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

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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

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

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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.
The Barnes & Noble Review

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.

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."

Brooke Allen is the author of Twentieth-Century Attitudes; Artistic License; and Moral Minority. She is a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The New Criterion, The New Leader, The Hudson Review, and The Nation, among others. She was named a finalist for the 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Brooke Allen

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393347081
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/23/2013
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 1,469,843
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Pagnamenta is a writer and social historian who lives in London. He is the author of Sword and Blossom: A British Officer's Enduring Love for a Japanese Woman. He lives in London.

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Table of Contents

Introduction xi

Maps xviii

Prologue: 1887-Frontier Days 1

Part I Freedom for the Spirit

1 Encircling Vastness 11

2 Beyond the Mississippi 28

3 Red Men and Blue Bloods 56

4 Buffalo Dreams 83

5 "Who Would Not Go A'Pleasuring!" 113

Part II Staking A Claim

6 Private Paradise 147

7 A Place for the Boys 175

8 "Hail Britannia!" 195

9 Cattle Lords 230

10 "Land Grabbers" 265

Epilogue: 1887 282

Acknowledgments 295

Notes 299

Credits 317

Index 321

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted September 7, 2012

    Highly Recommended - fascinating part of our history

    Why were these events missing from my American history courses? A great read about British nobility as hunters, tourists and settlers in America in the 19th century. A social history focused on the interaction of the British with Americans and our land that also explains the mansions in the Plains! Some of the British were just here for sport and fun while others came to ranch and farm. Some understood the transitions that were taking place - the forced exodus of the Indians and the decline of the Plains and its native wildlife - as tourists and settlers moved in. They organized records in art, collections and journals of what they saw and experienced. When the British returned to Britain, some hung the paintings in their estates while others shared artifacts and staged live shows in London and other cities. Near the end of the century, America's rising anti-immigration attitudes coincided with some of the British beginning to discover the real challenges of the work they had undertaken in cattle ranching and farming, and many departed. This is a well-organized, entertaining and informative book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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