“’Jim,’ said he, ‘here are two gentlemen going to Deadwood, Dakota. What is it that has occurred at Deadwood lately? Haven’t the Indians scalped the whole population?”
“’No,’ said Jim, throwing himself back in his chair and lifting his eyes to the ceiling with an air of deep meditation. ‘It is in Colorado where that took place, it was not in Dakota.’”
“’Then the cow-boys have taken possession of the city, and burnt the whole of some quarter.’’”
“’No; that was in Montana.’”
“’Ah yes, you are right. It is a flood: I remember now. The river overflowed and carried away all the city. It was last month.’”
“’Ah! After all, it is some weeks since that. The post-office must be restored and reopened.’” (2)
For such a cool book that was really popular in its day, you have to do some searching to find out more about Edmond Mandat-de Grancey and his book, Cow-boys and Colonels. Originally written as a series of newspaper articles about the French baron’s travels in the Dakota Territory, it was popular enough to have been published as a book in 1887, translated into English, and made de Grancey a successful travel writer for the rest of his life (he later wrote travel stories from trips to the Eastern U.S., Ireland, and a couple of other locations too). 75 years later, it was republished by Yale University as part of their Western Americana series but has since been out of print and isn’t easy to find.
I came across this book purely by chance, one of those happy accidents that you read about in book introductions or articles about discoveries in dark and dusty libraries. Well, McKeldin Library at the University of Maryland is a little dark and dusty, and it is where this story began for me. A few years ago, I was there on the sixth or seventh floor to get some books for a paper I was writing.
If I remember right, I was walking down a row of books looking for the right call number, and I happened to notice the faded title on a book: Cow-boys and Colonels. That was enough to get me to take the book off the shelf.
It was a rebound copy, pretty worn and unremarkable looking, but for some reason I decided to open it up and read the first few pages. Well, that was enough to get me hooked. I sat down on the floor and ended up reading the first chapter right there in the stacks before I decided to check the book out and be on my way. I wish I had more lucky library stories like this one! I think its always worth it to wander and browse around your library, there’s always something you’ll never, ever find on the internet or in a catalog, you just have to look at the shelf.
In the busy-ness of graduate school, Cow-boys and Colonels sat on my bookshelf for two years before I picked it up again. I kept on renewing it hoping that I’d have to time to read it but never did. But before I knew it, I had graduated and had to return all my books back to the library. As I packed the book into my backpack to take back to UMD, I remembered how cool it was and that I never had a chance to read it. So, I wrote down the title and added it to my list of books to read for fun now that I wasn’t in school anymore. Half a year after that, I finally got my own copy of the book, a Christmas present from my father-in-law. He has his own farm in Missouri and I don’t think he’d mind having a ranch in the Dakotas, so I think the book title stuck out to him too. I’m finally finished reading now, three and a half years after I discovered it. Well, it was definitely worth the wait!
Anyways, to the book- Baron de Grancey’s life story sometimes sounds more like fiction than real. Born in 1842, de Grancey was an aristocrat and naval officer who served in a French squadron in the Indian Ocean and near Madagascar for many years before becoming an aide to the governor of French Indo-China. In 1870, he returned to France to fight against the Paris Commune. So why, you may ask, is a guy like this headed to Deadwood, Dakota? While he was still in French Indo-China, de Grancey had met Gifford Parker, an ex-Confederate soldier turned mercenary. The two kept in contact with each other over the years, and when Parker decided to try his hand in land speculation in the Dakota Territory, he wrote de Grancey of the limitless possibilities in the Black Hills. Tempted by Parker’s letters, and no doubt by stories of the Black Hills Gold Rush that had begun in 1874, de Grancey and a gentleman-farmer friend named Monsiuer Bouverie decided to take a one month trip to Deadwood, Dakota to see what it was all about.
de Grancey’s story begins in Chicago, where he and Monsuier Bouverie arrive in the summer of 1883. Decked out with rifles, cameras, riding gear and everything else you imagine you’d need for a month long stay in the Black Hills, the two board a train headed west. A few days later they reach the end of the line in Pierre, and this is where their adventure begins. From there they hired a stagecoach to take them to Deadwood. To their chagrin, their driver fell in love with an actress who was traveling with them, and took every opportunity to slow their journey down so as to have more time to woo her. Fed up, de Grancey and Bouverie decided to buy some horses and completed the rest of the journey on horseback. In all, it took nearly a week to travel to Deadwood, most of that time was spent in the last 200 miles where there was no railroad and the “roads” were treacherous and really hard to navigate.
The true hero of this story is the horse de Grancey buys and names Jean-Leblanc. He is the most athletic and impressive horse I’ve ever heard of, and tirelessly carries de Grancey through the muddy, rocky, overgrown path to Deadwood. de Grancey says Jean-Leblanc’s “acrobatic accomplishments are the subject of general admiration” and I’m pretty sure that he also fords 50 or 60 streams and rivers along the way, each one through cold and often deep water. de Grancey also says Jean-Leblanc inspired all the other horses in their group to greatness too. When a recent flood wiped out the only bridge at one particular river, de Grancey decides to walk across a small fallen tree and lead his noble steed through the river by the bridle. However, when Jean-Leblanc discovers that the river bottom is super muddy and that in a few steps he will get stuck in it, he leaps out of the water, onto the tree, and nimbly walks across the tree trunk to the other side. What a horse! Apparently after Cow-boys and Colonels was published, de Grancey received close to a thousand fan letters asking more about Jean-Leblanc.
While in Deadwood, the two travelers explore the town, its mines, and the surrounding countryside. They’re in town on the 4th of July and get to observe such time-honored American traditions as a reading of the Declaration, all day parading and picnicking, and (of course) the traditional sale of baby eagles to those who can afford one. They have lots to say about American cuisine, which appears to be mostly lard and bacon. Monsieur Bouverie, no doubt used to fine French food, declares that in the course of the journey he could collect enough recipes to write a book about things not to eat in America. The two Frenchmen also have the honor of preparing what may have been the first omelette ever for an astonished 70 year old miner who thought it was the best dish he had ever tasted.
The two types of people that are most interesting to de Grancey are the cowboys and colonels that he meets along the way. I don’t think it was any accident that he named the book after them. He describes cowboys as “men bespattered with mud up to their ears, habited in well-worn flannel shirts, and with their breeches tucked in great long boots. They are all inveterate tobacco-chewers.” (11) Though he respects their work ethic and willingness to work in terrible conditions, de Grancey isn’t too fond of these men who are all over the West. Their violence, rude temperament, and blatant disregard for the law are the source of many misfortunes and hardships for others, which de Grancey notes often in his book. A good many of them are/were also Indian hunters, and committed many crimes against American Indians who inhabited the area.
deGrancy is much more fond of “colonels”- entrepreneurs and other men of note in the West, who are quite fond of having titles. “The taste for these distinctions is far from dying out among the people of the West. Among 1500 names (in Pierre) there are 800 colonels, and 200 or 300 majors or judges. The others appear to be satisfied with the title of captain…” (24) Since he was an aristocrat, soldier, and businessman himself, I think de Grancey saw a lot of himself in these mine owners, ranchers, and other successful men. But being of noble French blood, he finds his pedigree superior to his American counterparts and always has a smug attitude and never quite takes these successful men too seriously. He quotes one of these colonels as saying: “I have never served. I had an elder brother who never served any more than I have. But as he had a very military look, they used to call him the General. Being younger, I naturally took the rank of Colonel.” (24) I’m sure de Grancey’s French readers loved reading this. But to be fair, it is a little silly, but I think his descriptions of cowboys and colonels are pretty interesting and say a lot about life on the frontier (at least how de Grancey saw it).
There isn’t really a middle ground in de Grancey’s Dakota Territory. You’re either a tough and grimy “cowboy” at the bottom of the totem pole, or a successful “colonel” at the top. Of course this wasn’t entirely true, but he talks a lot about how Americans in the West don’t ever seem to think about living a comfortable middle-class life. They’re either brutes living in dirt and poverty or have struck it rich and rolling in cash (and are finally worthy of respect). “The man who to-day has nothing to eat is quite convinced that, one day or another, in “prospecting,” he will find a mine as magnificent as the treasure of Monte Christo, and thus, perhaps, is already come to his hand.” (177) For most, discovering a mine full of gold, or at the very least working in one, is the best way to make it to the top. Curiously, de Grancey and Bouverie do meet one old guy who has been mining in Deadwood for about a decade and made a killing in gold, but he sends all his money to far-away family and still lives like he’s a scrappy pioneer in a rough cabin. See what I mean? No middle, its like Deadwood is a place where you have to be at the top or the bottom…or both?
While in Deadwood and in their return journey home, de Grancey and Bouverie comment on all sorts of interesting things that are too many to get into detail but I think are worth mention. Alcohol/temperance (de Grancey has a bone to pick with teetotalers); American speech (everyone likes to say “I guess” and “you bet” which de Grancey finds strange); democratic government and how it is inferior to monarchy (America should have stayed a British colony); lynch mobs and frontier justice, the destruction of the environment through deforestation, ranching, mining runoff in rivers, etc; working conditions and the “supreme indifference of capital towards labor” (154); and the habits of frontier women.
While de Grancey seems to have a lot to also say about Indians, I don’t think he ever actually talks to a single one throughout his whole journey. I thought this was a little disappointing. It seems like he got all his information from newspapers and stories of the Indian Wars which were still going on at that point (Custer’s Last Stand is brought up a lot) or from Indian hunters who took up residence in Deadwood. de Grancey respects the Sioux and Dakotas he sees and pities their situation, but he still considers them all to be savages. “In spite of their numerous faults, among them must be reckoned cruelty and ineptitude for work, these people certainly do not deserve all the evil that has been said of them by the Americans.” (32) I wonder where they belong on de Grancey’s cowboy-colonel scale?
Its really a shame that Cow-boys and Colonels isn’t well known today at all. Although not everything de Grancey says is totally accurate, he’s got a great story here and it paints a really vivid picture of the Black Hills and the rest of the West. I think this quote sums up the whole book pretty well: “What a charming country! And what charming people too!” (104)
I highly recommend reading Cow-boys and Colonels, you can read the original English version here. Better yet, the original French version (with pictures) is also online here. If you can find the 1963 edition published by Yale, it has a really good introduction by Howard Lamar that’s worth a read too.
Also, the Special Collections at the Beinecke Library and the National Anthropological Archives (online collections search here) are really great resources for learning about the Western world de Grancey explored. They both have a lot of really awesome stuff online too!
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