The Wild West of Yester-Year

The Great Divide: Europeans Exploring America
By Rachel Kovaciny

I don’t know about you, but when I think of the people roaming the Old West, names that spring to mind are ones like Joe and Bob and Martha and Anne. Not Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin. In fact, for most of my life, I rarely thought of European noblemen with long, hyphenated names as being involved in the wilder history of the west. But that all changed when I read The Great Divide: Travels in the Upper Yellowstone in the Summer of 1874 by the Earl of Dunraven, a gent whose personal name was, in fact, Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin.

Dunraven was an Irish aristocrat with a penchant for big-game hunting, yachting, and other outdoor sports. He hunted game all over the world though it’s hard to see how he found the time. He served several stints in the British military, acted as a war correspondent for various newspapers from time to time, and carried on a political career that involved sitting in the House of Lords in Britain’s Parliament. But hunting was his passion, so he made time for it, the same way we make time to binge-watch our new favorite show or re-read an old favorite book.


 In 1872, Dunraven arrived in America to hunt big game in the west. A successful buffalo-and-elk hunt left him eager for more, and he acquired land in Colorado intending to hunt on it another time. When he returned in 1874, he planned to do more hunting, but also a bit of exploring. He said, “Having two or three months of spare time, I determined to pay a visit to the far-famed region of the Upper Yellowstone, and to judge for myself whether the thermal springs and geysers there situated were deserving of the superiority claimed for them.” Yellowstone so enraptured Dunraven, he wrote a book’s worth of reminiscences about the trip. Thanks to a ready wit and lots of practice writing for newspapers, his book was a splendid success. I can see why—it’s detailed, exciting, and enthusiastic. As first-hand accounts of touring the Old West go, it’s smashing.


Dunraven gained thousands of acres of land in Colorado, some of it in less-than-legal ways. He built a resort there in 1877, the aptly named English Hotel, which he intended to bring tourists to the region. But settlers kept coming and trying to settle on his land, and he eventually sold it all, frustrated at not being able to keep the land empty for hunting and exploring. Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin, the Earl of Dunraven, was not an anomaly. Many European aristocrats found the American frontier fascinating. They loved taking large entourages on hunting trips, collecting new animal and plant specimens, painting the western scenery, and meeting up with American Indians. Many of them chronicled their experiences, but Dunraven’s The Great Divide was one of the most successful and popular of such books. It was so often reprinted, you can get a copy reasonably even today.