From 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.
About Peter Pagnamenta
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.
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. – Kirkus Reviews
“Prairie Fever: British Aristocrats in the American West 1830-1890,” by Peter Pagnamenta
The Washington Post Book Review – June 15, 2012 (Excerpt)
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. [Read the full article...]
Little Estate on the Prairie - ‘Prairie Fever,’ by Peter Pagnamenta
The New York Times Book Review – June 29, 2012 (Excerpt)
It is in names like Victoria, Rugby and Runnymede (a dinky little community long since buried beneath a sea of Kansas wheat) 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, a writer and documentary producer for the BBC.
Back in the late 1880s, Runnymede was the spot where a group of English colonists decided to live out the fantasies they had read about in the exotic cowboy tales of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Known derisively as “remittance men” because of the comfortable allowances they regularly received from their daddies back home, these young toffs had been lured to Kansas by Francis Turnley, a wealthy Irish landowner’s son from County Antrim who had gambled his future on the chance that a new railway line would lay its tracks straight through his personal fief: Runnymede.
Turnley worked hard to recreate upon the prairie a perfectly pukka England. Runnymede offered not only polo matches, tennis tournaments and cricket, but a splendid opportunity for aspiring cowboys to don their buckskins and fire off six-shooters as they swaggered down Main Street. The new arrivals from England loved Runnymede. Established locals, especially the pious German-American settlers at nearby Harper, didn’t think much of the antics of these grandee colonists. Yet all went well — until the Kansas Pacific Railroad line finally did come through, a fatal two miles away. With no transport link to the cities, the Runnymede project was literally train-wrecked. Poor Turnley and many of his chums slunk back home, none the wiser for their Midwest adventure, and certainly none the richer. But making their fortunes had not been a priority. After all, as one of these patrician Quixotes casually admitted, with all the blitheness of a rich man’s son, “None of us had any financial sense.” [Read the full article...]
THE LONDONDERRY AIR
Testament of an Ulster Gunman
A Novel by Garrad Gawler
It all changed for Charles Cunningham, a Physics teacher at the local College of Technology in the County Derry town of Maddenstown, on a June afternoon in 1973 when a bomb exploded in his neighborhood. He answers an advertisement by the UDR, the Ulster Defence Regiment, but, in the time to come, he will experience the consequences of his decisions, and how his involvement complicates matters with family and friends, Protestants and Catholics alike, to an unexpected degree.
With “The Londonderry Air – Testament of an Ulster Gunman” Garrad Gawler describes in minute detail and with an astonishing level of authenticity not only the inner workings of the Ulster Defence Regiment, but also the activities of underground paramilitary groups of regular citizens who planned and carried out the assassination of suspected Republican terrorists in their neighborhood.
The Londonderry Air is available at Amazon.Com, Amazon Kindle (US), Amazon.co.uk, Amazon Kindle (UK), Barnes & Noble, smashwords.com, and any other good bookstore.
For more information on Garrad Gawler and to read an excerpt of “The Londonderry Air,” please see the author’s section on this website.