Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West

Image of Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West
Release Date: 
October 22, 2019
Basic Books
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“Dreams of El Dorado is in a sense the culmination of Brands’ love affair with the history of the American West.”

The settlement and development of the American West was the product of politicians, statesmen, explorers, missionaries, visionaries, businessmen, inventors, and citizens and immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Greed and ambition played large roles. And it all began, as H. W. Brands notes in Dreams of El Dorado, because of international politics.

“The purchase of Louisiana,” Brands writes, “created the American West as it would be understood for the next century.” President Thomas Jefferson is the first author of America’s “Manifest Destiny”—the idea that the United States should stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean (“from sea to shining sea”).

The Louisiana Territory when it was acquired from Napoleon’s France doubled the size of the United States. Napoleon sold it because of European geopolitics. Jefferson wasted little time in sending Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the land west of the mighty Mississippi River. Jefferson envisioned an “empire of Liberty” encompassing the entire Western Hemisphere.

Jefferson’s dreams of spreading liberty throughout the hemisphere would only be partially realized. Indeed, one of the major themes of Brands’ book is that such dreams—in the form of land, wealth, religious freedom—“inspired one generation of Americans after another to head west” with varying results.

Jefferson’s diplomacy was matched by President James Polk in the late 1840s, who used both diplomacy and war to acquire Texas, California, and the Oregon Territory for the United States.

Opportunity beckoned in these lands of the West, but so, too, did hardship, danger, and death. Fur traders, like Joseph Meek, were followed by seekers of land, businesses, gold, and religious tolerance.

Brands recounts stories of missionaries like Narcissa Whitman who sought to Christianize Indian tribes; the ’49ers who rushed to California after James Marshall discovered gold near San Francisco; cattlemen like Joseph McCoy who transformed Abilene into the hub of the Western plains; Mormons led by Brigham Young who found their Zion in Utah near the Great Salt Lake; explorers like John Wesley Powell who risked all to traverse the rivers of the Grand Canyon; and conservationists like John Muir who sought to preserve large regions as national parks and forests.

Meanwhile, the Transcontinental Railroad connected the West to the eastern United States. Brands writes that the “construction of the Pacific Railway was the grandest project of its kind in American history until then.” In May 1869 (four years after the end of the Civil War that threatened to undermine Manifest Destiny), the Union Pacific—which laid rails west from Omaha, Nebraska—met up with the Central Pacific—which laid rails east from Sacramento, California—just north of the Great Salt Lake.

The nation celebrated this remarkable achievement: “The Liberty Bell was rung in Philadelphia; cannons were fired in Washington; church bells clanged in New York and Boston and other cities.” Territories became states. The Far West was settled and then, in Brands’ words, “the frontier backfilled” as the population of the Great Plains increased.

Throughout the western expansion, Native Americans were forcibly removed from territories and settled on reservations. Brands’ history includes brief descriptions of the massacres and Indian Wars that morally stained Manifest Destiny.

Brands notes that America’s continental expansion caused Frederick Jackson Turner to famously write of the end of the frontier, a turning point in American history. It was succeeded, however, by what the great naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan called “America Looking Outward.”

In 1898, victory in the Spanish-American War resulted in the United States acquiring territory and interests overseas. And in 1901, the United States had a president, Theodore Roosevelt, who believed it was America’s destiny to become a global power.

The author has previously written books about Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Texas, and the gold rush. Dreams of El Dorado is in a sense the culmination of Brands’ love affair with the history of the American West.

Brands believes that the dreams of the Western expansionists had much in common with the Spanish conquistadores’ dream of El Dorado (the city of gold). “The West,” he writes, had always represented opportunity; the West was the peculiar repository of American dreams.” But in a larger sense, he concludes, “the entire American experiment in democracy was founded on a dream that ordinary people could govern themselves.” It is a dream shared by much of the world.