Gay on the frontier — and loving it

Book explores male-to-male sexuality in the 19th century fur trade
2013-01-27T00:10:00Z Gay on the frontier — and loving itBy KEITH EDGERTON For The Gazette The Billings Gazette
January 27, 2013 12:10 am  • 

Between the 1820s to the early 1840s, the seductive lure of the American West attracted adventure and fortune seekers from all corners of the globe. Among these were a number of well-heeled European nobility — and their entourages — who trekked with fur trade caravans into some of the wildest and most remote regions of the continent. Some, notably the German prince Maximilian, came to catalog and describe both the exotic human and natural world through which they passed. They were also patrons of exceptionally skilled landscape artists and painters in an age before photography, providing the outside world its first visual glimpse into this vast and stunningly beautiful land.

Others, like William Drummond Stewart, a member of the lower Scottish nobility and the subject of this biography, came primarily to hunt and to experience the wide-open freedom of the northern Great Plains and Rockies (think modern-day African safaris). Stewart’s story, however, and as the subtitle of this book implies, has a twist: He was an openly gay man at a time when being gay was to risk ignominious public punishment (including hanging in some areas of the British isles) and the certain ruination of reputation and fortune. Thus Benemann’s biography is also an examination into what it meant to be a homosexual journeying from the hostile, intolerant and repressive early Victorian society to the rollicking, fluidly permissible world of the embryonic 19th-century American frontier. On that frontier, Stewart (and others in the fur-trading companies) encountered “berdaches” in many Native American cultures — gender-variant people (transsexuals, both men and women) who were often revered, rather than marginalized as was the case in Euro-American culture, as having special and important spiritual power. And recent scholarship has revealed that the decided lack of women in the predominately male fur trade led to a number of male-male physical encounters and romantic relationships in a space (both physical and psychological) that was unfettered by convention and tradition. As Benemann writes, many young men who journeyed into this early West discovered “an Eden filled only with Adams.”

Stewart himself took full advantage. Benemann describes a series of romantic liaisons in which the Scotsman openly and unashamedly engaged, including a lengthy, passionate and tempestuous association with the trapper Antoine Clement. Incredibly, in 1843 Stewart also organized, fully outfitted and recruited dozens of willing participants to engage in a spectacular and bedazzling Renaissance-themed costume party in the remote reaches of the Platte river headwaters in present-day Colorado. It was, as Benemann notes, “one last all-male hurrah before the wagon trains and the families and the plows changed everything forever.”

With greater acceptance of gays and lesbians in contemporary American society, there follows that historians have redoubled their efforts in uncovering the hidden history of gay and lesbians in the American past. No longer taboo, a substantial number of fascinating histories of the gay and lesbian experience in Europe and America have appeared in recent years, including by Benemann himself, who is author of two other works on the history of male homosexuality in America. This latest work can be added to this growing corpus of inquiry. In this well-researched work, Benemann asserts that “Stewart’s role in the story of the Rocky Mountains in the early nineteenth century is insignificant when compared to that of William Ashley, William Sublette, Jim Bridger, or Jedidiah Smith, yet his story is important because so very little is known about what life was like in America for homosexuals during this period. In a sense his life provides a window into the many ways of being gay in early nineteenth-century America.”

Keith Edgerton teaches courses in American and Montana history at Montana State University Billings.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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