Archivist tracks down Rocky Mountain fur trade’s untold story

Ornately constructed historical archives, antique letters tied in bundles, serendipitous newspaper clippings about colorful characters of yesteryear: For campus staffer William Benemann, these are the makings of a joyful chase.

Law-library archivist by vocation, independent historical scholar by avocation, Benemann is the author of a new book, Men in Eden, on a 19th-century Scottish nobleman who pursued adventure and sexual freedom in the freewheeling milieu of the American West. Subtitled William Drummond Stewart and Same-Sex Desire in the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade, the book traces Stewart’s travels, in the early 1830s, from Perthshire, Scotland, to the American Rockies. There he visited a rollicking annual meet-up of mountain men and fur traders known as “the rendezvous,” having such a grand time that he ended up spending the better part of a decade with hunters and trappers. Among them was the highly skilled French Canadian-Cree Indian hunter, Antoine Clement, who became his intimate companion.

book cover, William Benemann

William Benemann’s “Men in Eden” was recently published by U of Nebraska Press (Cathy Cockrell/NewsCenter photo)

“It’s almost a cliché that in the American West, people made themselves new lives,” says the longtime campus staffer. It’s Benemann’s hunch that “making a new life” had special meaning for Stewart and those like him who were drawn to other men: the Rocky Mountain fur trade offered “a context where they could live the lives they wanted to live, without the stigma,” he believes.

Earlier, while a cataloguer at the Bancroft Library, Benemann drew on letters and diaries in the Bancroft to write A Year of Mud and Gold: San Francisco in Letters and Diaries, 1849–1850. His second book, Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships, winner of a Stonewall Book Award, covered the years from the Revolutionary War to the early antebellum period.

Men in Eden offers, in one reviewer’s words, “a welcome and invigorating addition to the field of gay history/sexuality studies” — welcome in part, perhaps, because gay histories of this period have largely focused on Europe. Police surveillance of gay communities there, Benemann explains, led to sodomy prosecutions with richly detailed court testimony. In the U.S., however, the first police forces were just getting formed in the 1830s and ’40s, so the written record on homosexual lives is much thinner.

“Most people have assumed that therefore it’s almost impossible to do research on early gay American history,” says Benemann, who came out in 1969, while an undergrad at Berkeley. “I just decided that probably was not the case.”

book cover: Male-Male Intimacy

Benemann’s second book takes gay history as far back as the Revolutionary War period.

Historical research is, for Benemann, a great romp. His research for Men on Eden took him to Murthly Castle, in Scotland, to meet his subject’s descendants, and to the National Archives of Scotland, in Edinburgh, where he discovered letters to Stewart from friends he had made in America, many of them “young men asking for money.”

Research sessions at the University of Wyoming proved moving “on many levels,” Benemann recalls. There, after poring over archival files, he lunched in a campus café full of paintings documenting Stewart and companions in the Rockies — by the artist Alfred Jacob Miller.

“To sit there surrounded by all these paintings of the person I’m writing about — it was just thrilling,” he says. “And then I would leave and walk across campus,” thinking “this is the campus of Matthew Shepard,” the gay student whose 1998 hate-crime murder shocked the nation. “That sense of history, and of things being connected, was very emotional.”

Benemann’s archival skills and his UC Berkeley library privleges figure large in his off-hours research. “Knowing archives inside and out,” as well as cataloging terminology and conventions, is an “enormous help” for getting the most out of fleeting hours in an archive far from home, he says. And when Berkeley’s research library doesn’t have the book he’s looking for, its interlibrary-loan service is “absolutely fantastic,” he says, at putting it in his hands in quick order.

Should you run into Benemann riding the BART train home, it’s likely that book he’s reading is fodder for his next history project.

Previous stories on William Benemann’s research projects: