Thomas Mayne Reid, novelist and adventurer, was born on April 4, 1818, in Ballyroney, County Down, Ireland, the son of Rev. Thomas Mayne Reid, senior clerk of the Irish General Assembly. Intended for the Presbyterian ministry, Reid entered the Royal Academical Institution in Belfast in September 1834 but, being of a rebellious disposition, left the school in 1838 without completing his course of instruction. After briefly running a school in Ballyroney, he sailed for New Orleans in December 1839 aboard the Dumfriesshire. In New York he was employed as a corn factor but left his job after six months, supposedly because he refused to whip slaves. He then sojourned in Nashville, where he served as tutor to the children of Gen. Peyton Robertson and ran, for seven months, the New English, Mathematical, and Classical School. In either Natchez, Mississippi, or Natchitoches, Louisiana, he worked as a clerk for a provision dealer and sometime in 1841 met Commodore Edwin W. Moore, to whom he later dedicated his novel Scalp Hunters (1851). In 1843 Reid was in St. Louis, from where, according to contradictory sources, he either started up the Missouri River in the company of John James Audubon or for Wyoming with Sir William Drummond Stewart. In August of that year his first poem was published in Godey's Magazine over the pseudonym A Poor Scholar, and that fall he first met Edgar Allan Poe in Philadelphia. Reid, Poe later wrote, was "a colossal but most picturesque liar. He fibs on a surprising scale but with the finish of an artist, and that is why I listen to him attentively."
With the outbreak of the Mexican War Reid enlisted in the First New York Volunteer Infantry and on December 3, 1846, was commissioned a second lieutenant. In January 1847 he sailed with his regiment for Mexico with Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott's army, which landed at Vera Cruz. On May 1 the first of Reid's "Sketches by a Skirmisher" was published in the St. Louis Spirit of the Times, for which he was a correspondent, over the pseudonym Ecolier. On September 13 he received a severe thigh wound during the storming of Chapultepec and on September 16 was promoted to first lieutenant. Though accounts that cite Reid as having been the first to scale the castle's walls and plant the United States flag are no doubt in error, he nevertheless did perform with great courage at Chapultepec. In May 1848 he was discharged from the army. By his own account he had been promoted to captain and so referred to himself for the rest of his life, but he is listed only as a first lieutenant in Francis B. Heitman's definitive Historical Register and Dictionary of the U.S. Army.
In October 1848 Reid's first play, Love's Martyr, played for five nights at the Walnut Street Theater in New York. A first rendering of his military experiences in Mexico, War Life, was privately printed in New York on June 27, 1849, and the following month he sailed for England in company with a band of volunteers bound for service in the Bavarian revolution. Rather than accompany them to the Continent, however, Reid returned to his home in Ireland and then settled in London, where in 1850 he wrote The Rifle Rangers. This successful novel was followed in 1851 by The Scalp Hunters, in 1852 by his first juvenile title, The Desert Home, and in 1853 by The Boy Hunters, a highly acclaimed "juvenile scientific travelog" set in Louisiana and Texas. In 1853 he also married the fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Hyde. A string of successful novels followed: The White Chief (1855), The Quadroon (1856), Oceola (1859), and The Headless Horseman (1865), most of which were based on the author's adventures in America. The Headless Horseman was set in Texas and based on a South Texas folk tale. In November 1866, however, Reid was declared bankrupt after spending inordinate amounts of money on a new home, an elaborate reproduction of a Mexican hacienda that he called the Ranche, in England. Hoping to recoup his fortune, he returned to the United States in October 1867 and settled in Newport, Rhode Island. His wife, the daughter of an English aristocrat, disliked America intensely, however, and despite the success of his 1868 novel The Helpless Hand (1868) and a triumphant appearance as a lecturer at New York's Steinway Hall, Reid's second American visit was a failure. In June 1870 he was confined to St. Luke's hospital for several months with complications from his old Chapultepec wound, and on October 22 he and his wife returned to England. There he was again hospitalized, this time for what was diagnosed as acute melancholia. From then Reid's life and work were increasingly unfortunate. Despite hard work on many writing projects, none prospered, and despite a pension from the United States government for his Mexican War service, his financial situation was increasingly pinched. Captain Reid died in London on October 22, 1883, and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery. His epitaph is a quotation from Scalp Hunters: "This is `weed prairie'; it is misnamed: It is the Garden of God." Although Reid was never considered a major novelist, in England he made a significant contribution to the popular image of the American West as a place of romance and high adventure.