Revisiting the land of gold and dreams

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Revisiting the land of gold and dreams

   Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West by H. W. Brands, Basic Books, US $32.00, Pp 544, October 2019,    ISBN 978-1541672529

American West has always fascinated not only the outside world but also the Americans themselves. In popular imagination, the American West is the land of gold — El Dorado. It is surrounded by myths and mysteries. It was a place where hardworking immigrants were rewarded by riches for their persistence. This was a place where hardworking migrants’ dreams came true but these riches drove the migrants to extreme violence against the Native Americans. In Dreams of El Dorado, H. W. Brands tells the fascinating story how the American West of won — and settled. He tells us that the West was often viewed as the last bastion of American individualism, but woven through its entire history was a strong thread — at times a cable — of collectivism. Western individualism sneered, even snarled, at federal power, but federal power was essential to the development of the West.

H. W. Brands says that 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 the land of wide open space, but its residents were more concentrated in cities and towns than in most of the East. The West was where the Whites fought Indians, but they rarely went into battle without Indian allies, and their ranks included black soldiers. He writes, “The West was where fortune beckoned, where riches would reward the miner’s persistence, the cattle man’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 was in the East.”

In American history the West had always represented opportunity. The West was the peculiar repository of American dreams. The dream of El Dorado had originated with the Spanish conquistadores, but it persisted deep into the American period of the West. The forty-niners were obvious descendants Coronado; the cattle speculators of Dakota and the land-rushers of Oklahoma slightly less obvious. But material fortunes weren’t the only inspiration for Western dreams. Thomas Jefferson dreamed of an easy water route from the Missouri to the Pacific. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman dreamed of Christian salvation for their Cayuse hosts. Brigham Young dreamed of a Mormon refuge beyond the reach of a gentile government.

The West had no monopoly on American dreaming. H. W. Brands tells us that the entire American experiment in democracy was founded on a dream that ordinary people could govern themselves. And every immigrant to America came chasing a dream. But Western dreams were often larger, because the West was larger, and because for a long time it was largely unknown. In the American mind, the West was not so much a place as a condition; it was the blank spot on the map upon which grand dreams were projected. Inevitably, the blank spot was filled in, by the very efforts of those seeking to attain their dreams. Some did attain them, at least in part. Many Argonauts stuck it rich in California. Many emigrants to Oregon were delighted at how their long journey ended. Theodore Roosevelt did not become a cattle king, but he became president, which was no small consolation. H. W. Brands concludes, “As the West passed from dream to reality, it became more like the East, until nothing significant distinguished the one from the other. A twentieth-century Horace Greeley might have sent his young protégé to Wall Street or Washington as readily as to the West.”

Dreams of El Dorado is an authentic and gripping account of the American West. Packed with new perspectives and insights, it is a story of amazing characters — famous and obscure alike — who built American West as we know it. It is a 300-year story of human perseverance, hope, greed, triumph and tragedy. This meticulously researched book busts many myths about the West. H. W. Brands writes history like a gifted and natural storyteller. He has a unique style of writing history that makes history enjoyable. Dreams of El Dorado is as fascinating as the West itself is. It is simply a treat to read it.

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