This is the kind of book that makes you want to kidnap the world’s leading scientists and force them to build you a time machine.

When I first came across Weirather’s account of American cowboy Fred Barton and his adventures in the Far East between 1911 and 1937, I was astounded. I had been trawling through the multitude of self-published works on Amazon in the hope of finding something worth republishing as a Camphor Press title. After half a day of pain, Weirather’s was the only book that had grabbed my interest. I e-mailed the author twice but never heard back. After I tried a third time, he replied, explaining that his silence had been due to e-mail problems, not a lack of interest. Alas, in the meantime he had signed with another publisher. It’s a pity the book got away, but I’m happy to see the Fred Barton story given the attention it deserves.

The book is as much about a time and place as a man. It gives a wonderful panorama of the Warlord Era because of the overlap of spheres – commerce, warfare, and politics to name a few – reflecting Barton’s rich experience among cowboys, warlords, spies, missionaries, explorers, soldiers, and horsemen of the steppe.

China books written by Westerners have a certain sameness. Authors are invariably academics, former or present English teachers, or journalists, who bring very similar experiences, interests, and background reading to their works. Weirather is an outsider with a new look at China through the story of a cowboy breeding horses for warlords. Although it’s an unusual perspective, it’s not a trivial one. We’ve forgotten the importance of horses in warfare during the first half of the twentieth century. Even as cavalry gave way to mechanised units, horses were still vital for moving men, supplies and equipment. Movies depicting the Nazi war machine, for example, may give first billing to the “lightning fire” of panzers and fighters, yet it was the horse that did the heavy lifting. At any one time there were about a million horses in service to the Wehrmacht, pulling equipment and wagons with supplies. More German soldiers reached the front lines marching alongside horses than riding in trucks.

Fred Barton was born circa 1888 as Fred Kottmeier Jr. (The First World War prompted a name change.) He grew up in Montana, which was a fun place for an adventurous boy. Education, however, meant a move to an East Coast boarding school. Barton’s reaction to his schooling was a foretaste of his future individualistic paths.

As in any military academy, Fred had to dress in uniform, stand at attention, perform military drills, all while attending to studies. No cavalry horses here. No Cheyenne scouts. No cowboys and herds. No smell of sage. Instead, boys were called out to present colors and to march in services or special events in Freehold. That’s about as good as it got, if you could call it good, although New York City and its enticements lay only forty-two miles away. Fred couldn’t wait for his prison term to be over. While the New Jersey Military Academy offered excellent preparation for other officers’ sons headed to West Point, Barton said he learned one great thing from his Eastern education: he never wanted anyone to give him orders again. Ironically, his future would have everything to do with the military.

As soon as Barton turned sixteen, he headed back to Montana to be a cowboy. He started at the bottom, which meant working as a “nighthawk.” (A nighthawk is essentially a night sentry to horses when cowboys are on a round-up; horses aren’t tethered because they need to graze overnight, but they can’t be allowed to wander too far.) Barton soon established himself as one of the elite cowboys, which led to him being hired by the Russian army in the spring of 1911. The Russians – with an eye to a looming European war – were looking to boost their horse numbers. Barton travelled thousands of miles across southern Siberia and Manchuria scouting out an area for a huge horse ranch. Political unrest in the area, however, scuttled the project.

Barton had been bitten by the lure of the Far East. His ticket back to Asia was a four-year stint in China as an agent with the British-American Tobacco Company Ltd. (BAT). Whereas today when meeting an expat resident in China we assume the person is an English teacher, a century ago if a person wasn’t a missionary, there was a good chance he was an agent of either the BAT or Standard Oil.

Barton was paid $1,500 per year plus living expenses. He could also earn a $500 bonus if he could learn enough colloquial Chinese to pass a BAT examination offered every six months. To dissuade homesick young men from bolting right away, BAT made Barton and other recruits pay their own way to China. If they lasted a year, the company would then reimburse them. At the end of four years, they could be granted a four-month leave of absence – if they lasted that long. Usually only two out of five recruits lasted out the first year. Culture shock, harsh conditions, and loneliness proved too much for many. To a nighthawk or cowboy, these posed not problems but familiar daily challenges, even seeming to be close friends.

Barton helped BAT expand into northern China. This took him from the regional head office in Tientsin (Tianjin), the port and railhead for Peking, to Kalgan (Zhangjiakou), a trading center along the old camel caravan route to the Mongolian capital of Urga. In Kalgan he became friends with Frans Larson, a legendary figure who became known as “the Duke of Mongolia” and who would be an important contact later on.

Northern warlords Chang Tso-lin and Chang Tsung-chang were aware of the work Barton had done for the aborted Russian ranch and asked him to do the same for them.

Chang Tso-lin, however, was not the warlord Barton came to know best. Chang’s territories offered no place for raising horses, but Shansi Province, home of Chang’s ally warlord general and governor Yen Hsi-shan, did. Yen agreed to raise horses for the northern warlords and his own army. Having previously visited Shansi as part of his British-American Tobacco work, Barton found the perfect place for the horse ranch in Shansi just south of the Great Wall and near the border with Mongolia. Located about fifteen miles to the northwest of Taiyuanfu, the capital of Shansi, the ranch lay at the foot of the mountains and was watered by a stream.

Shansi Province proved an excellent choice. It was politically stable in a time of great turmoil. Governor Yen Hsi-shan was a capable and progressive reformer who sought out foreign experts such as Barton. Yen appeared on the cover of the international edition of Time Magazine for May 19, 1930, with the headline “China’s Next President.” Governor Yen was a frequent visitor to the ranch: “at least once a month he retreated to Barton’s house, where they parlayed and became close acquaintances.”

Of course, the horses had to be acquired first. The American wanted to breed a special horse for northern China. He would take the large Russian Orlov horse and breed it with the medium-sized Morgan from the United States. This would produce a smaller horse that could then be bred with the small but tough Mongol pony.

The Orlovs – 3,500 in total – were secured in Siberia and driven through Manchuria and Mongolia and into China on an epic four-month trek, which Weirather calls the world’s longest horse drive. The Mongol ponies came from nearby Mongolia, and the Morgans were shipped across the Pacific. Helping with the logistics were Barton’s connections with the American military. A U.S. Army transport shipped the Morgans from the States, and soldiers from the U.S. Fifteenth Infantry in Tientsin were furloughed to help him drive the Orlovs from Siberia to Shanxi.

Weirather has a chapter on the colorful Fifteenth Infantry. Though infantry, they used horses, and included some outstanding horsemen among their number. The Fifteenth were an elite unit; among those who served in China were George C. Marshall, Joseph W. Stilwell, and Matthew B. Ridgway. They were also possessed of a dual nature of professionalism and wildness.

Sometimes the Fifteenth carried its spit-and-polish too far for the locals, especially when on field maneuvers with the horses.… Campsites were completely policed. Not a piece of straw, horse dropping, or tin can would be left behind. Once, a delegation of elders from a local village pled their case. They needed what the Fifteenth was policing. The unit relented.

A China posting – where the Fifteenth were based to protect American lives and property – was a good billet, especially attractive after the introduction of prohibition back home.

At times the unit far exceeded any other army unit in incidences of venereal diseases and alcoholism. Some soldiers lived with their families; several married Chinese or other nationalities; and many hired Chinese servants cheaply who accompanied them even on field maneuvers. Photo scrapbooks kept by soldiers in the Fifteenth unabashedly show them being served beer in the field immediately after a ride, march, contest, or rifle practice. Training was hard, life was good, and the beer was safer than the water. The Fifteenth traveled with its own entourage.

The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 brought an end to Barton’s adventures in Shanxi. He returned to America, “married one of the wealthiest widows in the Southwest and hobnobbed with Western film stars at a time when Hollywood was constructing the modern myth of the Old West, just as open range cowboy life was disappearing.”

As much as I enjoyed Fred Barton and the Warlords’ Horses of China, it’s not faultless. The chapters on Barton’s post-1937 life are of less interest than the heady China ones. In addition, Barton does not seem like an especially likeable character, and I use “seem” because we don’t really get to know the man well enough to say for sure. This is not the author’s fault. He has spent decades on the trail, but Barton left a scant record. Considering there’s not even a Wikipedia entry for the man (or one for the horse drive or Shanxi ranch), to produce a book like this was a major achievement.

Larry Weirather lives in Vancouver, Washington, and is a professor emeritus of popular culture at Clark College.

Fred Barton and the Warlords’ Horses of China: How an American Cowboy Brought the Old West to the Far East is published by McFarland.