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Go West, Young Aristocrat!



Rob Hardy


You may remember from your study of American history that one of the reasons colonists came to the New World from Britain was primogeniture, the eldest son inheriting the mansions and lands, leaving the younger sons to forge ahead more or less on their own. Emigration to America did not solve the problem - there were still propertied eldest sons and feckless younger ones, but shipping the younger sons off to America continued to be a partial solution well into the nineteenth century. This is part of the story in Prairie Fever: British Aristocrats in the American West 1830 - 1890 (Norton) by British historian Peter Pagnamenta, and an amusing story it is, too. Some of these toffs did come to earn a living and make a name for themselves, and some came just to exercise their talent for sportsmanship (by which they meant killing animals by shooting them), and some came in an attempt to find the Wild West they had read about since they were boys. By turns they amused and annoyed the Americans around them. Much of the fun in Pagnamenta's sharply-written book is of strangers in a strange land who thought they were making it less strange by introducing polo matches and cricket. 




Every one of the nobs that came this way knew what he was getting into, because he had read James Fennimore Cooper and knew how Natty Bumppo lived. The books of Leatherstocking Tales were wildly popular in Britain, even though readers had no idea that Cooper had never been west of Niagara Falls, and wrote his volume The Prairie in Paris. If they tired of Cooper, they could turn to one of their own countrymen, Captain Mayne Reid (the "Captain" is doubtful), who had been to the American west as a hunter, journalist, and soldier, and returned to write "quick-fire, action-packed prose" like The White Chief or The Scalp Hunters. That last volume contains contemplations on "prairie fever," a term that had been in common use, and the narrator exclaims, "The prairie fever! I feel it now! While I am penning these memories, my fingers twitch to grasp the reins - my knees quiver to press the sides of my noble horse, and wildly wander over the verdant billows of the prairie sea."  




The initial visitors from England came for the fun of it, and what was fun was to kill a lot of animals. One commentator wrote to his fellow Britons, "Yield, ye recreant shooters of partridge and grouse; enlarge your notions of sport and danger; we offer you a new field of excitement - a new remedy for ennui and indigestion." Americans were pushing with hard labor to bring timber or minerals from the west, but the British aristocrats initially saw the lands as just a playground. An extreme example of a hunting trip was the expedition of the aptly-named St. George Gore, who traveled 1854 - 1857 with his retinue, forty men including his valet and his gunsmith, forty mules, fifty greyhounds and staghounds, eighteen oxen to pull wagons, such as the one that carried his armory of seventy-five guns, and a tent big enough for his brass bed and bathtub. As do many hunters, he kept a scorecard of his kills, which amounted to more than 2,000 buffalo, 1,600 deer and elk, 105 bears, and thousands of mountain sheep, coyotes, and wolves, not to mention any fish he might have pulled out along the way. It is amusing that other British visitors thought it important to practice the classic British fox hunt. In one instance, "Foxhunting, the essential pastime and passion of the British countryside, proved impossible because there were no foxes, but the settlers formed a Hunt Club nevertheless, with huntsman and horn, and chased antelope and coyote with dogs, wearing the correct red hunting coats and black bowler hats." This led in another instance to a culture clash: "Neighboring farmers did not appreciate the British convention that riders could follow hounds wherever the scent took them, tearing over newly sown fields or growing crops." 




The Brits knew what was good for them, and what would have been good for the Americans, if they would just be more like Brits. William Herbert was of a fine family, but came to New York to avoid his creditors from his gambling and racing pursuits. He became a prolific author on sports, and "made it his mission to change attitudes and educate wealthy Americans in the sporting ethos of his friends and class in Britain." Americans of his set were devoted only to business, getting and hoarding money, and this, he said, led to "bleared eyes, sallow half-valanced faces, dwindled limbs, undeveloped frames and rickety gait..." The manliness of hunting would change all that for them, he advised. Repeatedly, the British could not accept the republican equality they found here. The Honorable Charles Murray fretted that clerks and grocers drank or played cards with congressmen or senior army officers with whom they were on a first-name basis. Such equality was incompatible with civilized life, he wrote, because "it contravenes that advancement and exultation of superior power, or intellect, which Nature has for centuries proved to be part of her system." The Americans, for their part, found much to be amused about. Surely they found ranks and names of the visitors to be funny; on one page here, Pagnamenta mentions the Marquis of Tweeddale, the Honorable Lyulph Ogilvy, and Archibald Marjoribanks, the son of "the monocle-wearing Lord Tweedmouth." An oft-repeated story said that one newcomer "referred to his host's 'cow-servants' rather than cowboys." 




The Brits were funny if they were not annoying, and sometimes Americans feared that the newcomers were taking away the fortunes of their semi-adopted nation. Some of the gentlemen purchased large swaths of cheap land, sometimes to make farms of it, and sometimes to use it as a base from which to make hunting expeditions. The owners might even set up towns with establishments such as the Albion House Hotel or the House of Lords pub. There were schemes to invest in beef, and as long as cattle prices stayed high and the weather was mellow, all went well, followed by an inevitable bust. Some Americans were horrified that foreigners could purchase American acreage, and the 1887 Alien Land Bill banned foreigners who were not in the process of becoming citizens from buying land in the territories. The vampire-like greed of these foreigners was emphasized, and Congressman William McAdoo warned that real Americans could find themselves thwarted by the acquisitiveness of "the minions of some lisping Lord or the satraps of some capering Count." He didn't have to worry long; when the cattle boom went bust, the aristocrats started looking to Australia, Kenya, or other parts of the empire in which to install their younger sons. 




Rich in detail and often hilarious, Prairie Fever reveals a slice of history that merits our appreciation. This British invasion didn't last long, and although the invaders might have thought themselves to be men of consequence, their efforts proved inconsequential. Inconsequential and funny they are, until you consider, as Pagnamenta does, their consequential tragedy: "They helped to slaughter the buffalo, invested in railways and mines, speculated in land and cattle, and strung barbed-wire fences over tracts of country they did not own. In the process they helped destroy the paradise that had first cast such a spell over them." 




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