The Dakota Territory / Chateau de Mores

Medora is known as a very popular stop for those on a western vacation to North Dakota. The Dakota Badlands area is a beautiful part of the country and attracts thousands of tourists annually. There are many other reasons why Medora North Dakota is a popular stop, one of which is that Teddy Roosevelt ranched in the area during the 1880’s and 90’s. Medora commemorates Roosevelt’s time in the Badlands and the western frontier in general with their hugely popular Medora Musical performed every summer in their 2,500+ seat Burning Hills Amphitheatre. Another reason is to visit the Chateau de Mores which was built by a French nobleman rancher in the early 1880’s.

chateau de mores in medora north dakota

Chateau de Mores, Medora North Dakota

Among other excellent vacation stops you’ll want to add to your Medora North Dakota vacation planner are the Chateau de Mores Museum, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Medora Riding Stables with trail rides and the buggy rides offered behind the Medora Community Center.

There’s a very interesting story that took place in Medora during the 1880’s which will forever stay a part of the town’s western heritage. This is the story of the Marquis de Mores, a man whose life, achievements, failures and death probably will never be completely understood. The Marquis was a nobleman from France, with a questionable financial status, who made his way across the Atlantic to the wild west of the 1880’s in the Dakota Badlands. This alone wasn’t altogether strange. Many Europeans invested in the American ranching industry in the 1880’s. Most were from Great Britain and an excellent example was the famed XIT Ranch in the Texas Panhandle. Theses investors were really absentee owners of which some occasionally visited the asset. What was a bit strange about the Marquis’ presence in the Medora Dakota Badlands was that he actually was operating a ranch.

Early refirgerator car design, circa 1870

The background of the Marquis de Mores is so strange that it really has to be true. Here was a man educated at St Cyr, the prestigious military academy in France that included among it’s graduates, Philippe Petain, famous French general in World War One and figurehead of Vichy France during World War Two. Among other things, in France, the Marquis was a cavalry officer and a famous duelist. All of a sudden the Marquis quit the French cavalry. married  a wealthy New York debutant and moved to the Badlands in Dakota Territory.

The Marquis de Mores was a nobleman of questionable wealth although he did spend. His marrying the daughter of a New York banking millionaire certainly didn’t hurt. In fact, the town of Medora was named by the Marquis for his wife, the former Medora Von Hoffman.

Marquis de Mores built a meat packing plant and a twenty-six room house named the Chateau de Mores which serves today as an excellent museum. The biggest story of the Marquis in the Badlands was his idea of a meat processing and packing plant. It was a first in Dakota and in the plains. Thanks to loans from his wealthy father in-law in addition to whatever money he had, the Marquis moved to set up his unique operation which in essence would change the ranching industry in a significant way. The marquis actually built his first operation in Little Missouri across from present day Medora. He or his personality ran into trouble in Little Missouri and as an act of revenge he moved across the river and named the town Medora. The new Medora would prosper as such that many people in Little Missouri also moved across the river.

refrigerator rail car

Refrigerator car on display at the California State Railroad Museum, from author's collection

At the time, meat packing for beef cattle took place in large cities such as Chicago and Kansas City. To be sure, it was a novel idea. Instead of driving cattle to the rail heads for shipment east, the Marquis de Mores would send it east in the new refrigerator rail cars recently developed by Chicago meat processor Gustavus Swift. Interestingly, the railroads paid little attention to Swift since they already had invested big money in stock hauling cars and were satisfied with that method. Swift did get the operation rolling about 1880 when he added about two hundred of these cars and was shipping thousands of carcasses east from Chicago.

In regards to the Marquis, he constructed a meat-packing plant, bought cattle and land, and employed cowboys and meat processing workers. He made an arrangement with the Northern Pacific Railroad to have a transportation line built to Medora. During his first three years, the Marquis de Mores added businesses in Medora, built houses and even founded a Catholic Church. He was a big employer. He also operated the Medora-Deadwood Stagecoach line. The Marquis had a famous friend and neighbor, Theodore Roosevelt, who founded two ranches, one the famous Maltese Cross Ranch, near Medora and enjoyed working in the rugged outdoors.

marquis de mores packing plant ruins in medora

Ruins of Marquis de Mores packing plant

The meat packing operation worked out quite well at first but then all went bad in 1886. This was all within three years. Some historians contend that the real cause of the bankruptcy was the severe drought of 1886 and the fraction of available livestock because of it. Many ranchers ran into financial trouble during this period. The second reason often attributed by some for the failure was the Marquis himself. He really was an absentee owner since he traveled frequently and spent a lot of money in every respect. The problem was that most of the money in his meat and ranching operations was other peoples money, namely his in-laws. He didn’t have the personal money needed to spend the way he did.

So, what became of the French nobleman who tried his luck in American ranching and meat packing? Most written history of the Marquis will have him returning to France, joining it’s army and then moving to it’s colony in Vietnam to build a railroad. In the middle of the railroad project, leaders changed in France and the new administration halted the Vietnam railroad program. The Marquis reportedly returned to France, got involved in political disputes with the rulers of the day and ended up in Algiers helping France keep the British in Africa in check.

maltese cross cabin

Theodore Roosevelt's Maltese Cross cabin

Marquis de Mores, the Badlands Dakota cattle rancher, meat packer, philanthropist met his end in Africa under circumstances not everyone agrees on. His caravan was infiltrated with anti-French natives and the marquis was shot to death. There were people who also pointed a finger at the French government. Some, including the Marquis’ wife, contended that people in the French government who disliked the Marquis intensely were behind his killing.

The story of the Marquis de Mores is a story about Medora North Dakota. It’s about a Frenchman who immersed himself in the American ranching business, founded an historic town in 1880’s Dakota Territory which today, in the twenty-first century, is a highly popular tourist destination and home to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. All of this was created by a graduate of St. Cyr miltary school in France who chased his American dream as a rancher and meat packer, moved to Vietnam and then met his end in a caravan in Africa under suspicious circumstances. It’s a story too amazing not to be true.

You will also find interesting our Trips Into History article on Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Ranch and on our Western Trips site the story about the historic XIT Ranch in Texas.

Some good books regarding cattle ranching, the Marquis and the Dakota Badlands are The Cattle Kings by author Lewis Atherton, Marquis de Mores: Emperor of the Badlands by author Donald Dresden and Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park by author Gary Leppart.

(California State Museum refrigerator car photo from author’s private collection. Remaining photos and images are in the public domain)


See the Deadwood Stagecoach in Cody Wyoming

Many people familiar with the old west would say that the most famous stagecoach to have plied the trails of the frontier west was the Deadwood Stagecoach. This is Deadwood as in Deadwood South Dakota and the Black Hills. Deadwood South Dakota could easily have been called the capitol of the Black Hills.The photo below is of Deadwood circa 1877.

deadwood south dakota

This is where people from all walks of life hastened to as soon as gold was discovered in the nearby hills. The fact is that Deadwood was, in a way, founded by none other than George Armstrong Custer. It was Custer who led an expedition into the Black Hills which was at the time a very sacred area of the country to the Sioux Indians. The Sioux in fact had ownership of the Black Hills per a treaty with the federal government. When Custer filed a report of his expedition to the Black Hills, whose purpose was to ascertain if gold was truly there,  he emphasized that gold was there in abundance. Somehow, at about the same time Custer filed his report, the startling information also found it’s way to the eastern newspapers.

concord stagecoachThe national economy was in a slump at the time and this only added fuel to the fire and what appeared to be another California Gold Rush, this time in the Black Hills, was in the making. Beginning in April of 1877 the first stagecoaches started rolling between Bismark South Dakota and Deadwood. The Northern Pacific Railroad had a terminal in Bismark and this offered the fastest way to Deadwood from the east. Three time a week service began in May and it didn’t take long for the stages to make the trip daily. Deadwood South Dakota was booming and people were trying to get there fast. The coach of choice was none other than the Concord coaches which were built well for the rough western trails.The first Concord stagecoach was built in 1827 by the Abbot Downing Company. The innovation that made these coaches so popular lay in the construction of their suspension. Traditional stagecoaches employed metal springs which gave the coach a very bouncy ride when the trail got rough. Concord coaches instead used leather braces which gave the coach a gentle swinging motion, prompting Mark Twain to refer to the Concord as the “cradle on wheels.” Freight and passenger revenue was doing very well and in addition to that the stage company received the coveted U.S. Mail contract. During the stage lines heyday it was reported that they employed about 175 men. This was quite a large operation in 1877.

sam bassAnytime there was a flourishing stagecoach route, and the route to the Black Hills was one of them, there were stagecoach robbers. In that era they were often referred to as “highwaymen”. People handy with firearms such as Wyatt Earp were hired to sit beside the driver with a shotgun to protect passengers and gold from the highwaymen. There was a lot of criminal activity in the area. The infamous Sam Bass, pictured above, and his gang reportedly robbed the stage four times in two months. In fact, the Sam bass gang was credited with the largest Union Pacific train robbery that took place in Nebraska. The amount and value of gold dust being shipped via stagecoach was such that precautions were taken that included a special coach to protect the gold. The treasure box was bolted securely to the floor, the coach was even lined in lead, and there were two portholes guards could use to fire back at the robbers.

The transportation boom ended suddenly when the railroad reached Pierre, South Dakota. In 1880 the company moved the majority of its coaches and livestock to Pierre and opened an alternate line. After that the service on the Bismarck line was cut to tri-weekly trips and was soon after abandoned.

To illustrate how popular Buffalo Bill’s Deadwood Stagecoach was in his Wild West performances, while performing in England the highlight of one of the shows came when several monarchs, including the Prince of Wales and the kings of Denmark, Greece, Belgium, and Saxony, climbed aboard the Deadwood Stage with Buffalo Bill in the driver’s seat and rode around the arena while the Indians engaged in a mock attack. It doesn’t get much more real than that for the visiting monarchs. Obviously this was a show business first and gained wide publicity for the Wild West.

Today, you can see the original Deadwood Stagecoach which played a big part in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West performances. The stagecoach is on display at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody Wyoming. The Cody Historical Center began as a log cabin tribute to William  F. Cody, founder and namesake of Cody Wyoming, and has materialized into  a seven-acre building which houses five museums and a research center. The museum is located at 720 Sheridan Ave. and features everything about Buffalo Bill Cody, his Wild West and the old west in general. They have done an excellent job with this museum and I would recommend anyone traveling on a Wyoming vacation to make a visit there. It is the largest repository of William Cody artifacts in the west.