Monday, 1 February 2010

King of the Wild Frontier

King of the Wild Frontier is the title of a television programme on BBC1 on Wednesday night at 10.45 and it is about an Ulsterman named James Kirker (1793-1852), who was born in a thatched cottage at Carnaghlis in the parish of Killead, county Antrim, on 2 December 1793.  He was the son of Gilbert Kirker and his wife Rose Anderson, who were both Ulster-Scots.

James emigrated from Ulster to America and arrived in New York at the age of seventeen.  He served as a privateer in the War of 1812 and was captured by the British.

By 1817 he had moved west to St Louis, Missouri, where he entered the retail grocery business.  Five years later he went west as a trapper and in 1824 he entered the Southwest as an illegal trapper in Arizona and New Mexico.

He prospected for gold and silver and by 1828 was operating a mine in southern New Mexico.  There was no firm government in the region and so he was able to engage in illegal trade in guns, ammunition and cloth with the Apaches in exchange for mules and other goods stolen from the Mexicans.

During the 1830s and 1840s he traded illegally with the Indians and at the same time served as a leader of mercenary fighters employed by the authorities in Chihuahua and New Mexico to destroy the hostile Apaches.  At one time he was even known as the King of New Mexico.  Eventually in 1850 James Kirker ended up in California and settled in Contra Costa County, where he died at the end of 1852.

Presenter Gerry Anderson said, 'King of the Wild Frontier was the result of assembling a veritable historical jigsaw of the life of one of the most interesting and controversial Ulster-Scots who ever scalped an Indian for money.'

In his day he was regarded as a man of enterprise and vision but afterwards in 1851 he was portrayed unfavourably by the Ulster writer Thomas Mayne Reid in The Scalp Hunters: or Romantic Adventures in Northern Mexico.  More recently there have been two studies of Kirker, Savage Scene: The Life and Times of James Kirker by William C McGaw (1972) and Borderlander by Ralph Adam Smith (1999).


  1. Nelson, Thanks for the post. I regularly buy the Radio Times and play my weekly T.V. viewing accordingly – not much usually 4 – 6 hours. I did not see this programme in the listings and therefore missed it. Thankfully with your post I caught up with it on BBC i Player – It was great and well presented by Gerry Anderson, as only he can! – Mark Anderson

  2. Good to see one Anderson commending another!