April 4, 1818 - October 25, 1883
Mayne Reid was born in Ballyroney, County Down, Ireland on April 4, 1818. His father was a Presbyterian clergyman who expected his son to follow in his footsteps. Instead, Reid enrolled at college in Belfast and then, after finishing his studies, became a schoolteacher.
In 1839 Reid traveled to America, arriving at New Orleans in 1840. He lost his first job at a commission house by refusing to whip slaves. Afterward, Reid opened a short-lived private school in Nashville. When it failed, he went to Natchitoches, Louisiana and worked in a dry goods store before traveling to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where in 1842 he began his literary career as an occasional contributor to The Pittsburgh Morning Gazette. In 1843, after an unsuccessful stint as an actor in Cincinnati, Reid made his way to Philadelphia, where he befriended Edgar Allen Poe and wrote for both Godey’s and Graham’s magazines.
On September 1, 1846, Reid moved to New York, where he became society editor at the New York Herald. In November his first and only play, Love’s Martyr, had a short run in Philadelphia. Later that same month he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in a regiment of New York Volunteers for service in the war with Mexico.
On March 9, 1847 the New York regiment took part in the landing at Vera Cruz. During the subsequent investiture of the city by artillery, Reid led a scouting expedition that he afterward described in one of his “Sketches by a Skirmisher,” a series of war reports he contributed on a semi-regular basis to a New York newspaper, The Spirit of the Times.
In July 1847 at Puebla, while acting as officer-of-the-guard, Reid killed an enlisted man in his custody. A court martial afterward determined that the killing was unjustified but exonerated the young lieutenant due to extenuating circumstances.
After Scott’s army entered the Valley of Mexico, Reid participated in the battles of Contreras and Churubusco. On September 13, 1847, while leading the charge at Chapultepec, he was shot in both thighs, receiving wounds that would trouble him for the rest of his life.
At war’s end, Reid resumed his literary career as a magazine contributor in Philadelphia, where he chanced to meet an old friend, Donn Piatt, who invited him to spend the winter at the Piatt family home in Ohio. While there, the young war veteran completed his first novel, War Life, which was based on his wartime experiences. It was published in New York in 1849 and credited to “Captain” Mayne Reid, although the author had never actually achieved that rank.
That same year Reid sailed from New York as a volunteer to fight in the Bavarian revolution. Upon arrival in Liverpool, he went instead to visit his family in Ireland. After a month, he traveled to London to seek a British publisher for his novel.
In 1850 Reid enjoyed his first real success when War Life was re-published in London as The Rifle Rangers. In 1851 Reid followed up with two more novels, The Scalp Hunters and The Desert Home. The following year, the now-successful author met his future wife, Elizabeth Hyde, who was then only thirteen years old. They were married in Nottingham in 1854, when she was fifteen and her husband was thirty-six.
The year in which he met Elizabeth Hyde was also the year that Reid’s first juvenile novel, The Boy Hunters, was published. Over the years he churned out many more, including The Plant Hunters, The Forest Exiles, and Ran Away to Sea.
In 1856 Reid’s success enabled him to purchase an estate in Buckinghamshire, where he built a Mexican-style hacienda called “The Ranche.” That same year, inspired by the success of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he wrote an anti-slavery novel, The Quadroon, which was set in Louisiana.
In 1867, despite his success as a novelist, Reid lost his property in Buckinghamshire and was forced to declare bankruptcy. He and his wife traveled to the United States, where they resided first at Newport, Rhode Island, then in New York City, where, with financial help from a devoted fan, the Irish-born author continued to write novels while publishing a juvenile magazine called Onward. In 1868 Reid became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Reid and his wife returned to England in the 1870s, buying a country home in Hertfordshire, where he attempted to revive a flagging career. In 1882 Reid was approved for a Mexican War pension by the United States government. The following year he returned to London where he spent his last days working on his never-completed wartime memoirs. Reid died at home on October 25, 1883 and was buried three days later in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery. A unique headstone featuring an anchor, a sword, and an inscription from one of his books marks his final resting place.
Butler, Steven R., 2006. Away O’er the Waves: The Transatlantic Life and Literature of Captain Mayne Reid. Ph.D. Dissertation, The University of Texas at Arlington.
Steele, Joan. Captain Mayne Reid (Boston: Twayne, 1978).