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 wagons hoping to farm a future. Miners hungry for gold and silver. Then come the folks 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 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. 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 wasn't respectable. One solution was to send them to America.
A key draw was the easy slaughter of buffalo, and Pagnamenta, a London documentary filmmaker and social historian, is at his best describing the lure, and the savagery, of the hunting expeditions. 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 killed 6,000 buffalo.
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 communities like one outside Le Mars, Iowa, complete with polo fields and social clubs.
But most of the aristocratic travelers had no intention of staying. 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. The "prairie fever" Pagnamenta so vividly describes was over.