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MEN IN EDEN: William Drummond Stewart and Same-Sex Desire in the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade by William Benemann

MEN IN EDEN: William Drummond Stewart and Same-Sex Desire in the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade by William Benemann

Publisher: Bison Books (October 1, 2012)

Reviewed by Christopher Hawthorne Moss

You’ve heard of William Clark, Kit Carson, John C. Fremont, and Sacajawea’s baby boy, but such is the nature of the erasure of gay lives from history that I bet you have never heard of William Drummond Stewart, who knew them all.  Stewart left England in the early 1830s looking for that land where a man could live as he wished and love whom he wished.  He headed for the Rocky Mountains, involved himself in the world of the Mountain Men, fur traders for the most part, and found adventure, sport, love, and unaccountable obscurity even though he was colorful, daring, well documented, and a Scottish laird.

In this work of nonfiction,  author William Benemann, who also wrote about male couples in Colonial America, not only chronicles Stewart’s adventures and romances, he also accounts for the peculiar place in the work of historians that homosexuals hold, or rather, do not hold.  He describes how the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, stated that “homosexuality” as a distinct identity was invented by “the medico-legal” industry, claiming that sexual identity was a new concept in the late 1800s.  The fact that this notion defied common sense and plenty of evidence to the contrary did not stop historians from making that assertion a shibboleth, a truism by which quality work is judged no matter how apocryphal the standard.  Thus we have whole segments of society whose very existence has been removed from the story of Mankind.  It is Benemann’s purpose to tell the nearly forgotten story.

One thing I find wonderful about reading books like this and others is that I learn what sorts of sources reputable historians have at their disposal.  The more commonplace the writing, whether letters or tabloid news stories, the more Foucaultian assumptions are challenged.  Lots of people knew Stewart, respected him, and what’s more, they wrote about him.  Journals and letters are full of stories about him, and also his own accounts. 

I have unfortunately found that some historical accounts are replete with “he must have felt” and “certainly they knew”, where I should think there is ample evidence of the content of the prolific recorders’ thoughts and ideas.  I find this sort of enthusiastic “no, really!” makes me wonder if I am reading logical accounts or wishful thinking.  But then, I’m a historical novelist, not a historian.  Maybe I just think the speculative nature should be left to us scribblers.  This is perhaps a particularly tempting instance, since two of the “sources” for Stewart’s story is two semi-autobiographical novels (see below).  One includes an enticing account of Stewart’s seduction by the famous mountain man, Kit Carson!  But is it history or a delightful wish fulfillment on Stewart’s part?

This is the sort of book that when you read it you realize that all those other more conventional histories left a bit, shall we rather say tons, out of the true story.  It is also the sort of book where you make a point of reading the endnotes so you can go learn more.

Have you ever heard that Queen Victoria once was delighted at being presented with a couple buffaloes?  Well Stewart was the guy who brought them to Scotland.  And he was gay as a … well.. Laird.

Books by William Drummond Stewart

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