Prairie Fever

They make up a little-known and in the long run not very consequential chapter in the history of the American frontier, but the odd collection of British aristocrats who obeyed the exhortation to “Go West, young man” added a dash of exotic color to the drama of nineteenth-century America. These were not the steady homesteaders, mostly from the lower echelons of European society, who provided the sweat equity in the new territories, but rather the same sort of adventurous bluebloods who would emigrate to Kenya Colony a century later in search of sun and sport. Peter Pagnamenta, a writer who also makes documentary films for the BBC, has provided a captivating account of their doings in Prairie Fever: British Aristocrats in the American West 1830-1890.  

Multiple historical forces combined to attract educated and leisured Englishmen to the lands beyond the Mississippi. First of all there was the pure excitement of travel, exploration, and the unknown. Lewis and Clark’s narrative of their historic westward journey was published in London in 1814; a year later, the end of the Napoleonic Wars made widespread travel and discovery possible for the first time in two decades. Stephen Long’s account of his trip up the Platte River (1823) and John James Audubon’s 1826 visit to London intensified prairie fever. Then, too, the central ideas of the Romantic movement lingered on. To regard the American wilderness as a lost Eden and the American Indian as a noble savage, a sort of natural aristocrat, were philosophical commonplaces of the era, abetted by the wildly popular Leatherstocking novels of James Fenimore Cooper, America’s answer to Sir Walter Scott. And there was in the air, Pagnamenta writes, “a growing intellectual interest in what the American wilderness might represent and the questions it raised about men’s status in nature, and the philosophical debate about savagery versus civilization.” The phrase “manifest destiny” would not be heard until the 1840s, but “the inexorable advance of the white, Anglo-Saxon races even in the most distant parts of the world, the drama of civilization, and the roll-back of savagery” seemed unstoppable — and probably A Good Thing.

The best known of the early noblemen to venture west of the Mississippi, and the one who made the greatest impression on the locals, was William Stewart, younger son of the 17th Laird and 5th Baronet of Grandtully. A veteran of the Battle of Waterloo, Stewart had spent most of his time since then drinking and gambling in his London club and shooting on his father’s estate. He came to America in 1832 with the ambition of traveling over the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains. To this end he joined up with a fur company (beaver pelts were much in demand at that time for the manufacture of hats) and headed into the unknown.

It was a rugged and dangerous journey in those pre-railroad days, and as the caravan made its way into ever-wilder territory the doughty Stewart proved his courage and his strength, taking his turn at all the common tasks without insisting on his social status. “The presence of the British grandee, and the almost incomprehensible fact that he was traveling ‘for pleasure,’ was noted in the diaries of several other western travelers of the time,” Pagnamenta writes. Stewart’s sporting prowess came in handy not only in hunting and in defending the caravan from marauding bears and wolves, but also in the thrilling impromptu horse races across the open pasture the party engaged in with Indians encountered along the way.

Stewart’s first American trip lasted two and a half years. He was, on the whole, a good ambassador for his class: eccentric but tough, and respectful of the ultra-egalitarian democracy favored by western society. He set the fashion for this type of travel back home and also did a significant service by taking an artist with him to the Rockies, Alfred Jacob Miller. Miller’s paintings of western scenes, exhibited in London in 1839, made an extraordinary impact on the British popular imagination — as did those of George Catlin, who had been brought to Indian country by Stewart’s traveling companion, the Honorable Charles Murray. (Other members of Murray’s entourage were his Scottish valet and his hunting dog, Peevish.)  Catlin’s exhibition at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly included some 500 paintings and drawings as well as nine genuine Ojibbeway Indians, who became the toast of London. “It was thanks to Cooper, [Washington] Irving, Murray, and Catlin,” Pagnamenta writes, “that the British seemed far more excited by the customs and culture of the Native Americans, and the threat to them, than they ever were by the indigenous inhabitants of most of their own growing empire…. To the British the Indians of the United States represented no threat or danger, and the notion of the fierce warrior standing in the way of settlement was replaced by the melancholy, but equally compelling, idea of a vanishing race earlier than in the United States itself.”

Some later high-ranking visitors did not make themselves as popular as Stewart and Murray had done. With the British aristocrat’s apparently inborn taste for blood sports, buffalo hunting proved an irresistible attraction, and the carnage inflicted by some of the visiting grandees reached a level that distressed onlookers even in those pre-conservationist days. Sir St. George Gore, an Irish absentee landlord whose downtrodden tenants financed his passions for horse racing, fox hunting, fishing, and shooting, mounted a gigantic expedition to slay buffalo and other western wildlife. During the course of one trip, in 1854-56, he slaughtered 2,000 buffalo, 1,600 deer and elk, 105 bears, and thousands of mountain sheep, coyotes, and timber wolves — such a panoply of death that “the favorite pastime of the British aristocracy became, for the first time, a political issue.” Gore and another sanguinary nobleman, the spectacularly arrogant and rude Grantley Berkeley (sent to American as a correspondent for the sporting magazine The Field) did much to reinforce American prejudices against their species.

The growing glamour of the West, spread abroad by images from a new generation of painters, such as the great Albert Bierstadt, soon attracted not only travelers but colonists as well. The United States was not a part of the British Empire, but some Britons tried, nevertheless, to plant colonies “defined not by language, religion, or country of origin but by class and capital.” Aristocrats like the Earl of Dunraven, who procured 6,000 acres of Colorado called Estes Park, and George Grant, who set up large-scale farming in Kansas, appealed to like-minded Britons to join them in these enterprises. Such ventures were particularly attractive to younger sons: according to the British law of primogeniture, only eldest sons inherited family estates, so some other solution had to be found for their brothers. Snobbish prejudice ruled out “trade”; medicine, the law, and the church required high academic standards; recent reforms had made it no longer possible to purchase an army commission. A vigorous outdoor life appealed to young men brought up on the western adventure stories of Captain Mayne Reid and Robert Ballantyne, and the prospect of being among their social equals sweetened the deal.

Several such colonies sprang up. There was Rugby in Tennessee, founded by Thomas Hughes (famous author of Tom Brown’s School Days), where young gentlemen could lead a “manly, outdoor life” and play cricket, croquet, rugby, and football: “a place where what we have been calling the English public school spirit,” Hughes said, “…shall be recognized and prevail.”  There was the larger and more prosperous Le Mars, near Sioux City, Iowa, with its hotel (the Albion House), its pub (the House of Lords), its cricket club, its polo field, and its neo-Gothic Anglican church. And there was Runnymede, in Kansas, “more raffish and carefree” than Le Mars, populated largely by remittance men.

None of these colonies lasted very long; as Pagnamenta points out, “it proved difficult to combine the lifestyle of a refined country gentleman, as the British defined it, with the first stage of true pioneering.” Some of their denizens went back home; others drifted farther west. A few stayed on and entered the American melting pot, discovering that a community of fellow bluebloods was not, after all, essential to their happiness or success.

The idyll ended in the 1880s, when anti-British reaction set in. The British (who by this time controlled 15 percent of the western cattle industry) began to be seen as rapacious capitalists bent on monopolizing the land, and populist politicians took up the attack. It was said that the practices of aristocratic absentee landlords, who gouged their impoverished tenants in Ireland and Scotland, would soon come to the American West. “A composite picture of oppression, exploitation, and vampirelike greed emerged. All British noblemen stood accused of bringing in feudal or illegal methods, whether it was by renting in an extortionate way, by fencing public land, or making false claims.” The result was the Alien Land Bill, passed in 1887. The existing holdings of foreigners were not touched, but the bill prevented foreign individuals and corporations from acquiring any more. The British aristocrats went elsewhere. “Indomitable, sometimes eccentric and outrageous,” as Pagnamenta sums them up, “they had done little real harm except to the fauna.”