Piers Brendon

Lords of the Prairie 24

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



Young Americans were not alone in responding to the call of the Wild West. As Peter Pagnamenta shows in this ground-breaking book, Queen Victoria’s subjects also succumbed to the allure of the new frontier, and British grandees arrived in their hundreds to sample the delights of the open range. They were inspired by romantic notions of the noble savage in an Arcadian setting, as popularised by authors such as Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving and Mayne Reid. The last of these scored a huge success with his mid-century blood-and-thunder novel The Scalp Hunters, in which the hero describes thrilling gallops by day, campfire yarns by night and the experience of imbibing ‘a portion of the divine essence that lives … in those vast solitudes’. He had caught ‘prairie fever’.

At first the transatlantic toffs came primarily to hunt game. In the van was Captain (later Sir) William Stewart, pugnacious son of a wealthy Scottish laird, who took a steamboat up the Mississippi to St Louis in 1832 and then rode across the plains

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