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"Epic in its scale, fearless in its scope" (Hampton Sides), this masterfully told account of the American West from a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist sets a new standard as it sweeps from the California Gold Rush and beyond. In Dreams of El Dorado, H. W. Brands tells the thrilling, panoramic story of the settling of the American West. He takes us from John Jacob Astor' "Epic in its scale, fearless in its scope" (Hampton Sides), this masterfully told account of the American West from a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist sets a new standard as it sweeps from the California Gold Rush and beyond. In Dreams of El Dorado, H. W. Brands tells the thrilling, panoramic story of the settling of the American West. He takes us from John Jacob Astor's fur trading outpost in Oregon to the Texas Revolution, from the California gold rush to the Oklahoma land rush. He shows how the migrants' dreams drove them to feats of courage and perseverance that put their stay-at-home cousins to shame-and how those same dreams also drove them to outrageous acts of violence against indigenous peoples and one another. The West was where riches would reward the miner's persistence, the cattleman's courage, the railroad man's enterprise; but El Dorado was at least as elusive in the West as it ever was in the East. Balanced, authoritative, and masterfully told, Dreams of El Dorado sets a new standard for histories of the American West.


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"Epic in its scale, fearless in its scope" (Hampton Sides), this masterfully told account of the American West from a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist sets a new standard as it sweeps from the California Gold Rush and beyond. In Dreams of El Dorado, H. W. Brands tells the thrilling, panoramic story of the settling of the American West. He takes us from John Jacob Astor' "Epic in its scale, fearless in its scope" (Hampton Sides), this masterfully told account of the American West from a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist sets a new standard as it sweeps from the California Gold Rush and beyond. In Dreams of El Dorado, H. W. Brands tells the thrilling, panoramic story of the settling of the American West. He takes us from John Jacob Astor's fur trading outpost in Oregon to the Texas Revolution, from the California gold rush to the Oklahoma land rush. He shows how the migrants' dreams drove them to feats of courage and perseverance that put their stay-at-home cousins to shame-and how those same dreams also drove them to outrageous acts of violence against indigenous peoples and one another. The West was where riches would reward the miner's persistence, the cattleman's courage, the railroad man's enterprise; but El Dorado was at least as elusive in the West as it ever was in the East. Balanced, authoritative, and masterfully told, Dreams of El Dorado sets a new standard for histories of the American West.

30 review for Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West

  1. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    “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. 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 spaces, but its residents were more concentrate “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. 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 spaces, but its residents were more concentrated in cities and towns than in most of the East. 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. Its elusiveness simply added to its allure…” - H.W. Brands, Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West The United States of America is a vast space containing many unique regions of vastly differing geography, culture, and history. But when people think of America, the image that often comes to mind is of the West. The spirit of rugged go-it-aloneness, allegedly flowing through the American bloodstream, is embodied in our mind’s images of taciturn cowboys or solitary homesteaders. The optimism that – at one point, though no longer – used to imbue the American idea, is best captured in the nation’s westward gaze, where a potential jackpot of precious metals, rich furs, and tillable soil awaited those with the guts to take it. Finally, the stark violence that accompanies any growing nation is on full display during the course of America’s expansion towards the Pacific Ocean. This violence, however, was not solely the result of America’s continental imperialism. At least six different countries vied for the West, along with dozens of Indian tribes, and each actor in this bloody drama operated within a complex web of alliances, enemies, and aspirations. The story of the American West is huge, and far too large to be captured in a single volume. In Dreams of El Dorado, noted historian H.W. Brands does not even try to corral this sprawling material. Instead, starting with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and ending with Teddy Roosevelt’s ascendancy to the presidency in 1901, Brands tells a surprisingly taut tale that focuses on a few carefully selected characters and incidents. The men and women we follow run the gamut of experiences. None of them can be classified as unknowns, but they are not historical celebrities, either. For instance, in telling the story of the fur trade, Brands mostly ignores Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, and Jedediah Smith, in favor of John McLoughlin of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and trapper Joe Meek, who lived a long, interesting, and literate life (having left a written record is one of the necessary conditions for inclusion in this book, which does a lot of quoting from primary sources). Later, in telling how present-day Washington was settled, Brands follows the odyssey of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, married missionaries who traveled the Oregon Trail to found their mission, only to be murdered by Cayuse Indians in 1847. Brands uses these individual experiences to illustrate broader trends. He is also – on occasion – able to stitch together a rather seamless narrative by tracing the intersecting lives of the people he has chosen to follow. (Trapper Joe Meek, for example, met – and was enamored by – Narcissa Whitman, during her doomed trek west). One of the surprising things about Dreams of El Dorado is what it underplays, or leaves out completely. There is very little Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse here, which is odd, given their impactful roles in defying American expansion. Rather, Brands conveys much of the Indian experience through the medicine man Black Elk, who collaborated with American writer John Niehardt to convey his visions in a book eventually titled Black Elk Speaks. Indeed, Dreams of El Dorado is decidedly not a military history, so famed “Indian fighters” such as Phil Sheridan, William Harney, and George Custer barely get a sentence or two, if they are mentioned at all. Brands has long been near the top of my list of favorite author-historians. Nevertheless, he can be frustratingly inconsistent. Ultimately, I have found his biographies (especially of FDR and Ulysses Grant) to be fantastic, while his general histories rate just above average. Even on his best days, he is not going to dazzle you with his prose or set pieces. His strengths are clarity, thoughtfulness, and the integration of interesting first-person accounts. Having read many of Brands’s books, I found parts of Dreams of El Dorado to read like a synthesis of his earlier works. His easy knowledge of the California Gold Rush, the Texas Revolution, and the rise of Teddy Roosevelt, are the consequence of him having written extensively on these subjects before (in The Age of Gold, Lone Star Nation, and TR, respectively). I hesitate to offer any sharp criticisms, as Brands is a renowned historian and a delightful talking-head in many documentaries. Yet, I would be remiss if I did not mention how Brands seems to lose a bit of his footing when straying away from topics that he has previously researched and written about. In the acknowledgments, Brands notes that this project was “suggested” to him, rather than it being an idea he came up with himself. Frankly, there are times I could tell. For instance, Brands’s brief rendition of the Plains Indians Wars is filled with inaccuracies. He repeats unsourced myths about William Fetterman’s fatal 1866 fight along the Bozeman Trail, and later makes a hash of the 1876 Centennial Campaign, referring to Brigadier General George Crook (head of the Department of the Platte) as a “lieutenant” of Lieutenant Colonel George Custer (who was acting commander of the Seventh Cavalry, and most decidedly a subordinate of Crook, and not the other way around). Later, his rendition of the Battle of the Little Big Horn intimates that Crazy Horse somehow planned an ambush to annihilate Custer’s troops, even though it was an encounter battle, with the eventual hostilities initiated by Custer, and grossly mismanaged by him and his subordinates. These factual errors are mild, and to damn a whole book because of a couple of mistakes is pure grandstanding. Still, this is the natural result of a shallow reading of limited secondary sources, rather than a deep-dive into the materials. (A trip to the endnotes demonstrated, unfortunately, that Brands relied heavily on Dee Brown. Based on my own experiences with his books, Dee Brown had a tendency to repeat hearsay and legend as though they were fact). At its best, though, Dreams of El Dorado is able to deliver big ideas in pithy bites. During the Gold Rush, for example, Brands proposes that the West was actually an “industrial frontier,” with evolving technologies, mining camps morphing into towns, and “with corporate boards and banks calling the tune.” Rather than an lagging behind during America’s Industrial Revolution, Brands puts the West in the vanguard. Another reality Brands shows is that the settling of the West was not a progressive push from the left bank of the Mississippi. To the contrary, the West Coast of present-day California, Oregon, and Washington was settled first, with the Great Plains only backfilled later. This had obvious implications for Indian tribes who were – at first – willing to let people traverse their territory, as long as they kept going. Dreams of El Dorado is entertaining, fast-paced, and reader-friendly. It introduces you to some remarkable people, gives you a dozen fraught adventures, and leaves you with a healthy reminder that history and myth often share an uncomfortably close coexistence, and that the inability to differentiate between the two still affects us to this day.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Blaine DeSantis

    Brands is one of my favorite historian/authors. He has a way of telling a story that does not come off as overly professorial or long-windedly boring. This is another great example of his works. This book focuses on the development of the West, from the time of Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase to Teddy Roosevelts preservation of the American West. It is a glorious overview of American history, filled with names both familiar and scarcely known. Obviously, volumes can and have been written on the s Brands is one of my favorite historian/authors. He has a way of telling a story that does not come off as overly professorial or long-windedly boring. This is another great example of his works. This book focuses on the development of the West, from the time of Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase to Teddy Roosevelts preservation of the American West. It is a glorious overview of American history, filled with names both familiar and scarcely known. Obviously, volumes can and have been written on the subject matter of each of these 54 chapters, and for someone who wishes to learn more than we are all welcome to do so, but here Brands gives us so many wonderful and tragic stories, characters and incidents that made the West. He breaks it down into 8 different sections beginning with the Louisiana Purchase, then we have Fur Traders, Texas and on and on it goes until we have reached the end of our Continental borders and begin to fill in the Midwest - great info on the Oklahoma Land Rush. All in all just a superb book by one of our leading historians.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Peter Tillman

    I’ve lived in the West almost all my life, and have read a number of Western histories over the years. This is a very good one, and I learned quite a bit of new-to-me stuff in reading it. Prof. Brands is a dab hand with a telling anecdote, and I’ll relate a couple of good ones from my notes. First, you should (as always) read the publishers introduction, and my excerpts from the fine WSJ review: ". . .Lewis and Clark’s 28-month, 8,000-mile journey from St. Louis to Oregon and back not only repres I’ve lived in the West almost all my life, and have read a number of Western histories over the years. This is a very good one, and I learned quite a bit of new-to-me stuff in reading it. Prof. Brands is a dab hand with a telling anecdote, and I’ll relate a couple of good ones from my notes. First, you should (as always) read the publishers introduction, and my excerpts from the fine WSJ review: ". . .Lewis and Clark’s 28-month, 8,000-mile journey from St. Louis to Oregon and back not only represented an amazing feat of courage and endurance but established the precedent for federal sponsorship of exploration and scientific discovery that we still adhere to today. And despite the excitement and national pride that the expedition elicited, he reminds us that it was also something of a letdown. In dispatching the Corps of Discovery, Jefferson was hoping to find a navigable route to the West Coast, to open trade with the Indians and to plant the American flag in Oregon, which was also claimed by Great Britain. But after learning of those cataracts on the Missouri and Columbia, the president reluctantly concluded the Far West might be too remote ever to join the United States, and he believed it was more likely to become an independent republic. And so, Mr. Brands writes, “the disappointments attached to the Lewis and Clark expedition set the pattern for many disappointments to follow. Time and again Americans would project their dreams onto the West and be disappointed. . . .” ". . . Mr. Brands takes pleasure in explaining how things work and has studded the book with illuminating asides. He describes the lifeways of the beaver and the annual cycle of a fur trapper. He catalogs the daily routine of a wagon train. He shows how the quintessentially western industries of gold mining, cattle-raising and farming outgrew their small-scale origins and soon became as industrialized as the manufacturing done at factories back east. He explains how the introduction of the horse fundamentally changed Native American culture and how the tribes’ decentralized governance sometimes increased the likelihood of violence in the face of white encroachment. This isn’t a book of white hats and black hats. Neither does Mr. Brands shy away from the less heroic episodes of western history. From the beginning, he reminds us, the region was a chaotic, dangerous place. In fact, he considers violence, “humans killing one another in the struggle for control of Western resources,” as “the defining characteristic of the West.” WSJ review: https://www.wsj.com/articles/dreams-o... (Paywalled. As always, I'm happy to email a copy to non-subscribers) You might also read the Kirkus review for a quick, short look: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-re... I did skim some of the history I already knew well, but Brand is such a good writer that I read almost all of his account of the Lewis & Clark expedition, even though I had previously read the expedition journal. Anecdote: in their dismal winter camp, at the mouth of the Columbia, 1805-1806: “In nearly 4 months, rain fell on all but 12 days.” Why I would never want to live in the Pacific Northwest! Lincoln was elected President in 1860, without winning a single electoral vote in the South. Even before his Inauguration, Southern states started to secede. Brand speculates: what if Louisiana and Texas hadn’t seceded? Lincoln had to maintain America’s access to the Mississippi — but would he have let the others go, as a “rump country on the wrong side of history”? Highly recommended, if you are interested in Western history. 4.4 stars.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Lorna

    Dreams of El Dorado: A History of The American West was a panoramic and overarching view of the settling of the American West by author H. W. Brands, that left one in awe of the history unfolding in such dramatic fashion. From President Thomas Jefferson recognizing the importance of expansion into the western part of the country and buoyed by Napoleon's offer to sell Louisiana to the United States, this young country began its exploration westward. Beginning with the expedition of Lewis and Clar Dreams of El Dorado: A History of The American West was a panoramic and overarching view of the settling of the American West by author H. W. Brands, that left one in awe of the history unfolding in such dramatic fashion. From President Thomas Jefferson recognizing the importance of expansion into the western part of the country and buoyed by Napoleon's offer to sell Louisiana to the United States, this young country began its exploration westward. Beginning with the expedition of Lewis and Clark followed by the migration west by courageous Americans and the sacrifice that entailed, to the discovery of gold in California and the implementation of the railroad connecting the eastern part of America to the west. Brands also touches on the different native American tribes and how they were impacted by this migration west as the concept of "Manifest Destiny" was implemented. Having grown up in the American West, much of this has been imprinted on me in bits and pieces but I must say that having such a complete chronology of this most interesting time in American history was invaluable. "But beyond doubt they were many more settlers than had ever ventured to the American West at once. Descriptions of the westering army caught the American imagination: a mighty people was on the march. They were the American dream in motion. Even many Americans who were content to stay in the East thrilled about what this great migration said about the energy of their country and its bright future." "No image in American history has been so powerful--so evocative not simply of romance and adventure but of what it means to be an American--as that of the cowboy. Astride his horse, etched against a lonely horizon, the cowboy epitomizes individualism, integrity, strength. The cowboy guards his herd; he guards his nation's identity." "Roosevelt wouldn't have been much of a politician if he hadn't hitched his White House agenda to the nostalgia for the West. Roosevelt was the first Western president in the sense of being the first to have spent significant time in the West and to take a serious interest in issues peculiar to the West." "Roosevelt died in 1919. The most famous image that marked his passing was a sketch called 'The Long, Long Trail,' which showed him in cowboy gear riding a spectral horse into a Western sky. Other figures from the earlier West had gone before."

  5. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    This will make a great research tool for those looking to understand some of the history of events like the Gold Rush of 1849 or the Indian Wars. Sadly, there are connections missing between events and it feels as though the author isn't making a coherent argument or telling a full story. That's not to say the individual chapters/vignettes aren't well told, just that there seems to be more here that is needed for a real understanding of how the American West evolved. ARC provided by publisher.

  6. 4 out of 5

    David

    I received a copy of this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway. H.W. Brands' new book is an ambitious one: the story of the American west, both the history and the myth. Beginning with John Jacob Astor and the fur trade, stopping along to tell of revolutions in Texas, missionaries in Oregon, gold and land rushes in multiple territories, Mormons and ranchers, railroad expansion and native tribe decimation, Dreams Of El Dorado is a fascinating study in the history of how the American frontier was I received a copy of this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway. H.W. Brands' new book is an ambitious one: the story of the American west, both the history and the myth. Beginning with John Jacob Astor and the fur trade, stopping along to tell of revolutions in Texas, missionaries in Oregon, gold and land rushes in multiple territories, Mormons and ranchers, railroad expansion and native tribe decimation, Dreams Of El Dorado is a fascinating study in the history of how the American frontier was transformed. The writing is balanced, in that Brands does not shy away from telling of the terrible toll native peoples paid while also describing the courage and grit of the settlers. Additionally, Brands tackles to a certain degree the myth of the American west; particularly interesting to me is how the "rugged individualism" that to this day is so associated with the American West developed in a area that owes much of it's existence to the Federal government, its interventions and its army. He also explores the way the Western experience helped Teddy Roosevelt create his own myth, one that helped propel him from the son of Eastern wealth to America's first Western President. A very readable, informative and entertaining book.

  7. 5 out of 5

    James Murphy

    Brands's historical method is the story rather than analysis and interpretation of events. So Dreams of El Dorado is the story of the American west rather than its history. All the iconic events are here, framed by 2 presidents: Thomas Jefferson who sprung the Lewis and Clark Expedition into the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase, and Theodore Roosevelt, the 1st modern president to see the west's potential for both industrial and recreational development. We're familiar with the events recounted Brands's historical method is the story rather than analysis and interpretation of events. So Dreams of El Dorado is the story of the American west rather than its history. All the iconic events are here, framed by 2 presidents: Thomas Jefferson who sprung the Lewis and Clark Expedition into the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase, and Theodore Roosevelt, the 1st modern president to see the west's potential for both industrial and recreational development. We're familiar with the events recounted here: the story of The Alamo, the story of the wagon trains, of the gold rush, of cattle drives and the building of the transcontinental railroad, much more. The stories are told using firsthand accounts and language. It's an acceptable way of doing history, but in my opinion using only firsthand accounts roots the stories in a narrative layer where facts may have been misunderstood or even missed, therefore inadvertently obscuring key elements and ultimately meaning Brands doesn't tell the story well. My best example of this weakness is the Custer massacre at the Little Big Horn. We know quite a bit about the events of that June day considering most of the story has come down to us through Indian oral traditions. Brands lets the legendary Black Elk tell the Little Big Horn. Black Elk was there, 13-years old, but his telling amounts to a vague sketch of the fight viewed through his own terrified actions. Brands is satisfied with this version of the Custer fight, but I think it illustrates his difficulties in telling the story of the west completely and accurately in this way, and it makes a reader question the accuracy of other stories. The overarching narrative in its entirety, a century of history in that immense landscape crisscrossed by a diversity of peoples and motives, is far too big to be told in a single volume of 481 pages, anyway. The result of trying to record such a history in so vast a land and in such an enormous century of change is the slight Dreams of El Dorado.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Glen

    I won this book in a goodreads drawing. A popular history consisting of various histories of chapters of the American West. Most are pretty interesting and entertaining.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Joseph

    Wow. I don't know where to start with this book. I was absolutely captivated by the narrative style. -Disclaimer- I had read another of this author's previous works, a biography of U.S. Grant, so my opinion might not be exactly neutral. Anyway, this book was a pleasant surprise from start to finish. This book should be required reading for all high school students. We are losing touch with reality in small pieces by not studying past history with enough vigor. A good starting point for anyone in Wow. I don't know where to start with this book. I was absolutely captivated by the narrative style. -Disclaimer- I had read another of this author's previous works, a biography of U.S. Grant, so my opinion might not be exactly neutral. Anyway, this book was a pleasant surprise from start to finish. This book should be required reading for all high school students. We are losing touch with reality in small pieces by not studying past history with enough vigor. A good starting point for anyone interested in the American West and its history.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Patricia Kitto

    This is a very good one volume history of the American West. It’s clearly very well researched and does not shrink from the negative aspects of ”Go West young man!” Weirdly, I got a little annoyed with all the primary sources - very unlike me as I usually appreciate such detail. Somehow though, I was hoping to hear a bit more analysis and interpretation of the sources rather than just the recitation of the diaries, letters, newspaper articles, etc. That being said, I came away with a much better This is a very good one volume history of the American West. It’s clearly very well researched and does not shrink from the negative aspects of ”Go West young man!” Weirdly, I got a little annoyed with all the primary sources - very unlike me as I usually appreciate such detail. Somehow though, I was hoping to hear a bit more analysis and interpretation of the sources rather than just the recitation of the diaries, letters, newspaper articles, etc. That being said, I came away with a much better and wholistic view of how the West was “won” and what was lost as a result. A solid 4 stars.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jack Gillic

    Enjoyable overview of America’s westward expansion. There is a high degree of overlap with one of Brands’ previous works: ‘American Colossus’. Both are very much worth your time.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Lanier

    My 10-Year Itch Recommended by Sean H., awesome historical perspectives, though author comes so close to including the Buffalo Soldiers, AFTER the Rough Riders, but fails miserably. True, some mention of Black Cowboys and their influence as well as suitable handling of 1st Nationers’ POVs, though not nearly as comprehensive as S. C. Gwynne’s, “Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History”. My biggest take-away w My 10-Year Itch Recommended by Sean H., awesome historical perspectives, though author comes so close to including the Buffalo Soldiers, AFTER the Rough Riders, but fails miserably. True, some mention of Black Cowboys and their influence as well as suitable handling of 1st Nationers’ POVs, though not nearly as comprehensive as S. C. Gwynne’s, “Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History”. My biggest take-away was my re-vitalization and excitement for exploring our nations “best idea”: America’s National Parks! John Muir, one of the gods of these great systems, was Da Man! Now Roosevelt had his flaws, DON’T get me started! However, had he NOT been a rancher first in N.D., a state I’ll surely visit my next cross country Road Trippin’. "I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota." and “I grow very fond of this place, and it certainly has a desolate, grim beauty of its own, that has a curious fascination for me." (Roosevelt in his book -Hunting Trips of a Ranchman and The Wilderness Hunter -) “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm. The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.” This remains the struggle, maintaining this country’s greatest natural treasures forever. I bought and started watching Ken Burn’s PBS 12-hour, 6-part Series on Amazon for only $18. http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/ From min 42 of E1 “No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty. Whether as seen carving the lines of the mountains with glaciers, or gathering matter into stars, or planning the movements of water, or gardening - still all is Beauty. When I discovered a new plant, I sat down beside it for a minute or a day, to make its acquaintance and hear what it had to tell... I asked the boulders I met, whence they came and whither they were going.” I’ll be heading back to Yosemite, Yellowstone, visiting new parks in the upper western quadrant and more in the lower southwest quadrant which we didn’t have time for back in 2010. Call it The 10-Year Itch. So, any of you who’d gone trekking, camping, foraging exactly 10 years ago June 25 - Aug 15, visiting approximately 10 National and 4 State Parks, through 13 states, let me know! Next Cross Country RT begins summer 2022. As, Muir said, I am, “Doubly happy, however, is the man to whom lofty mountain tops are within reach.”

  13. 4 out of 5

    Mark Jochim

    An excellent introduction to the vastness that is the American West, a region that holds perhaps the most turbulent portions of the Union's relatively brief history. Having been born in Texas and spending significant portions of my life resident in Kansas and New Mexico, I have long held a fascination with all things Western. I grew up on the novels of Louis L'Amour and Tony Hillerman and tend to pick up fictional works by other authors solely based on their settings within the region. However, a An excellent introduction to the vastness that is the American West, a region that holds perhaps the most turbulent portions of the Union's relatively brief history. Having been born in Texas and spending significant portions of my life resident in Kansas and New Mexico, I have long held a fascination with all things Western. I grew up on the novels of Louis L'Amour and Tony Hillerman and tend to pick up fictional works by other authors solely based on their settings within the region. However, aside from devouring Hampton Sides' excellent Blood and Thunder more than a decade ago, I had never read an historical account of the West. Until now.... Dreams of El Dorado by H. W. Brands covers the entire scope of that vast area beyond the Mississippi starting with the Corps of Discovery in the early nineteenth century and ending with our most "Western" of U. S. Presidents -- Theodore Roosevelt -- entering that office early in the twentieth century. Along the way, very few trails leading towards the Pacific are left untrod. Numerous topics in Western history are introduced and detailed within a few short chapters each. These serve to whet the appetite to learn more. This volume has added more items to my TBR list than any single book has in recent memory. Indeed, some of those were written by H. W. Brands himself while I am intrigued enough to start reading the original Journals of Lewis and Clark and the account of John Wesley Harding's exploration of the Grand Canyon to name but two. The best history books lead to further exploration and this one is particularly rich in that regard. There are some notable exclusions, however. I would like to have seen the Pony Express, Wells Fargo and the Butterfield Overland stage routes included not to mention more on the Western theatres of the Civil War (such as the Battle of Glorieta Pass) and New Mexican exploits by the likes of Kit Carson, Stephen Kearny and Narbona but those are minor knitpicks. What was included was often written in a style akin to the best page-turners by the fiction writers mentioned above. I highly recommend Dreams of El Dorado as an excellent one-volume introduction to the history of the West.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Dick

    Imagine if you were at a dinner party and one person decided to share for a few hours a very broad subject. It would be broken into somewhat sub-topics, the person would give some overarching conceptual remarks and also give some personal stories when discussing each sub-topic. Sometimes you wondered why the person would be heavy in one detailed aspect, but it didn't hinder the overall story telling that much. You would leave the dinner not an expert in any part of the subject at all, but you'd Imagine if you were at a dinner party and one person decided to share for a few hours a very broad subject. It would be broken into somewhat sub-topics, the person would give some overarching conceptual remarks and also give some personal stories when discussing each sub-topic. Sometimes you wondered why the person would be heavy in one detailed aspect, but it didn't hinder the overall story telling that much. You would leave the dinner not an expert in any part of the subject at all, but you'd have a much better understanding. This book is that, in written form. Brands decides to talk about the American West in the 19th century and try to cover everything. Some items include: Lewis & Clark expedition, the fight for Texas, the Oregon Trail, missionary work (Protestant, Catholics, Mormons, all of 'em), Gold Rush, Indian conflict, Industrialization of the west and any chance to mention Teddy Roosevelt. Overall, this book keeps your attention and overall has a fast pace, just because in order to cover everything in 480 pages, Brands has to have some brevity. There were some dry parts that deviated from the pace, but it didn't stop me from always wanting to pick this book up for a few minutes and read at any chance I had. It will probably not be the greatest literature work you'll read this year, but it will be one of the best books to help you be informed on the history of the United States in the 19th century.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Dave

    “Epic in scale”; that’s the blurb. In my experience although epics often have considerable value, they miss some detail. That’s the case with Dreams. There are mistakes. For me the most glaring were in the detail of Custer’s Last Stand. Brands states that Crooks was subordinate to Custer, actually the opposite was true. I believe he is also mistaken/confused about the nature of the battle. I assume there are other shortcomings, but despite them I must admit that I learned a lot about: the extrem “Epic in scale”; that’s the blurb. In my experience although epics often have considerable value, they miss some detail. That’s the case with Dreams. There are mistakes. For me the most glaring were in the detail of Custer’s Last Stand. Brands states that Crooks was subordinate to Custer, actually the opposite was true. I believe he is also mistaken/confused about the nature of the battle. I assume there are other shortcomings, but despite them I must admit that I learned a lot about: the extreme difficulty of crossing the Rockies and other mountain ranges with boats, but without a map; the controversy with Britain over the Oregon territory; the run-up to the Mexican-American War; the impact of the Gold Rush; the transcontinental railroad; the multiple displacements of multiple discreet groups of Native Americans; the establishment of the Mormons (including coverage of the Massacre); the cattle culture; the corn culture; and most significantly to me, the essential need for big government to manage aridity. Brands breaks the book up into short, convenient chapters. Highly recommended.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Katie

    This sweeping history was extremely engaging and readable. For a book so long, it kept my attention the entire time. And I will forever be grateful that this book put some events from American history into their context, particularly the Alamo and the Battle of Little Bighorn. Those were events I never learned about, and had never taken the time to figure out where and how they fit (even though I visited the Alamo last summer!). Though I enjoyed the book, and though I didn't know much of the his This sweeping history was extremely engaging and readable. For a book so long, it kept my attention the entire time. And I will forever be grateful that this book put some events from American history into their context, particularly the Alamo and the Battle of Little Bighorn. Those were events I never learned about, and had never taken the time to figure out where and how they fit (even though I visited the Alamo last summer!). Though I enjoyed the book, and though I didn't know much of the history, there was one story of westward expansion that I know a lot about, and in Brands' treatment of that event, I saw that he seemed to pick the most lurid parts of that history to include in his book. That made me wonder how complete the treatments of other peoples and events were. And I couldn't help but grieve at the history of the native peoples of this land, and how those injustices have never been rectified. It was so distressing and made me realize I need to give more time to learning about that population. One of my next reads will be The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee (at Barack Obama's suggestion).

  17. 4 out of 5

    Nancy Lewis

    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. This book is well-researched, to be sure. And no history in one volume c 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. This book is well-researched, to be sure. And no history in one volume can give equal attention to all aspects of a story. But one of the reasons I never liked history in school was that it just seemed to be an endless recounting of battles, with way too much time spent on the bloody details. In this book, we get pages and pages of battles won and lost, scalps taken, and women and children massacred. But there are just three short paragraphs about the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley, an event that some argue killed John Muir, his heart and spirit broken.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Muneel Zaidi

    A story of the American western frontier, told through historical records and written personal accounts. It chronicles the expansion of the union until about the 1920s. If this were a novel, Theodor Roosevelt would be the protagonist of this book, as his experiences are in the prologue, story, and ending. As the book relies on western written accounts, there is a noticeable lack of information from the native people of the land. White men write many of the accounts, so their historical bias from A story of the American western frontier, told through historical records and written personal accounts. It chronicles the expansion of the union until about the 1920s. If this were a novel, Theodor Roosevelt would be the protagonist of this book, as his experiences are in the prologue, story, and ending. As the book relies on western written accounts, there is a noticeable lack of information from the native people of the land. White men write many of the accounts, so their historical bias from these times is present. To the author's credit, he does seek to add stories of Native Americans, women, and some minorities. However, it still does not feel like a complete story. Recommend to those who enjoy history books and cowboy/westerns entertainment (to read of the stark differences between reality and the depiction of it in media)

  19. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    As advertised, this is a survey history of the American West. It’s not so much “sweeping” or “epic” as it is a deft encapsulation of historic bullet points. Over the years I’ve enjoyed deep-dive reads on a variety of figures and events related to this history, so it was refreshing and enjoyable to revisit that material in a more cursory format – the chronological context alone created new shades of meaning. Although complex events are touched on lightly, there’s still plenty here that will be new As advertised, this is a survey history of the American West. It’s not so much “sweeping” or “epic” as it is a deft encapsulation of historic bullet points. Over the years I’ve enjoyed deep-dive reads on a variety of figures and events related to this history, so it was refreshing and enjoyable to revisit that material in a more cursory format – the chronological context alone created new shades of meaning. Although complex events are touched on lightly, there’s still plenty here that will be new to people who are well-versed in this history. The interstitial stories are exciting, well constructed, and keep the pace brisk. On the whole, this book is a tremendous resource for anyone looking for a highly readable introduction to American history.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Dr. Lloyd E. Campbell

    Brands writes about the history of the American West from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee conveying a broad range of feelings on a canvas dominated by the genocide of the Native population and the romantic difficult life of the cowboy, Powell leading a party down the Colorado River through the awesome Grand Canyon, the Mormons in caravans of push carts creating a safe life by the Great Salt Lake harsh desert conditions, and the stealing of the Southwest from Mexico (Spanish descendants who stole Brands writes about the history of the American West from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee conveying a broad range of feelings on a canvas dominated by the genocide of the Native population and the romantic difficult life of the cowboy, Powell leading a party down the Colorado River through the awesome Grand Canyon, the Mormons in caravans of push carts creating a safe life by the Great Salt Lake harsh desert conditions, and the stealing of the Southwest from Mexico (Spanish descendants who stole it from the Native Americans), the California gold rush to list some of the high points. I think it’s a great introduction to a more accurate narrative of the American West than is taught in most high schools. Howard Zinn’s book, “A People’s History of the United States” is a much more detailed book on the same subject.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Sherri

    5++++++ I’m a huge western history buff, and have road-tripped all over the west, stopping at every historical place and reading pretty much every roadside sign I come across. Most of the stories told here were familiar to me, and I could visualize nearly all of the settings including rivers, mountains, and roads. What this book did for me was to provide the connective tissue between the stories and weave them all into one narrative about the development of what we know as the American West. Stor 5++++++ I’m a huge western history buff, and have road-tripped all over the west, stopping at every historical place and reading pretty much every roadside sign I come across. Most of the stories told here were familiar to me, and I could visualize nearly all of the settings including rivers, mountains, and roads. What this book did for me was to provide the connective tissue between the stories and weave them all into one narrative about the development of what we know as the American West. Stories are told from multiple perspectives and they expunge any idea of good guys vs. bad guys, white hats vs black hats. I wish every American would take the time to read this.

  22. 5 out of 5

    RWBresearch

    Most of what I have known of the history of the American West up through the 19th and early twentieth centuries has been derived from films and tourism (and even a few computer games like The Oregon Trail). So I wanted to learn more. This book taught me a lot about the realities underlying the myths of the West: it covers everything from the Louisiana Purchase and other federal expansion moves to the real lives of cowboys. The background on the Gold Rush was particularly compelling for me, since Most of what I have known of the history of the American West up through the 19th and early twentieth centuries has been derived from films and tourism (and even a few computer games like The Oregon Trail). So I wanted to learn more. This book taught me a lot about the realities underlying the myths of the West: it covers everything from the Louisiana Purchase and other federal expansion moves to the real lives of cowboys. The background on the Gold Rush was particularly compelling for me, since we had visited that area last summer. The author is a good storyteller: much of it reads like a gripping adventure tale. (I actually read it on my Kindle of course.)

  23. 5 out of 5

    Janis

    Brands’ overview of the settling of the American West, from the expedition of Lewis and Clark to the transcontinental railroad, tears apart the popular notion of a region settled by lone individuals. Federal funding and policy led to the western movement - but it doesn’t make the story of these years any less interesting. Brands’ engaging narrative style, his careful selection of the events that brought these vast lands into the United States, and his profiles of the many engaging people involve Brands’ overview of the settling of the American West, from the expedition of Lewis and Clark to the transcontinental railroad, tears apart the popular notion of a region settled by lone individuals. Federal funding and policy led to the western movement - but it doesn’t make the story of these years any less interesting. Brands’ engaging narrative style, his careful selection of the events that brought these vast lands into the United States, and his profiles of the many engaging people involved had me turning pages!

  24. 5 out of 5

    Tom

    A good review of the development of the American West, but one criticism voiced of Brands' book is its lack of a strong central theme. The narrative jumps around all over the place. Yet I did learn a lot, such as the looming influence of Southern secession on all national matters, for example, the development of the railroad (Northerners wanted a slavery-free California in the Union), and the Homestead Act (individual family farms discouraged plantation farming).

  25. 5 out of 5

    David Corleto-Bales

    An extremely thorough and comprehensive "new" history of the American West, starting with Lewis and Clark, the pioneers of the Ohio Country, the fur traders, Texas, the Mexican-American War, the bad old 1870s, etc., etc. All the major stories of the American West from the Buffalo soldiers to the Oregon Trail are covered here. Because it starts only at around 1800, further reading on history before that date is required.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Gretchen

    Dreams of El Dorado is a story of the western expansion examined through the lens of histories, interviews and writings of the various periods and locales. What I liked about the book was the fact that I had either lived in the various areas of Texas and California, or visited them. Fortunately when I was in school, history was a well-taught subject. Mr. Brands tries to give an even handed treatment to his subject. I received the paperback book through a goodreads giveaway.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Tom

    A good overview of the development of the western half of the US. Read this book not for the well told history, but for Brand's interpretations of the same .

  28. 5 out of 5

    Sandi

    This is great book about the settling of the west the book that he writes are stories I love his way of telling history

  29. 5 out of 5

    Anne Morgan

    A well-researched and fascinating look at the American West- not as a geographic location but as an experience and mind-set. From Lewis and Clark to Roosevelt, trappers to cowboys, Oregon to Oklahoma, "Dreams of El Dorado" explores the changing aspects and cultures of the Western experience. Reading this, you get a feel for the physical and psychological expanse Americans thought of when they looked west, the endless possibilities and opportunities that could come along with the necessary hard w A well-researched and fascinating look at the American West- not as a geographic location but as an experience and mind-set. From Lewis and Clark to Roosevelt, trappers to cowboys, Oregon to Oklahoma, "Dreams of El Dorado" explores the changing aspects and cultures of the Western experience. Reading this, you get a feel for the physical and psychological expanse Americans thought of when they looked west, the endless possibilities and opportunities that could come along with the necessary hard work and hard travel needed to make a life in the West happen. Brands looks at the positive but also the negative, not flinching from the brutal treatment of Native Americans along the way. Well written, well-researched, well paced, "El Dorado" is a perfect overview of the American West for those interested in learning more about a unique time and place in American history.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kico Meirelles

    The book guides to the formation of the west of the United States. With an amazing written, the author build a perfect timeline that explain the rise of states, moving of people, changes in history etc. All these with a friendly, but almost scholar and unbiased approach. One of the best books I read this year. Highly recommended for those who like history.

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