The Dakota Territory rancher faced murder charges after a shootout.
Like some men of the West, he lived by the gun and died by the gun. And like a few other men of the West, he had ice water in his veins and was devoid of fear of other men. Other than that, he was as far from a stereotypical man of the West as a man could get.
His full name was Antoine-Amédée-Marie-Vincent-Amat Manca de Vallombrosa. His royal French title was the Marquis de Morès et de Montemaggiore. But in Dakota Territory in the 1880s, he was famous and infamous as the Winchester- and Colt-toting cattle baron the Marquis de Morès.
Born in France on June 14, 1858, the Marquis de Morès graduated in 1879 from the French military academy, St. Cyr, andin 1880 from France’s cavalry academy, Saumur, at the head of his class in horsemanship and in the use of the broadsword, épée and pistol. He survived two mortal duels and was promoted to first lieutenant for his actions in an uprising in Algiers before he resigned from the French army in 1882, reputedly out of boredom. On February 15, 1882, he married Medora von Hoffman, the daughter of one of the richest bankers in New York. There, de Morès became an investment banker.
An avid hunter, de Morès heard about the fabulous big-game hunting in the untamed cattle ranching wilderness of Dakota Territory. The cattle business was booming, but most cattle from the West were being shipped “on the hoof” to Chicago before they were slaughtered. Always imperious and overconfident, de Morès decided to build a slaughterhouse in Dakota Territory and ship the fresh meat to the East in iced refrigerator cars, thereby eliminating the middlemen and undercutting the prices of what was called the Eastern “beef trust,” made up of Swift, Armour and other meatpackers.
On April 1, 1883, on the east bank of the Little Missouri River across from the town of Little Missouri, the marquis claimed the site of his own town and named it Medora, after his wife. He bought 4,000 acres for his main ranch and another 9,000 acres of rangeland, and on May 1 he incorporated the Northern Pacific Refrigerator Car Co. The construction of Medora boomed, along with it a giant slaughterhouse, completed in October.
But de Morès then committed the cardinal sin of the American cattle country—he began to fence in his land with barbed wire. And when he bought 25 miles of land on both banks of the Little Missouri—thus depriving other ranchers of access to water—he inadvertently started his own range war. He was also resented simply because he was a rich foreigner with a seemingly arrogant attitude.
On three separate occasions in June 1883, the de Morès haters, who apparently were afraid to take him on face to face, peppered his chateau with rifle shots. Each time the marquis and his men fought them off. On June 23 de Morès and three of his men tried to stop three of the ringleaders as they were galloping out of town. In the ensuing shootout with Winchester rifles, a de Morès hater named Riley Luffsey died, and bullets punctured de Morès’ clothes, one bullet hit his rifle stock, and another hit a rock that sent fragments into his face. For almost a month de Morès and his men fought off murder charges from the de Morès haters before the Frenchman used his political connections to get the charges dropped.
In the fall of 1883 Theodore Roosevelt bought two nearby ranches, and the two men became antagonistic “friends” who argued over politics and range rights, with de Morès at one point challenging Roosevelt to a duel that both later realized neither wanted to pursue. And they became close friends after that.
Based on photos of him with his guns, de Morès, like Roosevelt, apparently preferred Model 1876 Winchester repeating lever-action rifles over any other American or foreign model at that time. The Model 1876 was the first repeating Winchester that could handle a cartridge larger and more powerful than the .44-40 of the Model 1873 Winchester. One particular Model 1876 known to have belonged to him is Serial No. 13670, in the .50-95 Express caliber, big enough to stop buffalo and grizzlies in their tracks.
In his classic book The Peacemakers firearms historian R.L. Wilson quotes a graphic description of de Morès that appeared in an undated article in the Detroit Free Press: “Around his waist [was] a leather belt filled with gun cartridges; it also held two long-barrelled [sic] Colt’s revolvers of heavy caliber and a bowie knife which would bear inspection even in Arkansas. His gun was double-barrelled [sic], made in Paris, a breechloader of plain but accurate finish, having a rubber shoulder piece at the butt to take up the shock of the recoil.” This two-shot cartridge rifle was probably in a larger and more powerful caliber than the Model 1876 Winchester could offer. Wilson also wrote that, “Medora loved to shoot; she had a fine-quality arsenal and her own hunting palace, a wagon complete with bathroom and other conveniences. The Marquis even said that her shooting with a rifle beat his.”
The State Historical Society of North Dakota owns two pairs of cap-and-ball “dueling” pistols that belonged to de Morès—one unmarked .36-caliber pair, and a .50-caliber pair made by famed French maker Gastinne Renette—and a single-shot .22-caliber target pistol made by N. Guyot of Paris.
After De Morès spent over $1 million on his cattle empire, it proved to be “too successful.” In retaliation the beef trust undercut his prices and allegedly used its power to pay the railroads to leave his meat shipments stranded and spoiling without ice. And in August 1885 the trust was rumored to be behind another indictment of him for the Luffsey killing. Although the court found de Morès not guilty on September 18, his slaughterhouse in Medora closed for good in the winter of 1886–1887.
De Morès returned to France, and in 1887 he went tiger hunting in French Indochina (now Vietnam) for “relaxation.” Back in France he became involved in French politics, and he fought several more duels, some in secret, with swords and pistols, killing at least one of his opponents. In his 1970 biography of de Morès, Donald Dresden wrote: “He was not a killer like the gunslingers of the Old West. For de Morès dueling was simply a matter of settling a point of honor.”
In 1896 de Morès went on an expedition to North Africa to promote goodwill for France in its African colonies. But he had made too many political enemies. On June 9, 1896, he was attacked by more than 40 of his Tuareg guides. Armed with an unidentified carbine and a Colt revolver, he fought off his assassins in typical de Morès fashion for four hours, killing and wounding at least six of them. He was finally brought down by two bullets and a knife plunged into his back.
And to this day the phrase “Brave as Morès” is the highest praise one Tuareg tribesman can give another.
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.