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Emperor in the Badlands

 

Sometimes the title, or in this case the subtitle, says it all: The Marquis de Mores: Emperor of the Badlands. “Emperor of the Badlands”—there’s a phrase that captures the delusional state of the marquis, the subject of the book published in 1970, and, inadvertently, its author.

This old standard on the Marquis de Mores has its virtues. It is readable, and it covers the Marquis’s life methodically, with emphasis on his (brief) time in the Badlands of Dakota Territory.

The work has two significant shortcomings, the first of which is that the author, Donald Dresden, is too credulous. For instance, relying on reminiscent sources, he repeats old yarns about the wild days in Medora, or rather, its predecessor village, Little Missouri, in the early 1880s. “Little Missouri was no place to bring a maiden aunt for a visit,” Dresden writes. “Shooting was almost as common as breathing, with drunks galloping up and down the main street, firing their guns in wild abandon.” The hellions of this frontier outpost delighted in waylaying train conductors and shooting at their feet, as well as firing shots through the windows of coaches.

Are we really to believe that hoodlums habitually shot through the windows of Northern Pacific passenger coaches? Once, maybe. Twice, and here come the Pinkertons, heavily armed to clean out the riffraff and secure corporate interests.

The other problem is that Dresden is too much the apologist for the marquis. The simple facts of his life make it clear that he was dangerously self-destructive and also that he had dangerous ideas.

Now, we in North Dakota are inclined to make the marquis into something of an underdog hero. We like the faded grandeur that attaches to his mixed-up aristocratic lineage, and we make him into a sort of chivalric champion who, with his scheme to process beef on the plains and challenge the meatpacking cartel, embodies progressive, anti-trust values. Add in the marquis’s trigger-happy tendencies, which invoke a manly and hardy frontier, and the marquis looms heroic as the statue of him emplaced in Medora.

Dresden explains the failure of the marquis’s beef business operations as due to the treacherous connivance of eastern interests. I wonder. Because it seems that the larger life trajectory of the marquis, who inherited money and married more of it, was one misadventure after another, one ill-conceived scheme after another, one pointlessly dangerous episode after another.

Following his failure in the Badlands, just what in the world was he thinking when he plowed money into logistical preparations for a railroad across French Indochina, when he had no charter to build such a thing? And when the marquis met his end at the hands of killers in Algeria, did he really think he could just waltz in and launch a grand Franco-Arab alliance against the British?

Worst of all were the marquis’s inflammatory anti-Semitic politics. A guy who organizes uniformed posses to roam Paris in cowboy gear and intimidate Jews is just a little too creepy to excuse, let alone lionize.

So, what do we do with the Marquis de Mores, historically, here on the northern plains? In the first place, we need not re-colorize him all in shades of villainy. Just because he was erratic and bigoted, that doesn’t mean that the critics of his actions in the Badlands, such as Gregor Lang or his son, Lincoln, who wrote the story in Ranching with Roosevelt, are completely credible. I think it entirely possible that the violence deployed by the marquis against his enemies along the Little Missouri was justifiable self-defense.

Rather, we may treat the phenomenon of the Marquis de Mores as an example of the marvelous possibilities of the Great Plains frontier, a field of dreams for the wildest schemes. This places the fabulous house that his family gave the state of North Dakota, a gem among our historic sites, at the symbolic center of a time when perhaps men were not giants, but their ideas were.

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