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Gentlemen on the Prairie

Victorians in Pioneer Iowa

Harnack, Curtis

Publication Year: 2011

In the 1880s, the well-connected young Englishman William B. Close and his three brothers, having bought thousands of acres of northwest Iowa prairie, conceived the idea of enticing sons of Britain’s upper classes to pursue the life of the landed gentry on these fertile acres. “Yesterday a wilderness, today an empire”: their bizarre experiment, which created a colony for people “of the better class” who were not in line to inherit land but whose fathers would set them up in farming, flourished in Le Mars, Iowa (and later in Pipestone, Minnesota), with over five hundred youths having a go at farming. In Gentlemen on the Prairie, Curtis Harnack tells the remarkable story of this quite unusual chapter in the settling of the Midwest.    
Many of these immigrants had no interest in American citizenship but enjoyed or endured the challenging adventure of remaining part of the empire while stranded on the plains. They didn’t mix socially with other Le Mars area residents but enjoyed such sports as horse racing, fox hunts, polo, and an annual derby followed by a glittering grand ball. Their pubs were named the House of Lords, the House of Commons, and Windsor Castle; the Prairie Club was a replica of a London gentlemen’s club, an opera house attracted traveling shows, and their principal hotel was Albion House. In St. George’s Episcopal Church, prayers were offered for the well-being of Queen Victoria.
Problems soon surfaced, however, even for these well-heeled aristocrats. The chief problem was farm labor; there was no native population to exploit, and immigrant workers soon bought their own land. Although sisters might visit the colonists and sometimes marry one of them, appropriate female companionship was scarce. The climate was brutal in its extremes, and many colonists soon sold their acres at a profit and moved to countries affiliated with Britain. When the financial depression in the early 1890s lowered land values and made agriculture less profitable, the colony collapsed. Harnack skillfully draws upon the founder’s “Prairie Journal,” company ledgers, and other records to create an engaging, engrossing story of this quixotic pioneering experiment.



Published by: University of Iowa Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

THIS SOCIAL HISTORY makes extensive use of unpublished letters, diaries, journals, and information gathered in interviews by the author over the last thirty years. Particular biographical attention is paid to William B. Close and his brothers, since their ingenuity and enterprise created the colony of gentlemen on the prairie, and to a great extent their...

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pp. 3-8

EUR0PEANS have emigrated to the United States for a wide variety of reasons, but rarely has it been "the thing to do" to preserve social status. After all, America is supposedly without class structure or social hierarchies. All the more remarkable, then, that a sizable colony of British gentry should have flourished on the frontier in western Iowa and southeastern Minnesota in the 1880s, "a colony...

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1. Athlete into Immigrant

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pp. 9-17

FEW young men have arrived in America, under such auspicious circumstances. In the summer of 1876 William B. Close of Trinity College, Cambridge, was twenty-three years old, a handsome, noted athlete of the day, president of the University Boat Club and captain of the British crew scheduled to row in the Centennial...

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2. The Prairie Lords

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pp. 18-29

THE following spring, before William emigrated to America with his brother Frederic, he had one last moment of glory as an oarsman. He rowed in the annual Oxford/Cambridge University Boat Race; and in 1877, for the only time in its history, the contest was a dead heat. There was a great to-do, and William enjoyed living at this fast pace. But a few days later their ship sailed, and...

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3. The Prospect before Them

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pp. 30-39

WILLIAM'S shift in career from land-owning stockman to businessman and trader had some disquieting aspects-the people he encountered seemed a low sort. In Des Moines as an intern in the Iowa Loan and Trust Company he noted a cheerful vulgarity in the social life, a great deal of mixing-up of privacy and one's business affairs. There was even a shortcut available for courting for "clerks and such like"...

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4. Going Out to Iowa [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 40-56

WHILE negotiations were being completed for purchase of "the promised land," William enjoyed his last months in the role of gentleman-settler. He read services in the Episcopal church, attended more ice cream socials, joined in songfests, and accompanied Fred on excursions for prairie chickens, which were plentiful and provided...

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5. Landed Gentry in the Making

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pp. 57-76

BECAUSE of William Close's promotion of the colony during the winter of 1878-1879, "northwestern Iowa became far more familiar to the politer British ear than it ever had been to the American," according to Macmillan's magazine.l One reason for his success was his understanding of the aspirations of the upper middle class, since he came...

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6. Some Difficulties Surmounted

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pp. 77-83

IN the early stages of Close Brothers, William attempted to make money on all aspects of the operation-tutorial fees, land-sale commissIons, percentages on improving raw prairie, banking personal accounts, and farm management for British investors who never intended to become colonists. In the latter category, Richard Sykes, John Close's friend, was the biggest client and the most trouble. Sykes...

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7. Gentlemanly Activities

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pp. 84-93

JAMES Close acted upon his brother William's suggestion and renovated a Le Mars hotel, naming it Albion House, so new arrivals would feel more at home, but he could not serve as housemaster for the entire colony. Responsibility for the behavior of individual pups lay mostly with the host farmer who had received a sum for tuition or who employed the youth as a hired hand. Whereas most...

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8. The Faces of Success

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pp. 95-104

WHILE the Close Colony was beginning to flourish, another transplantation of Britons was underway at Rugby, Tennessee, under the guidance of Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown's School Days. Hughes and his backers in the English Emigration Association bought 75,000 acres in the Cumberland highlands of eastern Tennessee near the southern Kentucky border. The new town, Rugby, was eight miles...

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9. The Colony Portrayed [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 105-128

IT blossoms, like a "rose", booster newspapers reported about the Close Colony; land values were rising, and British settlers of means were rapidly building up the country.1 Land speculation and colonization did not at this point seem incompatible, for the trading of prairie acres always at higher prices helped attract colonists. Since land everywhere...

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10. How the Game Was Played

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pp. 129-143

DURING the winter of 1880-1881, William Close in England learned of the duke of Sutherland's proposed railroad tour of western United States scheduled for the following spring. Not only was the duke an intimate friend of the Prince of Wales and therefore a desirable personage to connect with the Iowa colony, he was also the biggest landowner in Great Britain, holding title to 1,358,000...

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11. Colony Concepts, Personal Destinies

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pp. 144-155

THE frequent, reliable, and comfortable trains nationwide meant that British settlers in various parts of the country could look up one another and compare experiences. At the invitation of the British Association of Kansas, a Close Colony delegation of eight (headed by Montague J. Chapman) journeyed to Florence, Kansas, for a dinner party Christmas Eve, 1881. After toasting the queen and...

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12. Two Colonials

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pp. 156-166

TWO young Britons, Walter and James Cowan, exactly fit William Close's notions regarding recruits for his colony. Their letters home, most of them now in the special collection of the London School of Economics library, constitute the largest and most complete record of what it was like to be a gentleman settler in Iowa. The Cowans were...

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13. Getting On with It [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 167-186

SPRING arrived; the crashing of ice breaking up on the Big Sioux River, "reminds one of a tremendous big waterfall, and every now and again there is a report just like a gun," wrote Walter. By mid-June all 70 acres of corn had been planted, as well as the barley, oats, and wheat. Since their father was especially interested in grain, Walter described their first harvest in some detail---how they cut the oats and barley by hand but...

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14. The State of the Colony

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pp. 187-200

BY 1883, the year the Cowan brothers arrived in Iowa, some of the earlier settlers had already tired of the adventure and in decamping badmouthed the country, much to the ire of the locals. "It is not what it is represented to be, they say," reported one newspaper. "Its resources are exaggerated, its climate misrepresented .... Tilling the soil and tending the cattle is such very hard work .... It is no place for a gentleman to...

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15. A Bit of a Struggle

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pp. 201-206

SINCE the Cowans could not sell their Iowa farm, they fitted the place into their scheme of becoming horse breeders, importers, and traders. They hoped to raise some cash through another mortgage and move to Wyoming with horses, machinery, furniture, and household essentials, thereby avoiding further outlays setting up their Wyoming ranch. By renting the Iowa land to Taylor, their overall investment would be in good...

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16. Dramatic Endings

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pp. 207-217

THE ordinary course of events in Fred and Margaret Close's lives presaged nothing of the tumultuous change about to occur. Fred was his usual dashing, sportsman self, still setting a young man's pace. They moved from Pipestone, Minnesota, to Sibley, Iowa, in 1888; their firm, now Close and Dodsworth, specialized in "Banking, Real Estate and Loans." Constantine Benson, no longer officially a partner, still helped handle...

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17. In the Fullness of Time

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pp. 218-231

IN the June day in 1890 that Fred Close was killed playing polo in Sioux City, twenty-five miles away Lillias "Toogie" Cowan, the young sister of Walter and James, was a houseguest at the Sioux Valley Stud Farm and soon to end her visit. She had hand fed an orphaned foal, toured the shops of Akron, made a few acquaintances, and found the Iowa locale "very amusing, the people are so friendly and funny." Since women were...

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18. The Vanished Colony

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pp. 232-237

YESTERDAY a wilderness, today an empire," wrote a Le Mars editor in 1882, three years after Close Brothers arrived, but it did not turn out to be part of the British empire. The House of Lords and House of Commons saloons changed identities. The Albion House was torn down in 1910, and a newer hostelry, the Union Hotel, was named in keeping with life in the United States. British yeoman labor helped build it---men...


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pp. 239-248


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pp. 249-254

E-ISBN-13: 9781587299681

Publication Year: 2011

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Subject Headings

  • Close Colony (Iowa) -- History.
  • Cowan, Walter.
  • Big Sioux River Valley (S.D. and Iowa) -- History.
  • Cowan, James, 1862 or 3-1940.
  • British -- Big Sioux River Valley (S.D. and Iowa) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Agricultural colonies -- Big Sioux River Valley (S.D. and Iowa) -- History -- 19th century.
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