Many persons of Scottish and Celtic descent, beginning with the fur traders, trappers and mountain men, played a role in settling the Rocky Mountain West. Perhaps it reminded them of home”
Angus MacLean Thuermer Jr., Editor, Jackson Hole News & Guide
Back home in Scotland the Highlanders endured a rugged terrain and unforgiving climate. Theirs was a violent land with a warrior culture trained in protecting themselves from cattle thieves, feuding clans and outside invaders. Over many generations, Scots suffered through battles and massacres. These were people were accustomed to taking risks, overcoming obstacles, and starting new lives. Their characteristics shaped their own country as well as the distant lands that became their new homes, including the Old West.
The Scottish Highlanders of the Old West were prepared for a demanding existence. Some clearly had an affinity with frontier wilderness. Many were pragmatic and stoical as travelers and settlers. The generally believed in the value of education and of practical skills. Self-reliance is often a feature of Scottish character, as is a strong sense of kinship and community.
Fur Trappers and Mountain Men
John Colter (c.1774 – May 7, 1812 or November 22, 1813) was a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806). Though part of one of the more famous expeditions in history, Colter is best remembered for explorations he made during the winter of 1807–1808, when he became the first white person to encounter the geothermal wonders of the Yellowstone and to see the Teton Mountain Range. Colter spent months alone in the brutal Wyoming winter wilderness and is widely considered to be the first, known, mountain man.
Davey Jackson (1790 – 1837) Pioneer, explorer, trader and fur trapper; uncle to Stonewall Jackson. In the spring of 1822, he responded to an ad in the St. Louis Enquirer for a job with William Ashley’s fur company. In 1826, he and two other fur trappers, Jedediah Smith and William Sublette, bought out Ashley’s operations and Jackson then managed part of the business. In 1828-29, Jackson wintered among the Flathead Indians and explored the area around Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which, along with Jackson Lake, is named for him.
Cattlemen and Sheep Ranchers
Cattle driving emerged in 18th century Scotland as a legitimate profession. It took great skill to captain a cattle drive down through the highlands, there was unpredictable weather, steep mountains to navigate and firths and lochs to swim your cattle across. There were cattle thieves from rival clans waiting and watching for an opportunity to poach your livelihood.
As with the fur trade a century earlier, the qualities of ruggedness, adventurousness and familiarity with the land allowed Scots to excel in this demanding profession and they were in demand as cowboys. Both the perils and practices of the New World would have been familiar to those who had come from the Old.
In the 1870’s, western cattle ranching experienced a frenzy of speculation. This resulted in large cattle companies financed mainly by overseas Scots, like the Earl of Rosslyn, and English investors who formed joint-stock companies. A young Theodore Roosevelt got caught up too, moving to a western cattle ranch at a point in life when his spirit was shattered after losing his wife and mother on the same day. Roosevelt stated “It was here the romance of my life began”. Roosevelt’s insights and western experiences were crucial to the rise of conservationism today.
Fueled by the cattle boom, at one time Cheyenne, Wyoming had the largest median per capita income of any city in America; it became one of the haunts of the 19th century wealthy – like the French Riviera or the hill stations of India – with its cattlemen dressing for dinner in black tie, smoking Cuban cigars and quaffing French grand cru vintages.
The bubble burst around 1884 with declining beef prices, rising freight charges and more and more cattle competing for the grass of the open range. Then there was the killing blow, the apocalyptic, blizzard winter of 1886-87, known as the Big Die-Up. Roosevelt’s losses were representative; more than half of his herd perished. The Big Die-Up led not just to financial ruin among the cattle barons but, for the elite members of groups like the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, to desperate actions. The Johnson County War, sparked when the open-range gentry rose up to form a vigilante army against cattle thieves and encroaching settlers, inspired the movie Shane. It took the US Army’s involvement to resolve the conflict.
Second to cattle, the Scots most affected western agricultural life in the realm of sheep. Sheep ranching had long been part of Scottish history. Consequently sheep herding skills were several levels above those of American ranchers and it is not surprising Scotsmen ended up dominating this profession in the Old West. In Wyoming, this one-sided dominance continued until the arrival of the Basque sheepherders.
Cowboy Lore and Music
Because cattle, horses and music have always been Celtic passions so it’s no surprise that the Scots and Scots-Irish were among the most significant influences on cowboy lore and culture.
Perhaps the best-known Scottish cowboy was Jesse Chisholm, who gave his name to the famous Chisholm Trail which ran from Texas to the Dodge City.
Chisholm is commemorated in a traditional cowboy song, The Chisholm Trail, which describes life on the long drive north. “Come along boys and listen to my tale, I’ll tell you of my troubles on the old Chisholm Trail ” Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is just one of many 20th century musicians who has recorded a version of it and Howard Hawks’s seminal 1948 western Red River is a fictionalized account of the first journey along it.
Another campfire favorite was Annie Laurie, a traditional Scots ballad. Folk singer Rob Gibson stated “this song in particular shows the direct link between modern cowboy culture and the Scots immigrants of old. “
“Because it was a slow song and because there were lots of Scots in America working as cowboys, the idea of singing slow quiet songs to bed down the cattle on the drive was very popular. You don’t want to do anything to spook them so you sing soothingly. And Annie Laurie is still very popular today at cowboy poetry festivals.”
Naturalists and Writers
By the end of the 19th century, the frontier lands had been travelled and tamed, the Native Americans corralled into reservations and the buffalo all but exterminated. It was only thanks to another Scot – Dunbar-born John Muir – that the landscapes were preserved at all.
In 1867, John Muir left the Wisconsin farm where he had labored hard under his tyrannical father and headed out with only a change of clothes and copies of Burns poetry, the New Testament, and Paradise Lost in his pack. He commenced a 1,000 mile walk, averaging 25 miles a day, taking the “leafiest, wildest and least trodden way”.
It was the beginning of a lifetime of adventure. He wanted above else to experience everything the wilderness had to offer. His expeditions were physically demanding, often dangerous, and lonely. He was confident in his ability to handle any danger than came in his way. He began to publish accounts of his experiences and observations and attracted a wide audience.
Later he used this influence to spearhead a conservation movement devoted to safeguarding and preserving the wilderness.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson came west pursuing his not-yet–divorced lover. Like Muir, he had a strong affinity with mountains, a reminder of home. After his train passed through deserts out west, he was overjoyed “to come home again..to the green and habitable corners of the earth”. Muir did not share Stevenson’s antipathy towards deserts but he would have recognized Stevenson’s engagement with nature both in Scotland and the U.S. Stevenson was never robust enough to acquire Muir’s wilderness skills but he knew what it was like to be thrown upon your own devices in a wild country, which he captured memorably – in a Scottish context – in his 1886 book Kidnapped.
Stevenson stated it “pleased me more than you would fancy” when he could exchange a word or two with Scots he met out West. He elaborated on this in his 1880’s book, set in the west, Silverado Squatters:
“The happiest lot on earth is to be born a Scotchman. You must pay for it in many ways, as for all other advantages on earth…your youth, as far as I can find out, is a time of louder war against society, of more outcry and tears and turmoil, than if you had been born, for instance in England. But somehow life is warmer and closer; the hearth burns more redly; the lights of home shine softer on the rainy street; the very names endeared in verse and music, cling nearer around our hearts. An Englishman may meet an Englishman tomorrow, upon Chimborazo, and neither of them care; but when the Scottish wine-grower told me of Mons Meg, it was magic:
From the dim shieling on the misty Island
Mountains divide us, and a world of seas;
Yet still our hearts are true; our hearts are Highland,
And we, in dreams, behold the Hebrides.
And Highland and Lowland, all our hearts are Scotch.”
Disseminating Scottish Culture
Highland Games & Golf
Like cattle and sheep raising, sporting contests such as the Highland Games had long been a staple of Scots culture and the Games were brought over to America in the late 19th century. Filled with contests such as “putting the stone”, wrestling, tugs of war, tossing the caber, and foot racing the events combined drama and excitement. The women were included in exhibitions of Highland dancing. Of course the bagpipes were ever present.
The game of golf followed along similar lines. This uniquely Scottish import arrive in the East in the early 1880’s but soon reached the West. As the game spread so, too, did the Scots golf professionals. During the fin-de-siecle years, approximately three hundred “Men of Carnoustie” began to dominate the American professional golf world. Not until 1914, for example, did a native-born American win the U.S. Open.
St. Andrews Day and Robert Burns Day
There were two main celebratory events that forged and kept alive a Scottish-American identity: St. Andrews Day and Robert Burns Day.
Creating a saint’s day was commonplace all through the 19th century America. For example, the Hungarians celebrated St. Stephens Day, the Welsh, St. David’s Day, the English, St. George’s Day, and the Irish, St. Patrick’s Day.
However Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation of a national day of Thanksgiving in late November eventually crowded out St. Andrews (Nov. 25) Day making way for Robert Burns Day dominance in Scottish-American societies.
Perhaps the celebration of a saint’s day rang foreign to American ears; or perhaps January 25 provided a better time to stage a gala celebration. At any rate, by the last decades of the 19th century the celebration of Robert Burns Day had emerged as the major disseminator of Scottish culture and “the garb of old Gaul” throughout the country.
The “Burns ethos” did harmonize especially well with the American western ethos. The heroics of his ballads, his great poems celebrating democracy (“a man’s a man for all that”) and denouncing hypocrisy “O wad some Power the giftie gie us / to see ourselves as ithers see us”) made Burns universally acceptable in America.
Abraham Lincoln, one of Burns’ greatest admirers, could quote him by the hour. On Jan. 25, 1965, Lincoln wrote to a Burns committee in praise of the poet’s “generous heart and transcendent genius”. This respect was shared by a great many others. “I have hope for the human race so long as they celebrate the birthday of Robert Burns”, said the radical Congregationalist minister Myron W. Reed c 1893.
The above histories are excerpted in part from the following books and articles:
- Scots in the North American West, Ferene Morton Szasz
- Frontier Scots, Jenni Calder
- Adventures & Exiles, The Great Scottish Exodus, Marjory Harper
- Cattle Kingdom, The Hidden History of the Cowboy West, authored by Christopher Knowlton; and reviewed by Stephen Harrigan for the Wall Street Journal.