Larry Weirather. Fred Barton and the Warlords’ Horses of China: How an American Cowboy Brought the Old West to the Far East. (McFarland, 2015)
The early decades of twentieth-century China provide an almost inexhaustible supply of stories of foreign devil intrigue and adventure. You have probably heard of Roy Chapman Andrews and his expeditions into the Gobi and eccentric botanist Joseph Rock. You’ve perhaps come across memorably named soldiers of fortune such as “One Arm” Sutton and “Two Gun” Cohen. And then there are figures from more obscure historical cul-de-sacs, the likes of the Hungarian megalomaniac multi-tasker Trebitsch-Lincoln, who was a fraudster, spy, Buddhist abbot, the founder of his own monastery in Shanghai, and, most bizarrely of all, the self-proclaimed fourteenth Dalai Lama.
Even after many years of reading about foreigners in China, I’m still regularly stumbling upon epic new tales. The standout figures from my recent reading are William Mesny in the nineteenth century, and Fred Barton in the early twentieth.
Larry Weirather’s Fred Barton and the Warlords’ Horses of China: How an American Cowboy Brought the Old West to the Far East is the first detailed account of how a Montana cowboy led the world’s longest horse drive from Siberia through Manchuria and Mongolia into Shanxi Province, where he set up the world’s largest horse ranch. The book is structured something like a sandwich, with the meat Barton’s time in the Far East from 1911 to 1937. Before that we have his bronco breaking days in the U.S. during the twilight years of the working cowboy, and in Los Angeles at the end his involvement preserving and promoting the Old West.
Fred Barton was born around 1888 as Fred Kottmeier Jr. (He ditched the German surname after the First World War.) Barton grew up in Montana, was educated at an East Coast boarding school, and on turning sixteen hurried back to Montana to be a cowboy. His “apprenticeship” was working as a “nighthawk” (essentially a night sentry to horses when cowboys are on a round-up). Barton soon made a name for himself as a top cowboy. In the spring of 1911 he was offered a job by a Russian officer; the Russian army – fearful of a war with Germany – wanted to boost their horse numbers. Barton surveyed thousands of miles across southern Siberia and Manchuria searching for an area that would make an ideal horse ranch. The project, however, was thwarted by political unrest.
Returning to the States with itchy feet and a taste for the Far East, Barton signed up as an agent with the British-American Tobacco Company Ltd. (BAT) for a four-year stint (their standard contract) in China. BAT had a big and growing presence and Barton helped them expand into the north of the country. This took him to Kalgan (Zhangjiakou), a trading center along the old camel caravan route to the Mongolian capital of Urga. In Kalgan he befriended Frans Larson, later to be known as the legendary “Duke of Mongolia” and an important contact for securing horses.
Northern warlords Chang Tso-lin (aka the Mukden Tiger) and Chang Tsung-chang (the Dogmeat General) were aware of the work Barton had done for the aborted Russian project and asked him to set up a similar ranch in China. Luckily for Barton, neither warlord was in possession of territory suitable for a large horse ranch, so Barton ended up doing so in Shanxi, a politically stable province controlled by an ally warlord general and governor, Yen Hsi-shan. Yen Hsi-shan also came with a better nickname – the Model Governor.
The ranch was located about twenty-five kilometers to the northwest of Taiyuanfu, the capital of Shanxi. At that time the city was associated with the Boxer Rebellion massacre in 1900 of 45 Christian missionaries and followers. Yen, governor from 1911, was a modernizing reformer keen to employ foreign experts like Barton. In fact, Governor Yen would become a frequent visitor to the ranch: “at least once a month he retreated to Barton’s house, where they parlayed and became close acquaintances.”
Barton’s plans for the ranch included creating a special horse for northern China. This involved breeding the large Russian Orlov horse with the medium-sized Morgan imported from the United States, and then breeding the offspring with the small but hardy Mongol pony.
The Mongol ponies came from nearby Mongolia, and the Orlovs – 3,500 of them – from Siberia. In 1917 the Orlovs were taken from Siberia through Manchuria and Mongolia and into China on an epic four-month drive. Barton used his connections to borrow riders from the U.S. Fifteenth Infantry stationed in Tianjin to help with the drive. The Fifteenth were stationed in Tianjin to protect American lives and property in China, and included among its ranks such illustrious names as Joseph Stilwell and George Marshall. Getting horsemen from an infantry might sound counterintuitive, but the Fifteenth did use horses, and the elite unit included some outstanding riders, some of them former cowboys.
Barton staffed the ranch with American cowboys. They stayed year-round, but once things were running smoothly, Barton took a less hands-on approach, spending three months a year there, and the rest of his time in the United States. The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 brought an end to Barton’s involvement with the ranch.
The chapters on Barton’s post-1937 life were for me of less interest than the heady China ones, but will appeal to others interested in the intersection of cowboy mythology and early Hollywood. There’s also some frustration in getting to the end of the book and not feeling like you really know Barton. Although Weirather spent three decades on the trail, he was following a secretive man who left a scant written record.
A strength of the book is seeing China afresh from an equestrian perspective, and the reminder of the importance of the horse in the history of warfare. Throughout the centuries China’s cavalry units did more to protect the country from nomadic horsemen than the Great Wall ever did. And well into modern times horses were important, not just in China but around the world. Referring to the Eastern Front of the Second World War, Weirather writes: “Often overlooked is that the mechanized German blitzkrieg machine used more than a half-million horses, many more than vehicles. Horses could travel in mud. Tanks, mechanized artillery, and personnel carriers could not. Russia had a lot of mud.”
It would be wrong to categorize Fred Barton and the Warlords’ Horses of China as a book mainly written for horse lovers or cowboy enthusiasts. The China chapters give a rich and varied panorama of the Warlord and Republican eras. Barton’s experiences show how different spheres could overlap: there was commerce (as well as being a BAT agent, Barton also had a side-line business in coffins), ranching, spying (Barton was almost certainly passing on intelligence), warfare and politics. He mixed with cowboys, warlords, missionaries, explorers, soldiers, and horsemen of the steppe.
Weirather originally self-published his book in 2009 with Amazon’s CreateSpace platform as Warlord Cowboys in China: The Fred Barton Story of the World’s Greatest Horse Drive. It was picked up by the publisher McFarland, revised, renamed, and expanded.
Larry Weirather lives in Vancouver, Washington, and is a professor emeritus of popular culture at Clark College.