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April 10, 2013updated 01 Feb 2016 12:28pm

Review: Prairie Fever: How British Aristocrats Staked a Claim to the American West

By Christopher Silvester

Prairie Fever: How British Aristocrats Staked a Claim to the American West
Peter Pagnamenta
Duckworth Overlook, 352pp

Review by Christopher Silvester

For a little over 50 years, roughly spanning the period from the accession of Queen Victoria to the throne until her Golden Jubilee in 1887, a host of British aristocrats, whose dreams were nourished by western adventure fiction, variously treated the American West as their sporting playground or, later, established farms and ranches there. Peter Pagnamenta has done a great service with his dazzling, witty and sympathetic account of this peculiar and hitherto overlooked episode in British social history.

The first aristocrat to head across the Great Plains towards the Rocky Mountains, in 1833, was Captain Stewart, a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo and the son of a Scottish baronet, who joined an expedition of beaver hunters and encountered Indians, grizzly bears, and buffalo. On a later expedition, in 1837, he was better provisioned and took along with him a young artist named Alfred Jacob Miller to record the spectacular scenery and thrilling incidents. Stewart’s seven-year sojourn also yielded his own adventure novel, Edward Warren.

Charles Murray, the second son of an earl, wrote of his life among the Pawnee Indians and brought over to London an American painter of Indian subjects, George Catlin, who exhibited his paintings at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. Catlin later imported nine Ojibbeway Indians, who performed war dances to the amazement of London society. Queen Victoria even received them at Windsor Castle.

In 1843, Sir William Stewart, as Captain Stewart had become, returned to the plains to hunt buffalo. He was soon followed by other ‘nimrods’. The absentee Irish landlord Sir St George Gore spent 37 months in the West between 1854 and 1857 with a hunting party that included 40 men, 112 horses, eighteen oxen, 40 mules and three milking cows. By his own reckoning he killed 2,000 buffalo, 1,600 deer and elk, 105 bears and thousands of mountain sheep, coyotes and timber wolves.

The prairies held a twin appeal for British aristocrats. For some the lure was what one poet called the ‘encircling vastness’ of the region and the liberation it afforded from the convention-ridden life of Victorian England; for others it was the bountiful game, though buffalo shooting, as Captain George Ruxton put it, ‘soon degenerates into mere butchery’. None of these aristocratic visitors much liked the unpolished manners of the American lower classes, whom Berkeley described as ‘rudely intoxicated with liberty’, while the Americans despised the visitors’ haughtiness.

After the Civil War, as the railroads extended westwards, a new phase began, with the Earl of Dunraven buying a large estate, Estes Park, in Colorado, and young aristocrats establishing colonies of settlements at Rugby, Tennessee, at Victoria and Runnymede in Kansas, and at Le Mars, Iowa. These were a response to what Pagnamenta calls ‘a peculiarly British social problem’, namely what to do with younger sons of aristocratic landed families.

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Frederick and William Close, sons of a London banker, promoted the Iowan colony of Le Mars to English public schoolboys. Apart from half-hearted and vainglorious attempts at farming crops, these transplants built their own church and imported an English clergyman, founded a gentleman’s club and a cricket club, and encouraged tennis, hunting, racing and polo.

With an absence of foxes to hunt in Harper County, Kansas, the pink-coated colonists made do with chasing coyotes. Otherwise the weather, locusts and drudgery of farm work defeated them. In Runnymede they waited for the railroad to make them rich, but in 1892 it passed by, two miles away.

The final phase came with the beef bonanza of the 1870s and early 1880s. Ranching syndicates were floated on the London Stock Exchange, lords bought ranches for their younger sons, and British ranchers benefited from the open range in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.

‘Such a mob of Englishmen here you never saw,’ wrote Moreton Frewen from Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1883. ‘We are turning the natives out here and I think we shall annex the country before long.’ The inevitable backlash occurred. Claiming that foreign aristocrats owned 21 million acres of US land, politicians and the press railed against a land-grabbing conspiracy to reintroduce European social values to democratic America.

An Alien Land Bill was passed in 1887, restricting land purchases in the western territories to those who agreed to become naturalised citizens. The disastrous winter of 1886-87 bankrupted many of the ranchers, and apart from a few stragglers the aristocratic herd headed for the outposts of the British Empire instead.

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