By the time he became president in 1801, Thomas Jefferson had already been looking west for decades. He saw the country’s population expanding and he judged that America’s territory must expand too, lest America become as crowded and conflict-prone as Europe. He started modestly, by seeking to purchase New Orleans from the French. Napoleon Bonaparte answered with a breathtaking proposal: would the Americans care to purchase all of Louisiana? Jefferson said yes and soon enough had dispatched two explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, to find a passage across the new territory to the Pacific.
In Dreams of El Dorado, the bestselling author H. W. Brands captures the experiences of the men and women who headed into this new territory, from Lewis and Clark’s expedition in early 19th century to the closing of the frontier in the early 20th. He introduces us to explorers, mountain men, cowboys, missionaries, and soldiers; he takes us on the Oregon Trail, to John Jacob Astor’s fur trading outpost in the Pacific Northwest, to Texas during its revolution and California during the gold rush and to Little Big Horn on the day of Custer’s defeat at the hands of the Indian general Crazy Horse. Not every American who went West sought immense wealth but most expected a greater competence than they could find in the East. Their dreams drove them to feats of courage and perseverance that put their stay-at-home cousins to shame; their dreams also drove them to outrageous acts of violence against indigenous peoples, foreigners and one another.
Throughout, Brands explodes many longstanding myths, reorienting our view of the West and of American history more broadly. The West was often viewed as the last bastion of American individualism but woven through its entire history was a strong thread of collectivism. Westerners sneered, even snarled, at federal power but federal power was essential to the development of the West. The West was America’s unspoiled Eden but the spoilage of the West proceeded more rapidly than that of any other region. The West was where whites fought Indians but they rarely went into battle without Indian allies and their ranks included black soldiers. The West was where fortune beckoned, where riches would reward the miner’s persistence, the cattleman’s courage, the railroad man’s enterprise, the bonanza farmer’s audacity; but El Dorado was at least as elusive in the West as it ever was in the East.
A sweeping, engrossing work of narrative history, Dreams of El Dorado will forever change how we think about the making of the American nation.