bye and turned north to find the Flatheads. Sir William’s party went on to the Green and up to the head of Piney Creek, the next to last fork of New Fork Creek neat present-day Pinedale. Wyoming. They camped first on the creek, then moved five miles up into the Wind River Mountains to Stewart’s favorite lake, a wild, crag-lined body of water, ten to twelve miles long and one and one-quarter miles across at its widest point, known today as Fremont Lake.

Now commenced two weeks of free and relaxed frolic and pleasure, the highlight of the trip. “Having pitched tents and formed camp.” Field wrote, “one of the India rubber boats was put together and launched, in which eight of us started, with two strong men to row, loi the exploration of the lake. Om progress was slow, and having made about seven miles, we put into a lovely little sandy cove, bordered with pine and half hidden by enormous rocks. In this romantic little nook we disembarked, built a shanty of boughs, got our fishing arrangements to angle after a supper. The water was so dear that we could see the little finny people darting about among the rocks at the bottom, and we could drop our bits of bait almost into their very mouths. … We soon had a plentiful mess for supper, and after supper we disposed of half a dozen of ‘Steinwein.’ imported by E. Johns, of New Orleans, and put tip in diminutive demijohns.”

Fishing, hunting, exploring and lazing went on day after day. Then, as Field described it: “Jump, jump! Get your guns! Quick, for your lives! was the loud and alarming call heard suddenly in the stillness of the alternoon. Such a splashing and hurrying head-long out of the water, and up into camp as instantly followed, was probably never seen before in that section. Our ears were next cognizant of distant Indian screaming and almost the next moment a party of some thirty people appeared in view, dashing, with seeming frantic speed towards us. The alarm was soon over, however, the strangers proving to be trappers and Snake Indians, coming to visit us from the vicinity of Bridger’s Fort …

“These Snakes, or Sho-sho-nees, threw up their lodges alongside of our camp, while the trappers did the same in close vicinity, and we did not part company again for nearly a fortnight. A busy trade time commenced, and after getting our skins from the trappers, we set the Sho-sho-nee girls to work tailoring up our mountain dresses for us.”

The Snakes loved nothing better than horse racing and, moving downstream to a level plain, Field wrote, “We had three days’ racing sport. … A straight mile had been laid off and marked upon a beautiful level meadow between Willow Creek and Green River, about half a mile from our encampment, and the stripes and stars floating upon an Indian lodge pole at one end marked the judges’ stand.” A tin pan, used as a drum by the Indians, served as starting signal, and during the races, the Snakes in the audience galloped around wildly, rolling about on their horses in mad tricks, yelling and screeching and Hinging their arms in the air.

On August 17, after two weeks of holiday merriment, the time came to start back east. Sir William, for whom this U.S. visit was to be the last, and Bill Sublette, destined to die in two years, bade farewell to their old acquaintances of the mountains, and the dudes, no longer dudes, but hardened sportsmen of the West, made final trades for leather shirts and moccasins. The two parties streamed down the Plains along Green River and took their separate ways for home, the trappers and Snake Indians to Fort Bridger, the others retracing their steps toward the settlements of civilization 1,100 miles away.


Two months later, as the emigrant covered wagon trains, now well up in the Northwest, straggled on their last lap to the Columbia River, the sporting excursion, bursting with tales of adventures they had had in a playground where only trappers and Indians had previously ventured, reached the first outposts of Missouri’s frontier. Giving voice to the proud feelings of the young bloods, Matt Field wrote as dudes ever since have tel t as they returned to civilization and their homes trom a holiday in the Rockies: “We are the fattest, greasiest set of truant rogues your liveliest imagination can call up to view. VVe are the merriest, raggedest—perhaps you would add, the ugliest—set of Buffalo butchers that ever cracked a rifle among the big hills of Wind River.”


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