The de Morès' Western Adventure
In the aftermath of the Civil War, America turned its attention westward. This was not the first rush West, but it was one of the most iconic immigrations of the nation’s history. Fueled by promises of great wealth, expedient railroad travel, and natural beauty, each an aspect of Manifest Destiny, men such as J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Horace Greeley urged people West. The Gilded Age was on!
The Marquis joined the multitudes West, but it was not gold or silver that drew him here from France. It was cattle. By the 1880s the Cattle Bonanza was in full swing with Chicago and Kansas City spearheading the industry. Swift and Armor had made Chicago the meatpacker of the world by solving the problem of how to get affordable fresh beef to the populace. The answer was refrigeration through the use of ice in refrigerated rail cars.
However, as the nation moved West, the problem of shipping live beef to the slaughterhouse remained. Damage to the cattle because of stress, overcrowding, and dehydration consumed much of the profits due to the loss of weight. Sometimes, these trips to the market by train were over 1,000 miles long. Also adding to this problem was the depletion of good grazing in the South due to the Civil War and the introduction of Tick Fever and other cattle diseases. The search for new grasslands was turned northward.
To the Marquis de Morès, a young and idealistic 24-year old French nobleman, the promised land was Dakota Territory. With the partnership of his father-in-law, an international banker from New York, the Baron von Hoffman, the making of the Little Missouri country the northern beef capital seemed a surefire enterprise.
Business and Ranching
The Marquis was so confident of success that he brought his young, beautiful bride out with him to establish a residence. Early in April of 1883, he bought the east side of the river and christened that site, Medora, after his wife. Thirteen sections of the Badlands north of here were purchased from the railroad for his ranch, totaling almost nine thousand acres. Within 3 months, a 26-room home was built overlooking his holdings and, within six months, the slaughtering and shipping of fresh range beef from his newly constructed abattoir commenced. With all that activity, the little town of Medora began to grow at about 100 people a year.
His plan was to bring range-fed cattle to the Medora abattoir for slaughter, carcass prep, and cold rail car transport East. The processing capacity of the original plant was 150 cattle per day. Although the daily kill never reached that capacity, in 1885 the Marquis enlarged the plant. New operations included a slaughterhouse, three ice houses that held approximately 3,000 tons of ice each, and a refrigerator building. This packing plant was reputed as “the most modern and complete facility for its size in the country” and was in operation 1883-1886.
The house on the hill became known as “the Chateau” to local people. To the family, it was merely a hunting cabin. It was a place to get away from civilization, to “get away from the genteel life,” as the Marquis was quoted as saying. It was a place for the Marquise to try out her wings as the mistress of a home all of her own and devote time to her passion: hunting. Her equestrian skills matched her shooting skills and drew kudos from the local cowboys and hunters. The Marquis even admitted she was a better shot than he.
Her love of the wilderness of the Badlands gave Madame inspiration to become a renowned hostess at the Chateau. She spoke seven languages, played classical music on the piano, was an accomplished artist with watercolors, and supervised lavish dinners. The guest list included Theodore Roosevelt of New York, Hamilton Fish, also of New York society, the Mellons of banking fame, Russian princes, and many more. All coming to do some business, but especially to hunt and experience the Wild West.
The Marquis and Madame believed Dakota Territory would be their great long-term investment. But significant challenges such as drought, extreme winters resulting in widespread cattle death, rivalry with Eastern businesses like Swift & Armour, and a national shift in taste preference pushed many ranchers back East. The Marquis was among this number.
The Marquis and his family returned to New York in the winter of 1886, leaving their holdings and many belongings, hoping they would return someday soon. However, they never came back as a family. Instead, other ventures drew their attention.
The Vallambrosa family worked tirelessly to safeguard the Marquis’ legacy after his death in 1896. After Madame’s death in 1921, their eldest son, Louis de Vallombrosa, continued funding the preservation of the family’s hunting cabin (the Chateau) as a memorial to his parents. Arnold Goplen, a United States Government Historian with the Department of the Interior, wrote the first professional study of the Marquis titled, The Career of the Marquis de Morès in the Badlands of North Dakota. Goplen accompanied his study with a report,
“Plans for Restoration, and Preservation of the De Morès Historic Sites At Medora, North Dakota.”
From 1937-1939, Goplen acted as foreman for the first major restoration of the site. The Civilian Conservation Corps,
Works Project Administration, and National Park Service, provided the labor.
It is their handiwork that has allowed the Chateau, Chimney Park, and DeMorès Park to thrive.
In 1936, Louis gifted 128 acres, including the Chateau, Chimney Park, and the bottomlands, to the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Director Russell Reid accepted and paid the title transfer fee of $1.00.
The Chateau became a State Historic Site and opened to the public in 1941.
Text written by Assistant Supervisor Edward Sahlstrom.
Assistance provided by Interpreter Karen Nelson and
the State Historical Society of North Dakota.