London-based historian Pagnamenta (co-author: Sword and Blossom: A British Officer’s Enduring Love for a Japanese Woman, 2006) turns up an overlooked chapter in American history: the role of well-heeled Brits in Manifest Destiny.
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.
Lively and full of both historical details and enjoyable anecdotes—a welcome addition to the history of the American frontier.