Turtle Bunbury

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SIR GEORGE GORE (1811-1878)

A frenzy of red flames crackled into the North Dakota night sky while the men from the Fur Company watched in awe from the safety of their trading post. Through the haze they could see the silhouette of Sir George Gore’s yellow carriage emblazoned in a halo of fire. All around the carriage, the inferno raged, consuming the sprightly Conestogas and freight wagons that had served Sir George and his men for nearly three years.

The fire engulfed nearly everything that the Irish peer owned. His violin, his library of classic novels, guide books and journals, his chronometer and sextant, his tents and his commode, the French carpets and rubber mats from his chamber, his pillows and blankets and the bedstead upon which he slept. Everything would be reduced to ash.

It is not known what Sir George Gore was thinking as he watched the fire destroy his worldly possessions. Perhaps he was already regretting his actions. After all, he was the guy who started the fire.

One thing was for sure. This was a very unhappy finale to perhaps the most extravagant private hunting trips ever made.

Sir George’s story is told in ‘Prairie Fever’, an action-packed new book by Peter Pagnamenta about the English, Scottish and Anglo-Irish aristocrats who staked their claim to the American West during the 19th century.

Sir George stands out from this cast of plucky explorers for the borderline psychotic air of calm with which he seems to have indulged his blood-thirsty passion for killing animals.

According to his own log-books, this stout, balding and bewhiskered Galway aristocrat man would spend 37 months in North America, during which time he single-handedly killed 2,000 buffalo, 1,600 deer and elk, 1,500 antelope and 105 grizzly bears, as well as thousands of mountain sheep, coyotes and timber wolves, and sundry smaller animals and birds.

It is not something that would have impressed his young cousin Constance Markievicz, later to become an ardent Irish Republican. And nor is Sir George’s portrait likely to grace the wall of another of his kinsmen, former Vice-President Al Gore.

Every family has its black sheep. If the Gore family had one, Sir George would have probably shot it.

St. George Gore, as he was christened, was born in Sandymount on the south side of Dublin City on 28th April 1811. He descended from Sir Paul Gore, a wily Londoner who secured considerable lands in Ireland during the Tudor age and was created Baron Gore, of Manor Gore, County Donegal.

One of Sir Paul’s great-grandsons served as Speaker of the Irish House of Commons in the 1730s. A generation later, the fabulously wealthy Sir Ralph Gore, a distinguished military commander (and prominent member of the Kildare Hunt), became Earl of Ross.

When Lord Ross died without a son, his wealth and baronetcy passed to his nephew, another Ralph Gore. This young man married Lady Grace Maxwell, a daughter of the 1st Earl of Farnham. Sir George Gore was their only son.

In 1842, the Oxford-educated George succeeded his father as the 8th baronet. Prior to this he had managed the family estates in Ireland, which amounted to over 7,000 acres (including fifteen townlands) in Co. Galway, as well as other lands in Donegal, Limerick and Offaly.

However, one of George’s first moves after inheriting these lands was to abandon Ireland, thereby becoming one of that rather worthless breed, the absentee landlord.

Gore was one of the Anglo-Irish landlords who behaved abominably during the Great Famine which began to ravage Ireland a few years after his inheritance. He showed little mercy for his tenants and, through his agent Charles Cage, he continued to demand high rents that were completely disproportionate to the value of the land.

Cage forwarded the rent money on to Gore who, now living in England, used it to sustain a lavish lifestyle of fox-hunting, fishing, shooting and hare coursing. He had his own pack of staghounds, and bred several champion greyhounds; he won the prestigious Waterloo Cup two years in a row.

The long winter months were spent fishing and duck-shooting in Scotland, armed with a seven-foot long gone of exceptionally large bore. In the summers, he returned to the Scottish Highlands for grouse shoots and deer stalking. Gore, a loner, was a lethal shot. Over three days in 1847, he killed 12 deer, six in a single day.

Meanwhile, the Famine continued in Ireland and Gore’s tenants were struggling to pay the rent. On Gore’s instruction, Cage began to evict anyone who couldn’t pay, felling their ramshackle abodes and clearing the lands. Some tenants were given money to pay their passage on an emigrant ship to America. Others were simply herded off the estate to join the thousands of other dispossessed and famished souls roaming the countryside.

In October 1849, Charles Cage was assassinated as he rode his horse through Ferbane, Co. Offaly. Sir George was compelled to leave his hounds mid-way through the hare-coursing season to attend the funeral. This was a rare visit to his Irish lands and possibly his last.

Five years passed during which time Sir George befriended a Scottish hunter called Sir William Drummond Stewart who regaled him with stories of hunting buffalo and wild bear in the American prairies.

Gore was seized with what the Anglo-Irish explorer Sir Richard Burton called ‘prairie fever’. Accompanied by his valet, his personal servants, his gunsmith and his ghillie, he set sail for America. He also brought fifty of his finest hounds, as well as their handler, who yapped all the way to the Mississippi. One of the hounds is said to have been 34 inches high.

When they reached St. Louis, Missouri, Gore checked into a hotel, cashed a number of large Barings Bank drafts and began to buy wagons and provisions for his coming adventure. [i]

His initial travelling companion was the future Earl of Fitzwilliam, one of the wealthiest men in Britain, who frequently resided at his Irish home, Coolattin, in the southern foothills of the Wicklow Mountains. In his homeland, deference to nobility was par for the course but, as Fitzwilliam later wrote, in the Far West, ‘it does not matter what trade or profession a man is here … Everybody is equal’.

By the time Sir George’s entourage prepared to set off along the Oregon Trail some weeks later, he had assembled 21 bright red two-wheeled carts - 16 for his personal baggage - each hitched to six horses. There were also six heavy wagons pulled by oxen. One contained his armory of 75 guns, including rifles, shotguns, revolvers and pistols manufactured by Joe Manton, Purdy Westley, Richards and other celebrated makers. Another held 3 tonnes of ammunition, while a third carried his fishing rods, lines, nets and hooks.

His own transport was a bright yellow carriage that could be converted into a bed for sleeping rough. His private residence was a circular white and green striped tent, with a rubber mat unfurled beneath a French carpet on the ground. Heating was provided by a pair of stoves, one of which stood close to the fur-lined commode where he took a bath shortly after he arose at ten or eleven o’clock in the morning.

As well as fifty servants (which by now also included secretaries, a steward and several cooks) and his fifty hounds, there were 112 horses, 18 oxen, 40 mules and three milking cows.

It must have been a staggering sight for the indigenous warriors who watched him coming.

For the next three years, this enormous hunting party would roam through Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and the Dakotas as Sir George laid waste to any wildlife he passed along the way.

He hunted nearly every day, setting off after a late breakfast, with a small retinue of servants to carry his guns. If he was shooting fowl, a gunbearer stood close by, feeding Sir George a continuous circle of fully loaded shotguns so he could blaze away without distraction. He became a master at killing, or ‘running down’, buffalo, for which he earned the name ‘Buffalo Slayer’.

He would often not return again until 10 o’clock at night and it was a rare occasion that he did not then instruct his servants to track down the beasts he had shot the following day in order to retrieve their skins, horns or antlers.

Despite being the only gentleman within several hundred miles, he was wary of attempting friendship with commoners. The one exception was his American scout Jim Bridger who, generally suspicious of the upper classes, seems to have enjoyed Sir George’s company, commending him as a social companion and an agreeable gentleman.

Bridger, who often dined with Sir George, told how, after guzzling a couple of glasses of French wine, the aristocrat would pluck a book from his library - generally Shakespeare – and read some passages aloud, before asking Bridger his verdict on the tale. Bridger later surmised his thoughts on Falstaff to a journalist as follows: ‘That thar big Dutchman Mr Full-stuff was a leetle bit too fond of lager beer’.

Once he and Bridger had talked enough Shakespeare, Sir George would turn in, sleeping snugly upon the down-feathers of his brass bedstead, breathing in air that Sir Richard Burton described as being as ‘brisk as a bottle of veuve Clicquot.’

In the spring of 1857, Sir George took a small hunting party some 300 miles into the Black Hills. One morning they found themselves surrounded by a war party of 180 Lakota Sioux, who were by now fed up with Gore’s ceaseless bloodlust. They offered him a choice – remove your clothes and run away, or die right now.

Gore sagely stripped and ran, abandoned his remaining supplies and, along with his party, spent the next five weeks plodding back to their base, living on plants and the few animals they managed to trap en route.

He made his way to the Fort Union trading station where he commissioned the construction of two boats, in return for which he offered his wagons and livestock. However, Gore became paranoid, perhaps rightly, that the boat builders were trying to overcharge him.

His anger brewed into a veritable rage and it was at this point that he assembled his caravan into one place and ordered his men to burn the lot. And rather than allow anyone at Fort Union to get hold of his animals, he simultaneously instructed his men to distribute all his horses, oxen and cows amongst a number of white vagabonds and American Indians living in the vicinity.

Job done, Sir George boarded a flatboat with a handful of followers made his way back to St. Louis. Among those who met him in St. Louis was the military travel writer Randolph Barnes Marcy who, like Bridger, found him ‘affable and communicative’ although he was staggered by the ‘enormous aggregate’ of animals he had slaughtered.

Marcy concluded that Gore was ‘was one of those enthusiastic, ardent sportsmen who derived more real satisfaction and pleasure from one day’s successful hunting than can possibly be imagined by those who have never participated in this exhilarating and healthful amusement.’

He also reckoned that Gore was returning home much the better for his trip with ‘a renovated constitution, good health and spirits, and a new lease of perhaps ten years to his life and, finally, he had seen something of life out of the ordinary beaten track of the great mass of other tourists.’

Gore managed to fit in one last fishing trip on the Saguenay in Quebec before making his way home to England. A social columnist for Harper’s magazine was part of a group who met him at this time. He noted that they were ‘received with great politeness at the door of the tent, and invited in to partake of some refreshments, after a huge dog and a ponderous stove had been expelled to allow free ingress [ie: access] for the ample skirts of the ladies.’[ii]

By the time he sailed back east across the Atlantic, it’s estimated that Gore had spent over $100,000 which works out at about 5 million Euro in today’s currency.

After his return, he does not seem to have spoken much of his time in America and never published any account of it. Nonetheless, the story of his 3-yea killing spree became the stuff of legends on both sides of the Atlantic, with the number of animals he is said to have killed being needlessly exaggerated.

Running low on funds, he placed his 9000 acre Irish estates up for sale in 1872.[iii] He died six years later, aged 67, and was succeeded in the baronetcy by a cousin. But while the trigger-happy bachelor may have had no sons to carry his name, he is nonetheless widely recalled today in Colorado where Gore Pass, Gore Range, Gore Canyon, Gore Mountain, Gore Lake, Gore Creek, Gore Wilderness Area and, for a brief period, Gore City, were all named for him.

Peter Pagnamenta, ‘Prairie Fever: British Aristocrats in the American West 1830-1890’ (Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd, 2012).

[i] Gore and Fitzwilliam were part of a new generation of British adventurers who were striking out in all directions from the Himalayas to the African interior, the sandy deserts of Australia to, as in Gore’s case, the remote wilds of North America with its Edenic scenery, ‘noble savages’ and air so invigorating that another Anglo-Irish explorer Sir Richard Burton described it as ‘brisk as a bottle of veuve Clicquot … it is this that gives one the prairie fever.’

Lord Fitzwilliam died in the winter of 1902 and left a legacy of £2.8 million – more than £3 billion by today’s values. Some years before his birth, the family had been blessed with considerable luck when their 20,000 acre Yorkshire estate was found to be straddling one of the biggest coalfields in England.

[ii] ‘Here we had left Sir St George Gore and his little party who had come to the Saguenay not to view its scenery but to enjoy the sports of angling. There they might have them to their hearts’ content, for the river abounds with salmon, salmon-trout, pickerel, white fish, common trout, cod and herring; and for more notable sport, the porpoise, the sturgeon and the gibard, or bottle-nosed whale, were ready to present themselves. Upon a green plateau at the head of the cove of L’Ance á L’Eau, Sir St George had pitched his circular tent and the smoke of his kitchen (a cavity between two huge boulders) was plainly visible from the steamer. Myself and companions proceeded to give him a parting call, and to get a small glimpse of tent life. We were received with great politeness at the door of the tent, and invited in to partake of some refreshments, after a huge dog and a ponderous stove had been expelled to allow free ingress for the ample skirts of the ladies.’ (Haper’s New Monthly Magazine, July 1859, ‘The Saguenay’, p. 159).

[iii] In 1872 estates in counties Limerick (1,657 acres), Galway (4,139 acres), King's County [county Offaly], Cavan, Dublin and Meath, belonging to Sir St George Gore, totalling over 9,000 acres, were advertised for sale.