Topic August/September 2017. Throughout its history the Legion of Frontiersmen has attracted countless men, and more than a few women, whose travels had taken them all over the world. Many was the story they could, and sometimes did, tell of their adventures in lands where you could travel great distances without encountering another human being. Some did write about their experiences. Occasionally long-forgotten books about their adventures turn up on the dusty shelves of second-hand bookshops. The stories of some of them we will never know as they did not consider there was any need to commit them to writing or to print.
Have you gazed on naked grandeur where there’s nothing else to gaze on,
Set pieces and drop-curtain scenes galore,
Big mountains heaved to heaven, which the blinding sunsets blazon,
Black canyons where the rapids rip and roar?
Over the years the writer of this topic page has been fortunate enough to meet several old Frontiersmen, now no longer with us, and hear some of their stories. There has to be one major regret regarding a Frontiersman who could have told so many splendid tales. Back in 1978 I received a couple of letters from 90-year-old Percy Escott North who lived at the charmingly named Casa Lareda in Lambley, Nottinghamshire. There he could hear the sound of horses’ hooves through the village, which took the old man’s mind back to his young days in the “Wild West”. He had joined the Legion in 1911 and was given the Legion number of 4576, knew Roger Pocock and many of the original members, had met Driscoll and F.C. Selous in East Africa, and even knew Buffalo Bill Cody. He had been told of my researches into the Legion of Frontiersmen and Roger Pocock by Edgar Vigay, who was the commanding officer of U.K. Command of Canadian Division of the Legion. Vigay had re-enlisted the old man into Canadian Division. Would I care to travel up to Nottinghamshire and meet him? I would very much wish to, but with a young family and large mortgage to support I could afford neither the time nor the money. That was an opportunity I always greatly regretted being unable to take.
There is a lot we do not know about the life and adventures of Escott North. What we do know has been pieced together from his writings and accounts of the very popular radio broadcasts and illustrated lectures he gave all round Great Britain. With no television or internet, such lectures by travellers illustrated with photographs they had taken drew in substantial audiences. Percy Escott North was the son of innovative lace dyer John Hallam North (1857-1936). Nottinghamshire was the centre for quality lace manufacture, the products of which were much in demand around the world. He does not appear to have had any desire to follow his father into business. He had spent much of his early life in Sherwood Forest and had a passion for horses and horse-riding. It looks as if he took a passage to America and went to his Uncle Spencer at Salem Massachusetts. Although Escott North was originally intended to make his living as a trader, he then wandered the country often working as a range-hand. He rode along the Mexican border line, which even in those years was not the most law-abiding area. Eventually his travels took him to Wyoming where he met up with Buffalo Bill Cody, who was by then an old man. Buffalo Bill took an immediate liking to Escott North, who had an extraordinary resemblance to one of Bill’s greatest friends, Major Frank North. North had been Bill’s partner in buying a large cattle ranch on the Dismal River north of North Platte. He had been with Buffalo Bill in his Indian fighting days. Some of the re-enactments in the Wild West Show were actually of North’s exploits rather than Buffalo Bill’s. Frank North appeared in the Show and did not seem to mind Bill claiming some of his exploits, just laughing when asked and saying “I am not in the show business”. ¹ Frank North was appearing in the show in Hartford Connecticut:
…while the scouts and the Indians were chasing each other around the arena, Major North fell when his saddle girth broke. Most of the riders following him managed to swerve their mounts aside, but one trampled him. He was removed to the hospital with a crushed spine and broken ribs and never appeared as a performer again. Less than a year later he died of his injuries. ²
This young man, Escott North, who showed a quite extraordinary resemblance to the young Frank North and bore the same surname, must have given the old man quite a jolt. Was there any relationship? It has to be possible but we will never know. In any case, Buffalo Bill made young Escott North very welcome and told him many stories of his adventures. In his illustrated lectures around the country – often in front of audiences of up to fifteen hundred people – Escott North used to re-tell the stories that Buffalo Bill had related to him:
Bill brought his great Wild West Show to London in 1902, and King Edward visited it. The King begged permission to take a ride on the famous old Deadwood Stage Coach, and to bring some of the Royal guests who were at that time staying at Buckingham Palace. Cody expressed himself delighted and the matter was arranged.
In due course the King and his guests arrived and, having packed his friends in the coach, King Edward climbed up on the box beside Cody, who was to drive. Cody was surprised to see the King wink portentuously to him, and to hear him whisper, “Now, drive like hell, Cody!” Never did coach travel so wildly as did the Deadwood stage around the Olympia arena. Cody put himself into the driving as never before, and the six cayuses tore around the ground at mad speed.
At a given signal, Cody’s rough riders and Indians appeared, and yells and pistol shots urged the wildly galloping animals to still greater exertions, until King Edward at last gasped out, “I think they’ve had enough now, Cody!”
When the sweating horses came to a stop, to quote Cody’s words, “you never saw such a bunch of dishevelled Kings in your life!” (There were five monarchs there altogether.)
Before they left the showground, Edward VII, knowing Cody was an expert poker player, remarked, “Cody, I’ll bet that’s the first time you’ve ever had five Kings in your hand!”
Buffalo Bill, who was noted for his quick wit, instantly replied, “Yes, King, and it’s the first time I’ve held the Royal Joker!” ³
As far as can be ascertained, this story has not appeared elsewhere. We know that in his Show Buffalo Bill re-enacted as his own adventures those that were experienced by other men, so probably would not be averse to telling “tall stories”. King Edward VII did visit Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and it is not impossible that he would have requested a private showing. Whatever the truth, it is a good yarn which went down well with Escott North’s audiences.
Have you swept the visioned valley with the green stream streaking through it,
Searched the Vastness for a something you have lost?
Have you strung your soul to silence? Then for God’s sake go and do it;
Hear the challenge, learn the lesson, pay the cost.
As with so much of Escott North’s life we know almost nothing of his First War service. There is no record of him serving in the British army, but he was in German East Africa serving as a scout. There he met the 25th Bn Royal Fusiliers with F.C. Selous and Lt. Col. Driscoll who no doubt welcomed him as a Frontiersman. In 1923 he sailed for Canada and, according to “The Frontiersman” magazine, was asked to carry out Frontiersmen business. No doubt he was asked to recruit, as the Frontiersmen had a strong representation before the First War, particularly in Western Canada where he was based. It does not seem that he had any real success at recruitment. During the four years he was there he made many friends, particularly Guy Weadick, the main originator of the Calgary Stampede, and gathered information for his very popular 1942 book “The Saga of the Cowboy”. In this book and in his many lectures he sought to correct inaccurate impressions of cowboy life and lore, which he mainly blamed on the film industry.
When in later years, I rode the range in a strangely big saddle, upon a pony with a curious loping gait that discouraged my English tendency to “bump”, and found myself accepted (by what virtue of mine I still cannot comprehend) by the hard-visaged, erect, steel-muscled, cold-eyed men whose horsemanship put me to shame – and whose courtesy to a bungling novice was the most gracious and unobtrusive I had yet seen – I knew that my hero-worship [as a boy] had not been entirely misplaced. It was also borne in upon me that so far as the cowboy of popular conception is concerned, well, “there ain’t no such person”. ⁴
Escott North also made many friends among the Canadian First Nations, particularly Pete Grant, who was a Peigan Chief. There is also a picture of Escott North in full splendid headdress after he had been made an honorary Blackfeet Chief. One of the many amusing stories he told in his lectures went back to his days in New Mexico. In those days bathing was a far more primitive activity that nowadays:
Once when he was having a bath in the open air outside his shack, a group of cowboys came round and lassoed bath and occupant, dragging him for miles over the prairie until he was tossed out. Having taken this baptism in good part, Escott was accepted as one of the fraternity and presented with a new bath. ⁵
In addition, his ability to play the piano earned him the friendship of cowboys, even in the wildest places. The Legion of Frontiersmen attracted as members many other men who had worked as cowboys and range-hands in both the United States and Canada. As well as using the Legion motto of “God Guard Thee”, these men also used “Vaya Con Dios”.
Escott North kept his many notebooks of his travels over the years. You never know, perhaps one of his descendants still has those prize notebooks, which would be of substantial historical interest. Escott North was far from the only Frontiersman to have had such an adventurous travelling life. An Australian Frontiersman who also gave countless very popular lectures, in his case across America, was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, as was Escott North. Following pre-war journeys of thousands of miles across Australia, this other extraordinary Frontiersman was awarded during his service in the First War not only the D.S.O. but – most rarely – the M.C. followed by two bars to it. As we have run out of space, his amazing story will have to wait for some later month.
Have you wandered in the wilderness, the sage-brush desolation,
The bunch-grass levels where the cattle graze?
Have you whistled bits of rag-time at the end of all creation,
And learned to know the desert’s little ways?
Have you camped upon the foothills, have you galloped o’er the ranges,
Have you roamed the arid sun-lands through and through?
Have you chummed up with the mesa? Do you know its moods and changes?
Then listen to the wild – it’s calling you.
(Robert Service, “The Call of the Wild”)
¹ John Burke “Buffalo Bill, the Noblest Whiteskin” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1973) p.64
² Burke “Buffalo Bill” p.146-7
³ “Dundee Evening Telegraph”, 16 November 1927
⁴ Escott North “The Saga of the Cowboy” (Jarrolds, 1942) p.vii
⁵ “Dundee Courier” 13 December 1952
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