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And Then There Were None

by P McLennan - 11:33 on 22 June 2022

 Perhaps I should have paid them more attention. They were, after all, the most exotic of Murthly’s residents. 

I’m speaking here of the two “Red Indians”, Native Americans brought back by Sir William Drummond Stewart in 1839 to look after the buffalo (American bison) he had also imported. Some say they lived in the summer house at the bottom of the castle garden, although others contend they were quartered out in the Buffalo Park, in the stone built, rather Ruritanian bothy that you can still visit. Perhaps it was a seasonal thing? No one is sure how long they lived here or what became of them. Fanciful stories exist to this day they found favour among some of the local girls. I have been nudged when walking in Dunkeld and told, “There’s one.” Someone supposedly descended from the by-blow of an unlikely coupling; someone who has “the look”.

William Drummond Stewart (1795 – 1871) was Sir George and Lady Catherine’s second son. After an Army career, which peaked at Waterloo and then found its nadir at Peterloo1, he spent most of the 1830s in North America. On several long hunting expeditions with the Mountain Men, fur trappers such as Kit Carson, William Sublette and Jim Bridger, he crossed the great plains and the Rocky Mountains and had a series of wild adventures. Much of it documented pictorially by a young artist, Alfred Jacob Miller. He was still there in 1838 when news came that his elder brother, John, had died, childless. Suddenly the 7th baronet, laird of four estates across 35,000 acres, Sir William made arrangements to return home. With souvenirs. As you do.

He landed in Liverpool in early June 1839 (as noted in the passenger list of the Sheridan, a fast steam packet out of New York),  with his close companion on those expeditions, Antoine Clement, a French Canadian-Cree Indian, whom he would present to the great and good of Perthshire as his valet.  Sir William had also arranged for Miller to follow with his field sketches and several finished paintings. Various contractors were tasked to find and ship over the bison, antelope, seeds and saplings from which he would try to recreate his Western idyll on Murthly estate. So, why not add some natives to the collection; and a grizzly bear . . .

I was contacted as archivist at Murthly Castle by Tom Cunningham who runs the Scottish National Buffalo Bill Archive. This documents the two enormously popular tours Buffalo Bill Cody made in Scotland with his Wild West Show and Congress of Rough Riders in 1891, and again in 1904. Tom has made an intensive study of Native American history with particular emphasis on connections with Scotland. He is the author of The Diamond’s Ace—Scotland and the Native Americans, and Your Fathers the Ghosts—Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in Scotland. Tom’s website www.snbba.co.uk is respectfully dedicated to the memories of the Lakota men, women and children from Pine Ridge Agency and elsewhere who took part in those tours.

Did I know the names of Sir William’s buffalo keepers? Which tribe did they belong to? Well, not offhand. I explained that my particular interest was in developing a social history of the village, that I had consciously steered away from Sir William and his American adventures. However, it quickly became apparent the archive held no documentary evidence of them. Which proves nothing, particularly as the archive is split between Murthly Castle and the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh, where the holdings are known as the Grandtully Muniments. However, I knew the latter were searched by William Benemann for Men in Eden (University of Nebraska Press, 2012) the most recent and comprehensive Stewart biography. He found no evidence in Stewart’s correspondence of Native Americans in Murthly. (And makes no effort to argue for their existence. Like a good biographer and historian, he remains agnostic.)

The story of local quines getting close and personal with these visitors did not surprise Tom. “Such casual racism is nothing new. Buffalo Bill’s Indians are supposed to have got  girls pregnant right, left and centre. Actual records of such illegitimate births are, of course, somewhat harder to come by.” Between us, we ticked off all the occasions when the ‘Red Indians’ could have been mentioned. Tom checked passenger lists and census data2. Nothing. Owing to his colourful past, Sir William was good copy; his movements to and from America were generally covered across a range of newspapers in Scotland and England. (Searchable through the British Newspaper Archive.) Likewise the arrival of the buffalo and antelope destined for his Deer Chase. I’ll take the Leicester Mercury  of 13 July 1839 as an example, one of several English newspapers to pick up from a “Perth paper” that a fortnight earlier two buffalo and four “moozedeer” had passed through Perth enroute to Murthly Castle. Later shipments of Western flora and fauna were just as widely reported.

Both Tom and I (and Benemann for that matter) know absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. However, we now suspect the story of full-blood Native Americans living in Murthly only began to spread after 1963. After the publication of Scotsman in Buckskin by Mae Reed Porter and Odessa Davenport (Hastings House, New York, 1963). This first full-length account of Sir William’s time in America is  . . . frustrating. Richly coloured, it reads at times like romantic fiction (their take on his supposed happy marriage to a humble, but beautiful, washerwoman that turned the family against him would give a Mills & Boon editor the dry boak). It is a Gobi Desert for footnotes, and offers only the sketchiest of sources, mostly anecdotal. A gap, any gap in the historical record prompts the authors into an assumption, or to embroider what they know, semi-creatively.

We would argue that the first the world heard of “Red Indians” and a grizzly bear heading for Murthly is on page 178. Otherwise the combined Fourth Estate of Scotland and England, as vested in sensation as much then as now, completely missed the most exotic cargo. Too hypnotised by “moozedeer” to notice a caged bear, perhaps.

Porter and Davenport’s research was not all at long distance. Porter visited Murthly, read letters and other documents at the castle  . . . crucially (fatally?) talked to friends of the family and locals.  There are character studies of William’s brothers and anecdotes, family stories handed down the generations. Yet it is important to note how often they are factually wrong, even while maintaining a coherent and, indeed, enjoyable narrative. A big picture item like  Queen Victoria’s triumphant Scottish tour in 1842 is written up as: Two. Separate. Visits. Yet the story hangs together; if you don’t know the history. (And, let’s face it, Vicky in later life had the equivalent of frequent flyer miles to Dunkeld.) They assume Sir William introduced Antoine and the Indians to Scotland much more directly in 1839, by taking ship from New York to Glasgow. Some incidental details are thrown in about the natives, such as “the three-point Hudson Bay blankets in which they impassively wrapped themselves against the chill Scottish air.” (The overall effect irresistibly reminded me of the wooden dime store Indian Doris Day bumps into on the streets of ‘Chicaggy’ in Calamity Jane.3) From Glasgow the party takes a train to Perth and another on to Birnam. Except there was no such link; no rail connection between the cities until 1845. (And, ironically, Sir William blocked the idea of a Perth to Dunkeld railway throughout the 1840s, on the grounds it would spoil his Deer Chase.)

Davenport, who did most of the writing, excels at building a cosy intimate picture of Sir William’s prodigal-son-returned-home. Richard Ryder has previously been introduced as William’s boyhood servant who went to war with him (p17). Which is tosh. (They met for the first time in France, as Hussars, just before the Battle of Orthez.) And there he is, when Sir William’s carriage draws up: “old now and so feeble he was allowed to do only the lightest tasks.” Tosh squared. Ryder by then had just turned 50. Still actively employed as a groom, he had another career change in the offing – as publican of the Murthly Inn at Kingswood. (For more about William and Richard’s soldiering see The Dandy Fechters.) There is also a second appearance for Little Jamie, first introduced as the castle jester, the Fool of Murthly. (p22) On seeing Sir William, ”Jamie the dwarf jumped about on his great straddle feet.”(p178) Which would have been something of a Second Coming as he died in 1833. And Christina, the beautiful washerwoman who caused a family rift? Dear Reader, he did not marry her.  Not in the Porter/Davenport sense. Wishing to legitimise their son as heir to the entailed estates, Sir William and Christina went through some sort of ceremony to generate the appropriate paperwork around 1846.

 Whenever one can interrogate the historical facts in the book there are many such inaccuracies. Any undocumented references to the Native Americans drafted into Sir William’s homecoming posse can really only be treated as part of the myth-making around the buckskinned Scotsman.

Tom Cunningham believes that following publication of A Scotsman in Buckskin feature writers subsequently let their imaginations run wild. All mentions of the “Red Indians” and the grizzly bear are post 1963.

Coincidentally, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance came out at about the same time as Scotsman in Buckskin. Towards the end, when it is revealed that Ransom Stoddard's (James Stewart) hugely successful political career was built on a myth-making lie, a newspaper reporter is asked if he will reveal the truth. No, he says. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”4 The historian in me was already raging, even as the credits rolled. Yet we see it happen so often. For example, in 1884 Lewis Edson Waterman brought out his famous ‘improved’ fountain pen. Legend has it he was driven to perfect it having lost an important insurance contract with a client when his pen leaked, dropping a large inkblot over the document. So it says in the citation for Waterman’s formal induction into the US National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006. Except this version was concocted in 1921 (twenty years after his demise) by the company’s advertising department. (Adventures in Stationery by James Ward, Profile 2014, p33.)

Some legends grow in the telling. None more so than with those Indians. Douglas Sutherland wrote Rohallion: Wild Life in a Scottish Home (Heinemann, 1978, p 26) a memoir of his time in that beautiful hunting lodge on the edge of the Buffalo Park. According to him, Sir William had several dozen Native Americans from assorted tribes, camped in tepees across the slopes of Birnam Hill.

Now that would have got my attention.

Mrs Porter genuinely deserves our thanks for recognising the importance of Alfred Jacob Miller’s on the spot sketches and then buying the complete collection of them in 1935. And for dogged persistence, as she spent decades researching the story of why a Scotsman was more often than not at the centre of the action they portray. During this time she collaborated with Bernard DeVoto who was working on Across the Wide Missouri, an account of the Rocky Mountain fur trade. He had already recognised Miller’s importance and saw that his patron, Captain William Drummond Stewart could be the unifying force of a story on a continental scale. Across the Wide Missouri (Houghton Mifflin, New York) was published in 1947 with ‘An Account of the Discovery of the Miller Collection by Mae Reed Porter,’ and illustrated with the largest collection of Miller’s work then presented to the reading public. It remains a tour de force of narrative history and a major work of American Literature.

 

Footnotes

Main Image: The Greeting by Alfred Jacob Miller

1. For more about Stewart’s possible involvement in the Peterloo Massacre see The Dandy Fechters Pt.2

2. The 1841 Census listing for Murthly Castle has Sir William, Antoine Clement and Alfred John Miller and others, but no Indians at the bottom of the garden. (A remarkably male household, though.)

3. Further evidence that Miss Day was the perfect woman (if any was needed) is that she is lightning fast when drawing her pistol on that Indian.

4. Cinema audiences were well ahead of this revelation, of course. They bought tickets knowing only a John Wayne could put down Lee Marvin.

 


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