Moreton Frewen / Mortal Ruin

Courtesy of Moreton Frewen Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

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, born 1853, a younger son of a wealthy and well-connected Sussex squire,
was not originally considered suitable for oldest of the Jerome sisters, Clara, who had been brought up in Paris, virtually in the Court of Louis Napoleon.  He could not expect much of an inheritance as the extensive properties held by the squire were entailed under primogeniture.  Moreton, as a gentleman by birth, would normally be expected to enter the clergy, the Services or politics.

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, an adventurer by nature,

became enthralled by the idea of the West’s cattle industry..  Back in England, he squandered the remains of his £16,000 (approx.$80,000) inheritance and returned to America with his brother Dick and into the arms of Clara Jerome.

The Jerome family was wealthy enough and certainly snobbish enough to originally turn up their noses 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.  Moreton went on to Wyoming with Dick and four friends, first for hunting and subsequently to seek out the land to establish Frewen Bros. Cattle Co.  By late December the Frewens were on their own searching for range in an inhospitable climate.  After helping a band of Shoshoni kill enough buffalo for winter food, the brothers decided to use the herd as snowplows, stampeding them through a mountain pass to flatten the snow drifts 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 200 difficult miles from Rock Springs station on the Union Pacific.

The ranch house that Moreton built avoided the mosquitoes and took advantage of an outcrop of coal for fuel.  Purportedly the first two story residence in Wyoming, it had a solid walnut staircase and woodwork imported from England, papered walls and a ‘minstrel’s gallery’ so that musicians could entertain guests in the dining room, which could seat 20 comfortably, or in the main room which was 40 ft. square.  Materials for a telephone line were brought in and this ran 20 miles from the headquarters to the Frewen Bros. store at Powder River Crossing.  A piano was imported from Chicago along with chintz hangings and chair coverings; a library was well-stocked. There were, of course, living quarters for servants.  It cost Frewen around $900 a month to run and was named Big Horn Ranche (sic); the cowboys called it ‘Castle Frewen.’

Courtesy of Moreton Frewen Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

And it was all built on borrowed money.

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 700 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 2 divisions, in 1884 there were no less than 31 divisions and the round-up system became law in the Territory. In one division alone 200 cowboys with 2,000 horses worked 400,000 cattle over a 6 week period, with Reps visiting other divisions to get any cattle that may have strayed; 3 ropers succeeded branding 166 cows in 80 minutes!

Moreton, of course, won Clara eventually and the couple were married in high society’s Grace Church in NY, June, 1881.   Clara made the arduous journey out to the ranch where the Frewens had a long list of lords and ladies who came for 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 with himself as unpaid manager, taking shares for the value of the ranch.

From a 24% dividend one year, by 1885 the company was in deep trouble.  Two bad winters had brought losses, and rustlers, raiding Indians, wolves, grasshoppers and prairie fires had taken their toll, greatly exacerbated by overcrowded ranges. These were being 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 in due course.   The open range between these filings was now heavily encroached upon, leaving too little grass for far too many cattle.

Moreton Frewen had innovative ideas for increasing the company’s income by shipping cattle directly to England, bypassing the Chicago meat-packing consortium (much of the thrust for anti-trust laws in the U.S. came from wanting to  break their monopoly). 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 as well, partially due to his mismanagement.  At a time when ocean crossings took 12 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.  The most horrific winter of ’86-’87 with cattle losses between 50-75% put an end to the era of the large cattle companies; the final nail in the coffin of the Open Range was Wyoming’s Johnson County ‘War’ in 1892.

While Moreton Frewen had many ideas for money making and investing on a large scale, none came to fruition.    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 house, Clara, who had never lived with less than 7 servants, paid one of the bailiffs 10 shillings to polish mirrors and answer the door!  Yet Frewen was also a man before his time.  He foresaw the Panama Canal 35 years before its completion and the St. Lawrence Seaway some 74 years in advance.  He was  a friend to every President from Hayes to Wilson.   And he was daring to the point of foolhardy: once when his horse went lame on the way to Rock Creek, he made the last 40 miles on foot, a journey of 26 hours through snowdrifts and mountains. He also removed a bullet from his own leg, riding 50 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.  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 71, in England in 1924 with an estate estimated under £50.

My thanks to John R. Waggener, Associate Archivist and the staff of the American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie.

Further reading:

Andrews, Allen, The Splendid Pauper, J.B. Lippincott Company, 1968;

Woods, L. Milton, Moreton Frewen’s Western Adventures, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, 1986;

Woods, Lawrence M., British Gentleman in the Wild West, The Free Press, 1989

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15 responses to “Moreton Frewen / Mortal Ruin

  1. Very interesting and well researched! Do you know if it was very common to go all the way to Wyoming for hunting at the time?

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    • Hi Cristal. To answer your question, yes, it was fairly common for European aristocracy to go to the American West for what was considered Big Game hunting, much the same way they went to Africa for this. Frewen’s hunt parties, however, were hardly ‘roughing it’ and he even had flower corsages shipped in from Denver for the ladies–along, of course, with champagne.

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  2. As guests or paying customers?

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  3. Andi,
    A great post about an intriguing character! Will you or have you written sbout him?

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  4. What an interesting profile. I’m wondering what this “hopeless visionary” would be doing today. Also… what ever happened to Castle Frewen…does it exist in any form today? Were there any Frewen children?

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    • I can’t really say what Moreton would be doing today, Pat; his various ventures all failed. He and Clara had 3 children: Hugh, a poet, Oliver, a soldier for the most part, and Clare who was a sculptor. Moreton demanded that they borrow money for him when they came of age, on the basis of their expected inheritance, so they were all in debt at a fairly early age. It was Clare who later visited the site of Castle Frewen but it had been dismantled in 1912 and all she found there was the insulation from the telephone wires.

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  5. What an interesting story. I can only shake my head at his outlook on life, a sort of rambunctious foolishness. I wonder what he saw in Clara. I suppose the magnet that draws men and women together. In romance practicality flies out the window. Their lives might have turned out differently if she would have had a little grit in her craw. An example of too much, too soon, I expect. It’s easier to upgrade than downsize, but what a difference it might have made if those two could have managed to do so.

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    • You’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head, Eunie. Clara was known as the dreamy, vague sister, especially when compared to Jennie. Clara dedicated her life to Moreton despite living apart much of the time, and even gave up the likelihood of becoming Queen of Serbia for him. She totally ignored her children as well; they were often farmed out to her mother or sisters.

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  6. Thank you, Andrea. This is quite an insight into what the British aristocracy did world-wide. Younger sons who had little chance of inheriting the title and estate often went adventuring and lived ‘well’-that’s debatable, of course- on borrowed money. I really enjoyed reading your blog!

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    • You’re absolutely right, Nancy: I use this premise in my book,Loveland and I was surprised, when doing the research, how many British cattle companies over here were run by these remittance men.

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  7. Attractive work and page. Love. Thanks.

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