University of Texas historian Brands (Heirs of the Founders) argues convincingly that the reality of the American West was very different than the way it was mythologized: as the epitome of the nation’s frontier spirit, where the individual could ignore the rules of government and society and, ideally, strike it rich. Surveying the region’s history from the Louisiana Purchase through the closing of the frontier, Brands ably recounts the stories of individuals such as Thomas Jefferson, who was both thrilled and alarmed by the immensity of this newly acquired territory; the merchant John Jacob Astor, whose attempt to gain control of the Pacific Northwest’s fur trade collapsed in an orgy of violence between his agents and local Native Americans; and the missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, who ventured to Oregon to proselytize to the indigenous people but were brutally murdered by members of the Cayuse tribe, who blamed them for the lethal spread of measles. He also introduces readers to lesser-known figures, such as the quartz mine workers of post–Gold Rush California, who brought the Industrial Revolution to the Pacific frontier, and the Irish and Chinese migrants whose back-breaking labors built the Transcontinental Railroad. Brands delivers lucid prose and short, tightly focused chapters. This broad but clearly structured study, with its many well-chosen illustrations, is likely to have wide appeal. (Oct.)
"Lively...[Brands] knows how to write in a popular style that draws us in and holds our interest...[He]
also pauses to make some thought-provoking insights, which round out the narrative and present his subject in a fresh light...An engaging, eminently readable introduction." Wall Street Journal
"An exciting new history of the American West and how it was settled, from the California gold rush to the Oklahoma land rush and more." New York Post
"[Brands] has a deft narrative touch and a talent for highlighting the human drama undergirding historical events...History as adventure story." Los Angeles Review of Books
"[A] fine new history." Houston Chronicle
"Brands surveys the past three centuries of the West, chronicling all-too-human tales of hope, greed,
triumph, tragedy, and irony. His history is propelled by the stories of amazing characters, some famous, others obscure...A marvelous short history of the West,
rewarding both expert and neophyte readers." Booklist (starred review)
"Brands is a master storyteller...[ Dreams of El Dorado] will enthrall aficionados of
19th-century American history." Library Journal
"A lively, well-written survey full of novel observations on a region shrouded in legend." Kirkus
"Brands argues convincingly that the reality of the American West was very different than the way it was mythologized...Lucid prose and short, tightly focused chapters...This broad but clearly structured study, with its many well-chosen illustrations, is likely to have wide appeal." Publishers Weekly
"The expansion of the United States across what would become the American West is the sort of sprawling, tumultuous epic that is best told by a calm and concentrated mind. Fortunately the author of this book is H.W. Brands, who has the vision and supreme narrative skill to braid the chaotic tendrils that make up the past into a story that is almost as exciting for its coherence as it is for the heroic and heartbreaking events it so vividly renders. Dreams of El Dorado is the latest reason to think of Brands as America's go-to historian." Stephen Harrigan, author of Big Wonderful Thing and The Gates of the Alamo
"A subject this monumental demands prose to match it, and I am pleased that to report that, in this sprawling epic, H. W. Brands is at his sparkling best. He is of the American West and grew up in its myths, which may explain why he writes about it with such passion and clarity." S. C. Gwynne, New York Times bestselling author of Empire of the Summer Moon and Rebel Yell
"The 'winning' of the American West is that biggest and most daunting of subjects, so big that most historians have found it necessary to bite off small corners of this grand and sordid tale of empire-building. But here H.W. Brands endeavors to tell it all, from Texas to California, from beaver pelts to buffalo robes, from the hoofbeats of horses to the steam blasts of the first transcontinental trains. Epic in its scale, fearless in its scope, this is a bravura performance from one of our master historians." Hampton Sides, bestselling author of Blood and Thunder
The prolific American historian turns his attention to the conquest of the West.
As Brands (Chair, History/Univ. of Texas; Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants, 2018, etc.) notes in opening, the American West was, in ancient times, the Asian East and the Beringian South. By the time Thomas Jefferson signed off on the Louisiana Purchase, it was definitively part of North America, contested by European powers but almost inevitably a part of the United States. The author identifies three commanding themes in Western history: the capacity of the region for "the evoking and shattering of dreams," a pattern of constant violence, and unparalleled irony "in the form of paradox, contradiction and unintended consequence." Emblematic of the first was Theodore Roosevelt's dream of ranching in the Dakota Territory, a failed enterprise that nonetheless cast New York City native Roosevelt as "that damned cowboy," as politician Mark Hanna called him. The second figures throughout the author's lucid, fluent narrative at places like the Alamo and Wounded Knee. (One of the recurrent characters is the Sioux leader Black Elk, who lived a long life after many key battles.) Brands locates irony in the fact that the West gave us the iconic figures of the lone gunfighter and stalwart settler while the conquest of the region was emphatically an exercise in collective power on the part of the federal government. Another irony, especially given current events in the region, is the fact that "by scores, then by hundreds and thousands, illegal immigrants poured into Texas" in the 1820s—illegal immigrants from, that is, the U.S., creating the conditions that led to war with Mexico. The author turns up little-known historical facts: two subsequent invasions of Texas, after the collapse of Mexican rule under Santa Anna, by Mexican armies; the admission of California as a state in which slavery was illegal—but where blacks were almost forbidden to enter; and many more, lending depth to his narrative.
A lively, well-written survey full of novel observations on a region shrouded in legend.
Although President Thomas Jefferson did not believe that the Constitution gave him the authority to expand the territory of the United States through the purchase of land, he nonetheless accepted Napoleon's offer to make the Louisiana Purchase for $15 million. Brands (history, Univ. of Texas at Austin; The First American) begins his history of the American West with that momentous decision. He then explores the settlement of the region through the experiences of numerous individuals, some famous but many unknown. Among the themes that emerge is that while the West promised opportunity, the extreme challenges faced by settlers denied many the future they envisioned. Another was that violence reigned, especially as it related to the determination of Native Americans to defend their homelands. That issue necessitated the might of the U.S. military, which is also part of another theme, namely that the settlement of the West would not have happened without federal intervention. This marks a very different picture from the traditional view that the West was the product of rugged individualism. VERDICT Although this work treads familiar ground, Brands is a master storyteller whose latest monograph will enthrall aficionados of 19th-century American history.—John R. Burch, Univ. of Tennessee at Martin