June 15, 2012

We have a certain image, we Americans, of the early settlers who moved westward across the Great Plains. Solitary mountain men seeking hunting and trapping lands in the Rockies. Young families in carts and wagons hoping to farm a future. Hard-edged miners hungry for gold and silver. Then come the folks seemingly cut from a Mel Brooks movie: the 20-something sons of Britain’s then-1 percent, seeking sport and adventure while traveling with large entourages, including valets who dressed them for the day.

These last ones are the focus of Peter Pagnamenta’s entertaining new book, “Prairie Fever,” a deeply researched and finely delivered look at what can best be described as a counterintuitive slice of American history. The Brits may have lost us as a colony, but by the mid-1800s they were happy to send their lads along as though on extended Spring Break.

The tourism invasion began, in part, because of James Fenimore Cooper and his Leatherstocking Tales, Pagnamenta reports. Natty Bumppo and his fellow travelers were popular among English readers, and the stories of life on the frontier whetted the appetites of young British men who found themselves in unusual straits. In that era, the eldest son stood to inherit the family estate, while younger male siblings received allowances but few responsibilities. What to do with the indolent rich was a conundrum, since working for a living was outside the sphere of social respectability. One solution was to send them packing to America, lured by the tales of buffalo hunts, Indian skirmishes and the taste of hardy adventure. Some sought to blend in; most did not.

One of the first to make the trip was Sir William Drummond Stewart, who was particularly taken with Cooper’s 1827 novel, “The Prairie,” and its descriptions of vast herds of buffalo. (Cooper, ironically, never laid eyes on them, having trekked no farther west than Buffalo, the terminus of the recently opened Erie Canal.) Stewart, a Scotsman, set out in 1832 and by the summer of 1833 was in southwest Wyoming for the annual rendezvous, which drew together fur buyers and suppliers from St. Louis, trappers from the range and Rocky Mountains, and the native tribes. It was a brawling, sprawling gathering of boozing, trading, resupplying, prostitution and horse racing.

Stewart spent most of six years on the Great Plains and in the Rockies, and toward the end brought along an artist to record the scenes. He and other early travelers also wrote about their experiences, adding to the Cooper canon, and the trickle of curious Brits turned into a full invasion.


"Prairie Fever: British Aristocrats in the American West 1830-1890" by Peter Pagnamenta (W.W. Norton)

A key draw was the easy slaughter of buffalo, and Pagnamenta, a London-based documentary film maker and social historian, is at his best describing the lure, and the savagery, of the hunting expeditions in which scores of buffalo were killed in single outings just because they could be had. The carcasses were usually left to rot where they dropped.

One of the highest-profile offenders was Sir St. George Gore, who one government report said had killed 6,000 buffalo. Gore’s personal scorebook recorded “a mere 2,000 buffalo, 1,600 deer and elk, 105 bears, and thousands more mountain sheep, coyotes, and timber wolves.” All for “sport.” U.S. bureaucrats charged with watching over the native tribes that relied on the buffalo for sustenance became so outraged as to recommend that Gore’s hunting trophies, destined for shipment back to England, be confiscated and sold off. Ultimately, no action was taken.

Traveling the prairie was no lark of an expedition for most. Some died. Others recoiled at the hardship and quit. A few sought to stay, establishing farm-centric communities like one outside Le Mars, Iowa, complete with polo fields and private social clubs. But cultural differences, the rigors of prairie farming, and tornadoes sent them packing after a few years.

But most of the aristocratic travelers had no intention of staying. Pagnamenta writes that while Americans saw “the extension of the frontier into and across the Rockies [as] another chapter of a work in progress” and marked by hard labor and stark personal risk, “British aristocrats continued to see” the frontier “in purely recreational terms.”

By the 1880s, the rich tourists had morphed into rich investors, combining their wealth into investments in cattle-ranching and mining trusts. American resentment boiled over as hundreds of thousands of acres of land were bought up (often fraudulently so) by wealthy Brits, referred to derisively in newspaper coverage as “milords.” In 1887, Congress enacted the Alien Land Bill, which barred non-Americans from buying land, as harsh winters and drought-filled summers decimated the herds amassed by British investment companies. The “prairie fever” Pignamenta so vividly describes was effectively over.

PRAIRIE FEVER

British Aristocrats in the American West 1830-1890

By Peter Pagnamenta

Norton. 338 pp. $27.95

Scott Martelle is the author of “Detroit: A Biography.”