On the Trail with Bidwell and Lord Romaine

Tuesday 6th. This morning John Gray and Romaine were sent on to Green river to see if there were any trappers at the rendezvous, and then return to the company with the intelligence. All hands were anxious to have their names inscribed on this memorable landmark [Independence Rock], so that we did not start until near noon; went up stream about 8 miles and encamped on Sweet Water.

John Gray (or Grey) and W. G. Romaine were two of the most intriguing members of the party. They were part of Father De Smet’s missionary party: Gray was listed as a trapper, and Romaine as a “pleasure seeker,” or tourist. Romaine was an Englishman, and was referred to by the other men as “Lord” Romaine. Both men returned to the States without going all the way to California or Oregon.

The men in the Bidwell-Bartleson Party had a variety of reasons for setting out on the trail; not all of them were seeking a new home in the West. “Cheyenne” Dawson, in his 1894 recollection of his 1841 overland trip, says that their group was a “very mixed crowd.” “There were heads of families . . . and many adventurous youths like myself and John Bidwell, who wanted nothing but to see and experience. There were gentlemen seeking health, and an English lord, Lord Romain, going out with a half-breed hunter, John Grey, to shoot buffalo.”

I imagine that a well-to-do young Englishman with a cultured accent would have been called “Lord” by an American frontiersman whether he was one or not. In fact, William Govett Romaine was not an aristocrat. Born in 1815, he was the second son of a clergyman, Robert Govett Romaine, vicar of Staines, Middlesex. He graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, went on to study law, and was called to the bar in 1839.

William Romaine sounds like a proper Victorian gentleman, solidly middle-class, well-educated, and destined for a distinguished career in the civil service. All of which is true, but he also had an adventurous spirit and a yen to see the world. Before he settled down to an office in the Inns of Court and genteel family life, he decided to take a trip to see the great American West.

He hired an experience mountain man, John Gray, as his guide, and joined Father De Smet’s company. He was eager to experience every bit of the wild West that he could, and Father De Smet records that at the very beginning of their journey, while the others set out on their long trek to the West, he, Father Point, and the “young Englishman” took a side trip to visit a nearby Indian village.

On July 25th, after reaching the Green River, “Lord” Romaine and his guide turned back. Romaine had accomplished his goal: he had roughed it on the trail, met Indians and mountain men, shot buffalo, and seen the beauties and wonders of the great American West. He was one of the earliest English travelers to do so, well before the famous explorer Sir Richard Burton.

Maitland, R. E. Fuller, active 1904-1924; William Govett Romaine (1815-1893)

Maitland, R. E. Fuller; Portrait of William Govett Romaine (1815-1893) by R.E. Fuller Maitland,  Ministry of Defense Art Collection

“Lord” Romaine did not give up travel after his return to Great Britain. His distinguished legal career took him to the Crimea, India, and Egypt. The British Dictionary of National Biography describes Romaine as “adventurous, fond of travel, a keen observer, high-spirited, and zealous in all he undertook,” a description that certainly fits the young Englishman who traveled with the first emigrant party to set out for California.

Next time: John Gray, who is maybe even more interesting than William Romaine

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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