Prairie Fever: British Aristocrats in the American West 1830-1890

Prairie Fever: British Aristocrats in the American West 1830-1890

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by Peter Pagnamenta
     
 

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“A deeply researched and finely delivered look at what can best be described as a counterintuitive slice of American history.”—Washington PostFrom the 1830s onward, a succession of well-born Britons headed west to the great American wilderness to find adventure and fulfillment. They brought their dogs, sporting guns, valets, and all the attitudes

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“A deeply researched and finely delivered look at what can best be described as a counterintuitive slice of American history.”—Washington PostFrom the 1830s onward, a succession of well-born Britons headed west to the great American wilderness to find adventure and fulfillment. They brought their dogs, sporting guns, valets, and all the attitudes and prejudices of their class. Prairie Fever explores why the West had such a strong romantic appeal for them at a time when their inherited wealth and passion for sport had no American equivalent.In fascinating and often comic detail, the author shows how the British behaved—and what the fur traders, hunting guides, and ordinary Americans made of them—as they crossed the country to see the Indians, hunt buffalo, and eventually build cattle empires and buy up vast tracts of the West. But as British blue bloods became American landowners, they found themselves attacked and reviled as “land vultures” and accused of attempting a new colonization. In a final denouement, Congress moved against the foreigners and passed a law to stop them from buying land.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review - Miranda Seymour
“A lost—and deeply weird—world . . . has been lovingly excavated and brought back to life.”
Wall Street Journal - Judith Flanders
“Mr. Pagnamenta tells this story with verve and style. His love of tales of derring-do on the prairie matches his subjects . . . a constant delight.”
New Criterion - Ben Downing
“Astute, detached, droll, and elegantly put together . . . an exemplary cross-cultural study.”
Tom Powers
“Something of the magic of the Great West — its big skies and great rivers and prairies filled with game — can be found in Peter Pagnamenta's compelling narrative of the mania for the prairie grasslands that swept British aristocrats in the middle of the 19th century. Grand solitary travelers came first and their tales of adventure brought scores and then hundreds of others — lords and younger sons needing a way to live and retired military officers and men hoping to get rich and sportsmen who wanted a grizzly and dreamers who imagined a ranching kingdom might end boredom once and for all. It's an extraordinary story, told in Prairie Fever with the kind of energy that makes you want to drop everything and go.”
Miranda Seymour - New York Times Book Review
“A lost—and deeply weird—world . . . has been lovingly excavated and brought back to life.

Judith Flanders - Wall Street Journal
“Mr. Pagnamenta tells this story with verve and style. His love of tales of derring-do on the prairie matches his subjects . . . a constant delight.

Ben Downing - New Criterion
“Astute, detached, droll, and elegantly put together . . . an exemplary cross-cultural study.”
The Washington Post
…Peter Pagnamenta's entertaining new book…[is] a deeply researched and finely delivered look at what can best be described as a counterintuitive slice of American history.
—Scott Martelle
The New York Times Book Review
It is in names like Victoria, Rugby and Runnymede…that modern travelers across the great plains of the Midwest can still catch a glimpse of the lost—and deeply weird—world that has been lovingly excavated and brought back to life in Prairie Fever, by Peter Pagnamenta…
—Miranda Seymour
Publishers Weekly
From the 1820s, stories like James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales enticed Britain’s nobility to America’s West. The first wave came to hunt bear and buffalo and helped document the demise of the wilderness they encountered. A second wave consisted of settlers in colonies that attempted to solve the problem of younger sons of noble families who had neither estates nor—because of political reforms in Britain—opportunities in the army or civil service. The final wave, seeking to profit from the cattle boom of the 1870s, provoked political backlash by acquiring huge ranches and using public lands for grazing. Pagnamenta (Sword and Blossom: A British Officer’s Enduring Love for a Japanese Woman) provides a lively account of British adventurers, weaving in sardonic reminders of the dark side of aristocratic wealth. One man’s Irish estates, for example, “had been a source of constant aggravation, ever since he evicted two hundred tenants to clear space for a new castle and park for himself.” British social history meets American manifest destiny in Pagnamenta’s successful recounting of “a long and improbable chapter” of the Victorian Age. 8 pages of b&w illus.; maps. Agent: (May)
Scott Martelle - Washington Post
“Entertaining…. A deeply researched and finely delivered look at what can best be described as a counterintuitive slice of American history.”
Times Literary Supplement
“A parade of colourful personalities and richly detailed scenes which entertain and, cumulatively, expose the violence of cultural imperialism.”
Brian Schofield - The Sunday Times
“Lively and accessible… Prairie Fever skewers the delusion [of romance and heroism] with wit and charm.”
Library Journal
Pagnamenta (executive producer, BBC; Sword and Blossom: A British Officer's Enduring Love for a Japanese Woman) skillfully uses a wide assortment of archival materials to document and come to terms with the fascination, sometimes termed "Prairie Fever," that the American West held for British aristocrats. He demonstrates how England's wildly popular reception of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show in 1887 was primed by decades of British adventurers, sportsmen, and cattle barons traveling to and writing about the romance of the American West. Starting with Captain William Stewart's journey to the Rocky Mountains in the 1830s, Pagnamenta paints many portraits of Britons participating in frontier life, ending with the abuses by British land investors who bought up checkerboard railroad land tracts and fenced off access to the internal tracts of public lands. VERDICT The book's biggest disappointment for scholars will be the decided lack of citations or reviews of recent work on the topic, from John I. Merritt's Baronets and Buffalo (1985) to Terry Abraham's Mountains So Sublime (2006). That said, this is a wonderful history based on bona fide 19th-century sources and is certainly appropriate for public libraries and sophisticated popular audiences.—Nathan E. Bender, Albany Cty. P.L., Laramie, WY
Kirkus Reviews
London-based historian Pagnamenta (co-author: Sword and Blossom: A British Officer's Enduring Love for a Japanese Woman, 2006) turns up an overlooked chapter in American history: the role of well-heeled Brits in Manifest Destiny. Beginning in the 1830s, and thence throughout the 19th century, the landed gentry and nobility of Britain were well represented on the American frontier. There was something about the place--the tall mountains, the indomitable Indians, all that wild game--that lured those men (and a few women) from across the pond. As Pagnamenta writes, not for nothing was Buffalo Bill's Wild West show so popular among the smart set in London, with Cody feted by Lord Randolph Churchill and other nobles. "When reports of all this reached the United States," he writes, "Buffalo Bill was criticized for his ‘flunkyism,' and betraying his rough-diamond republican past, by so much hobnobbing with royalty, dukes, and earls." On American ground, well-born Britons followed Lord Byron and James Fenimore Cooper alike into the wild country. In many cases, these footloose explorers were younger sons in a time when, through primogeniture, the firstborn got the full inheritance, so their younger siblings really had nothing to lose. One such fellow was William Stewart, who, "naturally contrary, headed west for America," on the run from an unwanted wife and baby in Edinburgh. Others came for more exalted reasons, still others on a lark, still others by accident. Pagnamenta writes that one aristocrat happened upon some of his father's former Yorkshire-estate tenants, trudging their way along the Oregon Trail. "They were surprised to see him," he notes drily. So prevalent were these Britons in time, and so much land did they acquire, that in the later 19th century a movement arose to rid the U.S. of these "land vultures," with legislation proposed and passed to restrict land ownership to native-born Americans. The arguments, as Pagnamenta lays them out, are surprisingly similar to those mounted against Japanese investors in the 1980s and to immigrants legal and otherwise today, lending his story a timely quality. Lively and full of both historical details and enjoyable anecdotes--a welcome addition to the history of the American frontier.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393347081
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
09/23/2013
Pages:
384
Sales rank:
1,483,050
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

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