I first learned of Moreton Frewen when reading Elisabeth Kehoe’s book, Fortune’s Daughters:
the Extravagant Lives of the Jerome Sisters (Grove
Atlantic, Ltd., 2004). Frewen, son of a wealthy and well-connected Sussex squire,
married the eldest sister, Clara, in June, 1881. While the Frewen family had inhabited the
same manor house for 300 years at Moreton’s birth in 1853, and Moreton could
count the Prince of Wales among his many titled friends, he was not considered
suitable for Clara. The Jerome family was wealthy enough and certainly snobbish
enough to originally turn their noses up at the younger son of the Duke of
Marlborough as a suitor for their middle daughter, Jennie (who would be mother
to Winston Churchill), so when, in 1879, the penniless Moreton Frewen began to
make his suit, he was hardly in the running. Like many younger sons of such
families, he could not expect much of an inheritance as his father’s extensive
properties were entailed under primogeniture to the oldest surviving son. Moreton, as a gentleman by birth, would
normally be expected to enter the clergy, the Services or politics.
|Moreton Frewen, Courtesy Moreton Frewen Collection, |
American heritage Center, University of Wyoming
But fate took a hand. In 1878 Frewen went to Texas with John George Adair, a wealthy Irishman who had half-interest in Charles Goodnight’s JA ranch in the Llano Estacado. Frewen was mesmerized; an adventurer by nature, he became enthralled by the savagery and history of the place and most of all by the idea of the West’s cattle industry. Back in England, he squandered the remains of his £16,000 (approx.$80,000 at the time) inheritance, most of it on a single horse race. Disheartened but never defeated, Moreton went on to Wyoming with brother Dick to seek out the land to establish Frewen Bros. Cattle Co. The Frewens searched for range in a very inhospitable climate. One adventure was helping a band of Shoshoni kill enough buffalo for their winter food. The brothers then decided to use the buffalo herd as snowplows, stampeding them through a mountain pass to flatten the snowdrifts so that they themselves could get through. The range they eventually discovered and settled was a swathe of the Powder River Basin extending eighty miles north and south and fifty east to west; their headquarters were more than two hundred difficult miles from Rock Creek station, which was on the branch line of the Union Pacific.
The ranch house that Moreton built avoided the mosquitoes and took advantage of an outcrop
|Big Horn Ranche, "Castle Frewen',|
Courtesy Moreton Frewen Collection,
American heritage Center, University of Wyoming
The herd was started with 4500 head bought from the ‘76’ brand; it would eventually increase to ten times that amount with 9000 sheep and some 450 horses. Sadly for Frewen, the number of herds on the Powder River would also increase. While the first round-up in Wyoming in 1874 required only two divisions, in 1884 there were no less than thirty-one divisions and the round-up system had become law in the Territory. In one division alone, 200 cowboys with 2,000 horses worked 400,000 cattle over a six week period, with Reps visiting other divisions to get any cattle that may have strayed. Pre-rodeo, three ropers could succeed branding 166 cows in eighty minutes!
Moreton, of course, won Clara eventually and the couple were married in high society’s Grace Church in NYC. Unfortunately for Moreton, the Jerome fortune was somewhat diminished by then, and there was no dowry such as had been settled on sister Jennie—just a thirty-diamond necklace as a present from her father for Clara. Clara made the arduous journey out to the ranch where the Frewens had a long list of lords and ladies who came for rather opulent hunting parties, scouted by ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, in the autumn. But when Clara joined one group and became ill, thereby suffering a miscarriage, she returned to New York never to set foot in Wyoming again.
By August,1882, Moreton had bought out his brother and formed the Powder River Cattle Company whose Board of Directors read like Burke’s Peerage with himself as manager.
The company was not to last long. From a 24% dividend one year, by 1885 the company was in deep trouble. Two bad winters had brought losses that were greater than ‘book count’ (as opposed to a head count). Rustlers, raiding Indians, wolves, grasshoppers and prairie fires had taken their normal toll, greatly exacerbated by low prices offered by Chicago meatpackers, and overcrowded ranges—reduced by a growing number of homesteaders. Ranchers had a policy of filing only for land for water rights or their own homesteads or line camps, often counting on employees to file sections and re-sell to their outfit in due course. The open range between these filings was now encroached upon in great numbers, and a dry summer followed by a bad winter left too little grass for far too many cattle.
Frewen had innovative ideas for increasing the company’s income by shipping cattle directly to England bypassing the Chicago consortium, or by building a refrigeration facility for beef at Sherman station between Laramie and Cheyenne, where the temperatures rarely went above freezing any night of the year. He also invested in land at Superior for fattening cattle before shipping. But every venture took money he had to borrow and the creditors began knocking at his door while the Powder River Company was losing money, partially due to his mismanagement. At a time when ocean crossings took twelve days, Moreton was rarely at the ranch (he claimed to have made 100 crossings in his lifetime). Finally, in 1885, he was dismissed from his position, his own shares worthless, while the Board tried to take whatever money they could before the company was dissolved. The most horrific winter of ’86-’87 with cattle losses between 50-75% put an end to the era of the large cattle companies and their open range policies.
While Moreton Frewen had many ideas for money making, bad luck plagued him perpetually. And Frewen and his wife simply could not live in any style less than that to which they were accustomed. Even when the bailiffs were in their English home, Clara, who had never lived with less than seven servants, paid one of the bailiffs ten shillings to polish mirrors and answer the door. Yet Frewen was also a man before his time. He foresaw the Panama Canal thirty-five years before its completion and the St. Lawrence Seaway some seventy-four years in advance. He was an ecologist before the word was invented, never permitting wanton killing of wildlife (and Territory law prohibited killing except for food), reprimanding a guest who had killed a bull buffalo, stopping the cutting of the scarce timber in the valley, and moving for additions to Yellowstone Nat’l Park. He was daring to the point of foolhardy: once when his horse went lame on the way to Rock Creek, he made the last forty miles on foot, a journey of twenty-six hours through snowdrifts and mountains. He also removed a bullet from his own leg, riding fifty miles into Calgary in heavy snow. And, of course, he was virtually the first settler on the Powder River when the only white men who lived there were hunters and skinners. He had foreseen the overcrowding, forecasting that between two and three million cattle would have to be removed from the Basin, and had started to move his own herd up to Alberta. Called “hopelessly visionary” by his father-in-law, the nickname given to him by his brother Stephen’s regiment was “Mortal Ruin”.
Moreton Frewen died, aged seventy-one, in England in 1924 with an estate estimated under £50. When his daughter visited the site of his ranch in the 1930s, all that remained was a single Bakelite casing from the telephone line.
My thanks to John R. Waggener, Associate Archivist and the staff of the American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie.
An earlier, longer version of this post appeared on my website at https://andreadowning.com/2011/11/27/moreton-frewen-mortal-ruin/
My own version of the British ranchers is in my book, Loveland, available via Amazon Encore at https://www.amazon.com/Loveland-Andrea-Downing-ebook/dp/B014RUQ746/ and in papaerback from http://catalog.thewildrosepress.com/search?controller=search&orderby=position&orderway=desc&search_query=Loveland&submit_search=