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The Scottish nobleman who became a North Dakota farmer, and kept his identity a secret

Posted 5/15/24 (Wed)

By Merry Helm, Prairie Public

NELSON COUNTY, N.D. — On May 20, 1914, John Sutherland Sinclair died in Los Angeles, where, for three years, he had lived quietly at the Hotel Balboa. At the time of his burial at Forest Lawn, only three Californians knew who he really was.

The other few people who knew his true identity were from North Dakota, where Sinclair lived from 1884 to 1905. He was only 27 when he moved from Scotland to Nelson County, where he owned more than 3,000 acres he called Berriedale Farm.

Sinclair impressed his Lakota area neighbors with his genteel manners and his impeccable taste in clothes – especially the red silk sash he liked to wear. His buildings, too, were impressive. His herd of 55 dairy cows had his creamery turning out 50 pounds of butter a day.

People liked Sinclair; most thought of him as a classy but ordinary guy. He shipped most of his butter to markets in Montana, but some of it he personally delivered to customers in Lakota. On his way to town, he made it a habit to stop at neighbors’ homes to see if they wanted him to run errands for them while he was there.

Sinclair had a large crew to handle his operation, because in addition to farming and operating a dairy, he also kept a stable of fine thoroughbred horses. Many of the men he hired were brought directly from Scotland to work for him.

From a platform on top of a granary, Sinclair used field glasses to survey the progress of his employees in his fields. In the early spring, he watched 30 mules pulling four-gang plows. During harvest, he drove his up-scale buckboard over the fields to deliver lunch and refreshments to his employees.

In 1889, several of his neighbors discovered Sinclair had named his farm after himself – he was actually Lord Berriedale – and also Baronet of Nova Scotia – of Scotland. With these titles came an ancient castle and the right to a seat in British Parliament. He was also in line to inherit the title of Earl of Caithness, a position that once held considerable power over the northern half of Scotland.

The Earl of Caithness title was first granted in 1334, but it descended down a rocky path. During the first hundred years, several earls were involved in scandals, treason or disinheritance – the title would then be resigned or forfeited, and the Scottish Crown would have to create it over again.

The fourth creation of the title went to William Sinclair in 1455, and the title has remained in the Sinclair family ever since. John Sutherland Sinclair was the 17th earl in this lineage.

Sinclair carried on business in North Dakota for six years after he was elevated to the title of Earl of Caithness. But in 1905, he sold Berriedale Farm so he could return to Scotland to make improvements to his estate in Aberdeenshire. From there, he moved to the Peace River area in Canada, and then he went to California, where he served as secretary for a copper mining corporation.

At the time of his death following a car accident, the three Californians who knew his identity had been sworn to secrecy. However, in accordance with Sinclair’s wishes, a monument was placed over his grave with the inscription: John Sutherland, Earl of Caithness, Died May 20, 1914.