Dukes and Duchesses of the Old West

J.J. Brown - definitely a Duke of the Old West

J.J. Brown – definitely a Duke of the Old West

I have this weird, unproductive voice in the back of my head that keeps telling me if I really want to make it big in historical romance I should be writing about lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses. Silly, but true. But the Montana Romance series I’m writing right now is historical western. There’s not a duchess in sight. Sure, the Old West was filled with society and dances, action and intrigue, but nobility? Where would you find that in the wild, wild west?

The answer is…everywhere!

The Old West may not have been the home of ancestral estates and titled gentry, but it was absolutely the home of a new kind of nobility. Even from its earliest days, the word on the street was that the streets of the West were paved in gold and an enterprising soul could make their fortune if they snatched up a part of it. We’ve all heard about the gold rush and how it changed the face of the West forever, but it was the time after that, the time that often gets skipped in the history books, when the true nobility of the West flourished.

True to the legends, there were men who made vast fortunes off of the natural resources of the West. Enterprising men who made the Gilded Age gilded. Because the fact of the matter was, there was gold in them there hills! The only difference between the nobility of London and the nobility of, say San Francisco was how long those people had been noble.

The cream of the crop of Old West society were, for the most part, self-made men. We’re talking railroad tycoons and mine owners and ranchers. One of my favorite stories of hard work paying off is that of J.J. Brown, aka Mr. Unsinkable Molly Brown. J.J. was the son of Irish immigrants who was home schooled and made his way west to seek his fortune. He was smart enough to know that there was real money in mining, but not by panning for gold or trying to get rich quick. J.J. studied mining techniques, ore, and geology, looking for ways to improve the whole process.

Improve it he did! He was working as a superintendent for Ibex Mining Company when he engineered a way to prevent cave-ins with simple, cheap materials. As a result of his ingenuity, Ibex was able to open up a vein of gold at the Little Jonny mine that turned out to be the richest, purest strike ever. As a reward for his efforts, he was given 12.5% of the stock in Ibex and a seat on the board. He went on to build on that fortune and to become one of the essential figures of the western social scene.

It wasn’t title or inheritance that landed J.J. in the heart of society, it was his intelligence, his entrepreneurialism, and what I think the west would call grit.

Otto Franc - actual Count and Old West badass

Otto Franc – actual Count and Old West badass

Some of the “nobility of the west” were actual members of the nobility. Take Otto Franc, for example. Count Otto Franc von Lichtenstein was a cattle baron in Wyoming around the time of the Johnson County Range Wars. Not only that, he is thought to have bankrolled the wars. Wait, wars you say? Yes!

As the open range was fenced in, due to the last of the western territories gaining statehood and becoming owned land, ranches proliferated. The cattle industry was a huge one. Think gold and silver were importance resources? Beef was right up there with them. Fortunes were made through the cultivation of livestock.

But Mother Nature didn’t always play her part. In the mid-1880s, there were a series of hard winters followed by dry summers. As a result, thousands of head of cattle died as streams dried up and feed became more expensive. Access to water was viciously guarded. If any small rancher was thought to be rustling cattle from the huge ranches owned by men like Franc and other members of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, the cattle barons would take action. Cattle barons would hire outlaws and gunslingers to build private armies and would wage war like nations. Remember Young Guns? Yeah, it was something like that. The wild, wild west with a LOT of money behind it!

229px-Inserat_1900_Buffalo_BillThen, of course, there was that whole other kind of royalty of the Old West. It was the kind that much more closely resembles the type of “royalty” we have in America today. I’m talking, of course, about the entertainers.

The most famous of these was Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show. William F. Cody had been a Pony Express rider, an army scout and fighter, and a buffalo hunter. His version of the west was something that people across the country and even in Europe were eager to see. With his band of performers, including Annie Oakley, Pawnee Bill, Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, and Will Rogers, he traveled and put on shows that displayed the talents and skills of the west. He also reenacted famous battles of the west … with questionable accuracy.

I bet you’ve heard of Buffalo Bill and at least three of four of those other performers too. Even a century later, their celebrity lives on. It was a new kind of celebrity that involved a passionate following, sold out performances, and pulp novels written about it. Western nobility indeed!

So maybe I’m not all that far off when I think that there is a wealth of “dukes” and “duchesses” in Old West history to write about. The old order may have scoffed at them for being new money or unrefined performers, but the clout that they carried was just as grand as anything that His Lordship or Lady So-and-So would have had at the time. And I bet their lives were a little more colorful too!

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8 thoughts on “Dukes and Duchesses of the Old West

  1. Shoot, they are still arguing over who gets Cody’s body! It’s been a long standing, and emotional, court battle for almost a century.

    I love the west, and after having lived all over the US, and parts of Europe, I’m perfectly content to remain here. The history is rich, and I love the stories of the nobility without rank …

  2. Mmm… Pony Express. Makes me think of “The Young Riders”. That’s always been my favourite Western show… Hickok, Cody, Jesse James… Who needs historical accuracy, eh, when you’ve got young fit men riding gorgeous ponies?

    • I used to LOVE that show! I watched it religiously as an impressionable teenage girl. I should totally go see if I can find it to watch now, although it’s probably a lot more terrible in reality than it was in my teenage mind. 😉

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