Book review: Prairie Fever: How British Aristocrats Staked a Claim to the American West

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I’ve a feeling we’re not in England any more – how Kansas conquered the toffs.

Prairie Fever: How British Aristocrats Staked a Claim to the American West

by Peter Pagnamenta

Duckworth, 352pp, £20

In names like Victoria, Rugby and Runnymede (a dinky little community long since buried beneath a sea of Kansas wheat) travellers across the great plains of the American Midwest can still catch a glimpse of the lost – and deeply weird – world that has been lovingly excavated and brought back to life in this book.

Back in the late 1880s, Runnymede was the spot where a group of British 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 parents, these young toffs had been lured to Kansas by Francis Turnley, a wealthy 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, 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. Tunley and many of his chums slunk back home, none the wiser for their Midwest adventure, and certainly none the richer. “None of us had any financial sense,” one of them blithely admitted.

Runnymede’s model was set up in Iowa by the Close brothers, sons of a wealthy London banker, who bought vast tracts of cheap farmland around Le Mars. The punters arrived in droves, urged on by the zealous correspondent of The Field, an exuberant chap ever ready to gasp at the absolute Englishness of every last fence and yard he saw on his visit. Briefly unnerved by the shocking spectacle of a bronzed Lord Hobart out mowing a field, aided in such lowly labour by a pair of pink-faced young aristocrats, he swiftly placed such drudgery within a soothing perspective. How “sensible and useful” the lives of these elegant noblemen must be, here in a town of “English ladies and English gentlemen, of English children and English babies”. And what was more, these gentlemanly households were tended by “English servants,” nourished by “English cooking” and cared for with “thorough English neatness”. Harboured in such a reassuring context, Lord Hobart’s manly engagement with a mowing machine became, to the eyes of an admiring English reader, downright heroic.

This delightfully absurd community (thwarted by a lack of Iowa foxes, the sporting colonists chased after prairie chickens) was also led to inexorable failure based on a fundamental miscalculation. The land around Le Mars proved as useless for wheat as for pastureland. Swine cholera decimated the colonists’ pigs; hailstones the size of cricket balls could kill a cow or even injure a gentleman’s leg. And as for tornadoes: “English people can have no idea what storms are like out here,” one of the forlorn young settlers wrote.

The Close brothers, shrewdly expanding into Kansas and Minnesota, accrued a fortune from their land investments. Their aristocratic followers fared less well. A few survived by moving into states like Wyoming (cheaper to ranch in). The rest returned home to less grueling lives.

While such sagebrush sagas occupy the culminating chapters of Prairie Fever, earlier episodes chart the adventures of a previous and more daring generation of Britons, lured by virgin territory and above all, by the prospect of magnificent buffalo to hunt.

Chief among the characters in these earlier chapters is the Scottish adventurer William Drummond Stewart, a hooknosed military man whose odd appearance – he donned tartan trousers and a white leather jacket for journeys through the Rockies – became the hallmark of an indomitable eccentric. Stewart may not be the most admirable of the sportsmen who trek through Pagnamenta’s pages in search of bison, but he is the most lively and eloquent in a remarkable gathering of intrepid – if arguably somewhat inconsequential – gentlemen adventurers.