Earl Dunraven and the Estes Park Land Grab


Estes Park, Colorado by Albert Bierstadt

Estes Park, Colorado by Albert Bierstadt

Though one of the most impressive visitors to Estes Park, Colorado in the 19th century, Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quinn, or the Earl of Dunraven, was much hated by many of the area settlers as he made plans to own all of beautiful Estes Park.

The Irish aristocrat was a world traveler and sportsman and he first made his way to the Estes Valley of Colorado in 1872. By 1874, Dunraven had claimed 8,000 acres in Estes Park and the future site of Rocky Mountain National Park. The land was obtained by both legal and questionable means.

Earl Dunraven was born on February 12, 1841, to the 3rd Earl of Dunraven and Mount-Earl and Florence Augusta Goold. He was educated at Christ Church in Oxford, England. Afterward, he served in the military and at the age of 26, became a correspondent for the London newspaper, the Daily Telegraph.

Earl of Dunraven

Earl of Dunraven

He married Florence Kerr in 1869, and the two honeymooned in New York and Virginia. The couple would have four children.

Earl Dunraven spent much of his leisure time hunting wild game in various parts of the world and after hearing of the fine hunting in the American West, he decided to visit. He made his first hunting trip in the autumn of 1871. With none other than Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro acting as his guides, they hunted elk along the North Platte River in Wyoming. The Earl traveled in style, even bringing a personal physician, Dr. George Henry Kingsley.

In 1872, 31-year-old Earl Dunraven returned to hunt, this time in Nebraska, Wyoming, and in Colorado’s South Park. While relaxing among the night spots of Denver, the Earl met Theodore Whyte. Mr. Whyte, then 26-years-old, had arrived in Colorado during the late 1860s. Originally from Devonshire, England, he had trapped for the Hudson’s Bay Company for three years and had tried his hand in the Colorado mines. During some of his earlier rambles, Whyte became familiar with Estes Park. Whyte sang the praises of the area, telling the Earl about the abundance of deer, elk, and bear just perfect for “sport.” But very little convincing was necessary. Soon the Earl and a few friends were heading into the foothills, following the crude cattle trail leading toward Estes Park. Though it was bitterly cold, they arrived on December 27th. They stayed with Griff Evans, another of their countrymen, and a man eager to please the nobility of his homeland. In the ensuing days, the Earl hunted elk in Black Canyon, along the Fall River, and in the Bear Lake area.

Elk at Rocky Mountain National Park by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Elk at Rocky Mountain National Park by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

In 1874, he traveled to the Yellowstone country for hunting and wrote a perceptive book, The Great Divide, covering not only his hunting experiences but also a description of the geology, the Indians, and the gold mining towns of the area. He then made his way to Estes Park for more hunting.

Obviously, the Earl loved the area for both its beauty and its “sporting” opportunities. He returned in 1874, writing:

“The air is scented with the sweet-smelling sap of the pines, whose branches welcome many feathered visitors from southern climes; an occasional humming-bird whirrs among the shrubs, trout leap in the creeks, insects buzz in the air; all nature is active and exuberant with life. The climate is health-giving, unsurpassed (as I believe) anywhere …none can appreciate it except those who have had the good fortune to experience it themselves.”

Reuniting with Texas Jack in 1874, he explored Yellowstone Park and documented it in his book Hunting in the Yellowstone.

A stream in Rocky Mountain National Park by Carol Highsmith.

A stream in Rocky Mountain National Park by Carol Highsmith.

Later on the same trip, the young earl decided to make the whole of Estes Park, Colorado into a game preserve for the exclusive use of himself and his British and Irish friends. By stretching the provisions of the Homestead Act and pre-emption rights, which allowed settlers’ to purchase public lands, Dunraven secured 8,000 acres. The land was very strategically chosen along stream courses radiating out from the Estes Park Valley so that, though he owned only 8,000 acres, in effect he controlled nearly 15,000 acres.

Assisted by his new friend Theodore Whyte and several Denver bankers and lawyers, the Earl first arranged to have the park legally surveyed. Once that formality was accomplished, the Earl and his agents used a scheme, common among other speculators, exploiting the Homestead Law to their advantage. They found local men in Front Range towns willing—for a price—to stake 160-acre claims throughout the park. More than 35 men filed claims using this ploy. Then, Dunraven’s “Estes Park Company, Ltd.”(or the English Company as it was called locally) proceeded to buy all those parcels at a nominal price, estimated at five dollars per acre. Between 1874 and 1880, the Earl managed to purchase 8,200 acres of land. In addition, the Company controlled another 7,000 acres because of the lay of the land and the ownership of springs and streams.

Waterfall at the Rocky Mountain National Park by Carol Highsmith.

Waterfall at the Rocky Mountain National Park by Carol Highsmith.

His efforts resulted in what has been called “one of the most gigantic land steals in the history of Colorado.” Thirty-one claims were filed for his use of the land and a grand jury was set to investigate his claims. The legal wrangling lasted for years.

Denver newspapers reported in July 1874 that a sawmill would be built, Swiss cattle were to be introduced, ranching would be expanded, and a hunting lodge would be constructed in Dunraven Glade on the North Fork of the Big Thompson River. Theodore Whyte was chosen to serve as the Earl’s agent and manager in Colorado.

Griff Evans, with whom the Earl had stayed within 1872, was one of the first to sell out. Bitterness developed between those settlers who had no intention of selling and the powerful forces of the English Company. Reverend Elkanah Lamb, who had homesite just east of Longs Peak, loudly voiced his disgust at those who sold out. Many years later, the Reverend Lamb would say:

“Griff Evans, being of a good-natured genial turn of mind, liking other drinks than water and tempted by the shining and jingle of English gold, Dunraven very soon influenced him to relinquish his claim and all of his rights in the park for $900.”

Lamb also believed that the Earl’s land-grabbing was fraudulent and also said:

“Dunraven picked up men of the baser sort, irresponsible fellows not regarding oaths as of much importance when contrasted with gold.”

Those who cooperated with the Earl, according to Reverend Lamb,

“prepared to sell their souls for a mess of pottage at the dictation of a foreign lord.”

Bitterness led to outright confrontations and violence became inevitable. One man who loudly opposed the Earl was James Nugent, better known as Rocky Mountain Jim. Like other squatters in the area, Jim trapped for a living and also kept a small herd of cattle. However, he controlled some very important real estate. His cabin sat at the head of Muggins Gulch, dominating the main entrance to Estes Park. Ill feelings began to develop between Griff Evans and Mountain Jim. On June 19, 1874, Griff Evans shot Jim Nugent. There were a number of versions told regarding the shooting.

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