History Features

When the Rich Went West

Could the great American frontier be the salvation of one English family?


"It is the easiest thing in the world to make a living here if a man is industrious; but I am more and more hopeless of our ever making enough money over farming here to come home again. It is the old story—want of capital. No one out here expects to be rich; one can make a living, but nothing more,” wrote Ethel Hertslet, who arrived in Lake County, California, in 1885 from England.

What possessed people like Ethel to begin a new life in a foreign land? It’s called the American West, where anyone can reinvent himself and the starry Western sky is the only limit. Well, that, a lot of hard work and some luck.

Despite not having any plans or manual labor experience, Ethel and her husband, Gerald, felt the great American frontier could be their salvation. They needed something after Gerald and his brother Louis were nearly bankrupted when the Egyptian market, where they were heavily invested, crashed due to Egyptian civil unrest in 1884.

Even though Gerald and Louis were strapped for cash, their well-to-do father, Sir Edward Hertslet, was not. When they, along with another brother, Bernard, set sail for America, Sir Edward sent a thousand pounds ($118,000) with each of his sons. Ethel also received a yearly allowance of $500 ($12,100) from her parents.

Not only were the Hertslet brothers beginning a new chapter in their lives, so were Ethel and Gerald. After a brief courtship, they had wed, against Sir Edward’s wishes, just eight days before departing for America. Ethel was from a musical family, albeit wealthy, and was reportedly an actress, but she was hardly a social match for the son of a knighted Englishman.

They arrived in California on May 6, 1885, and checked in to the lavish seven-story Palace Hotel in San Francisco at the corner of Market and New Montgomery Streets. Opened in October 1875, the Palace was allegedly the largest, costliest and most luxurious hotel in the world. It cost an outrageous $5 million ($117 million) to complete and featured 755 rooms sized at 20 square foot with 15-foot ceilings. Guests could enjoy views of the city from 7,000 windows in this majestic hotel hailed the “Grande Dame of the West.”

Ethel and her companions entered the hotel through a graveled carriage entrance. They marveled at balconied galleries and white marble columns in the Grand Central Court as they walked beneath a lofty roof made of opaque glass. Even though Gerald and his new bride reveled in this opulence, sensibility had them checking out just two days later.

They eventually made their way north to Lake County where they bought 80 acres and built a ranch. These pampered English were happy to find others like themselves in an area called Burns Valley, near Lower Lake. English citizens in “their class” or “well-connected,” as Ethel wrote, resided in Burns Valley.

The community was largely populated by British aristocracy who practiced what they referred to as “fancy farming,” reported The San Francisco Chronicle. John Beresford, the Marquis of Waterford’s nephew, was just one of the distinguished men living there.

At first the Hertslets struggled with what to plant or...

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