Wednesday, October 24, 2012

British Colonies in America

Andrea Downing, author
British Colonies 
in America
by Andrea Downing

When Emma Lazarus wrote her famous sonnet, ‘The New Colossus,’ in 1883, I doubt she had in mind the many British who were then immigrating to the United States at that time. Hardly members of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, a great many were younger sons of the aristocracy—remittance men—who were being supported for a time by fathers or older brothers and were seeking to make their name in the new frontier of America. While doing my research for Loveland in which the ranch at the center of the action is owned by a company headed by an English Duke, I was amazed to come upon a number of colonies specifically aimed at the British upper classes.

Down on the Cumberland plateau of Tennessee, Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s School Days, started a colony at Rugby. Purchasing 75,000 acres with the help of an emigration society, Hughes chose his site due to the fact the railroad had just opened up this part of Tennessee with links to Cincinnati. Hughes envisioned a settlement of clean-living, Christian, cultured folk dedicated to agriculture and their community. Opened in Oct., 1880, new arrivals were given training in farming, and by 1884, this Utopia had some 300 residents amidst 70 buildings with social clubs and sports venues for their spare time. Sadly, the colony was not to last and cholera, financial problems and weather all combined to take their toll. By 1900 most of the original colonists were gone—some to other parts of America.

Up in Kansas in 1873, the Victoria Colony was started by one George Grant. Grant’s vision was to interest the sons of noblemen into sheep and cattle ranching, and to this end he purchased over 44,000 acres from the Kansas Pacific Railroad. A Hunt Club and a racetrack were organized, and there were dances and socializing with the men at Fort Hays. Grant himself moved into a villa that resembled an English manor house complete with bathrooms, running water and steam heating. Sadly, Grant’s ideas proved rather grandiose and crop failures, grasshopper invasions and bad weather put paid to the idea. Grant died penniless in 1878 and the colony failed. Volga Deutsch soon moved into the area renaming the colony Herzog.

A little to the north in Iowa, the Close Brothers started their own colony in 1879 in the area around LeMars. By far the most successful of these three, the Close Colony was based on the idea that the young gentlemen come over and be placed as students—called ‘pups’—with farmers to learn about running a farm before investing in land. The Close brothers made their money from the placements, from selling land they got cheaply at an increased price, and from other sales commissions, land management fees, share rents, mortgages and bank services. In the colony there were taverns with English names such as Windsor Castle or the House of Lords, a gentleman’s club called The Prairie and sports clubs galore. An effort was made to bring over gentlewomen and place them with couples or families. The Close brothers built a town called Quorn in the hope that the railway, being extended at the time, might use Quorn as one of its stations. Sadly this was not to be and the town died. Yet this was not an unsuccessful venture; the Close brothers were able to expand into Sibley, Iowa as well as into Minnesota. While the Close brothers abandoned the “pup plan” in favor of their own financial interests, colonists stayed, married and thrived.

Moreton Frewen, Wyoming rancher.
Winston Churchill's uncle
At the same time this was going on, British cattle companies were being formed back in the U.K. by both English and Scottish lords who viewed America as offering the same opportunities as South Africa, India, and Australia. Primogeniture denies a lord’s estate to any but his oldest son, or the next in line,which presents a problem for the spare heirs. The cattle companies were therefore managed by these second sons who came and set up ranches, mostly in Wyoming but with others in Colorado, Montana and Texas. The Powder River basin was the most populated area, and overcrowding on the plains there eventually led to the downfall of these huge ranches based on open range.

While America today worries about China ‘owning’ too much of the United States, back in 1884 Congress introduced a bill to try to stop the land grab by non-citizens. According to Curtis Harnack in Gentlemen on the Prairie, one journalist compared the acreage owned by just nine Englishmen to the equivalent of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined. At one stage, the British were believed to own an area in the USA equal to about one quarter the entire area of the British Isles. You might say that having lost the thirteen original colonies, the Brits went ahead and bought others! Yet with regards to the English cattle companies, not much land was actually owned because, as mentioned, they relied upon open range. In order to homestead, non-citizens had to promise to gain citizenship within five years, forcing the cattle companies to count on American employees—mostly cow hands—to gain land and sell it on to them. As for the colonists, their basic idea was to sell on their farms in five years at a greatly inflated price and move on to their next adventure. While this may have happened in some instances, the brain drain to the US of educated, cultured Brits, and the monetary flow from fathers and older brothers who were helping to set up these young men, was a gain for America. Towns and businesses flourished as needs were met for these new immigrants. And what had once been virgin untilled prairie eventually became the bread basket of America.

Further reading, and sources:
Harnack, Curtis: Gentlemen on the Prairie, Victorians in Pioneer Iowa, University of Iowa Press, 1985.
Woods, Lawrence M., British Gentlemen in the Wild West, The Era of the Intensely English Cowboy, The Free Press, 1989.

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by Andrea Downing
Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Goodreads

Drawing will be held October 27, 2012, at 9pm Pacific Time. Please include your email address or we'll have to pick another winner.

Be sure to read all about Andrea Downing and her latest book, Loveland.


  1. Andrea, "Meeting" you has been interesting, and I've enjoyed your posts. Best wishes for continued success with LOVELAND and your career.

    1. Thanks Caroline. I appreciate you stopping by.

  2. A fabulous post thank you. I would love to read LOVELAND thank you.


  3. What a nice thing to say, Mary. Thanks so much


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