'Prairie Fever': the highborn British and the American West
Peter Pagnamenta's "Prairie Fever: British Aristocrats in the American West 1830-1890" chronicles the fascination of the British aristocracy for the American West and the ways that fascination played out, from exporting their younger sons without titles, to founding farming colonies in Iowa and Kansas, where rugby, polo and private clubs followed.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Prairie Fever: British Aristocrats in the American West 1830-1890'
by Peter Pagnamenta
W.W. Norton, 342 pp., $27.95
Sometimes we see ourselves best through others — and that can apply to our history as well. Peter Pagnamenta demonstrates that adage for both Americans and the British in his book "Prairie Fever: British Aristocrats in the American West 1830-1890."
The book traces the fascination the British aristocracy had with the American West, from early visitors enthralled by its wildness and vastness to later ones who saw it as a financial opportunity in farming, cattle and land speculation. Pagnamenta's crisp writing style paints the British characters against a background of mountain men, Native American tribes and settlers, many familiar to Americans who have read fact or fiction about the Old West. In his hands, the English visitors are sometimes eccentric, sometimes arrogant, but always interesting.
Introduced to the frontier by the books of James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, British lords first came to hunt, to explore and to record, taking with them artists such as Alfred Jacob Miller and George Catlin. As the West became settled, the British view of the West went from sport to workplace — a place to stash younger sons who would not inherit the titles and vast estates in the old country and needed a distraction from fast horses, hounds, cards, fashionable society and debt. British families settled them in farming colonies in Iowa and Kansas where rugby, polo and private clubs followed.
Then the cattlemen came, hoping to make fortunes — but mostly making enemies. Americans resented their ownership of land, which eventually resulted in the Alien Land Bill of 1887, restricting purchases to those who declared their intention to become U.S. citizens.
Such differences were there from the start, and in pointing out the contrasts Pagnamenta reveals much about both the British and American historical attitudes on class, independence and society. The differences persisted on the issues of slavery, treatment of Native Americans and the merits of democracy.
But mostly the differences were about how Americans and the British treated each other and expected to be treated.
To Americans, the British gained acceptance by proving their competence on hunting expeditions, on farms and ranches like anyone else. But many British noblemen felt adrift in a place where "the fine distinctions of manners, dress, and vocabulary that allowed the British to recognize and place each other in a social pecking order meant nothing."
For most Americans, that last part hasn't changed much. Most still can't tell a Lord Ashbrook from Larry McMurtry's fictional Lord Berrybender. So when Pagnamenta, a London writer and social historian, lists the Dukes, Sirs, Honorables, Baronets and Earls that graced our lands, he could have helped us understand their significance with a flow chart or explanation of the British pecking order.