Five Reflections on Dreams of El Dorado

Since last summer I have found myself diving into the topic of the “American West” through books and film. I’ve spent most of the time working on a 3-5 blog post series covering Western films and action sequences, but I’ve also been reading about the West in the backgrounds. My first read was Peter Cozzens’ The Earth is Weeping and you can find my reflections on that book HERE. My second read on the subject is H.W. Brands’ Dreams of El Dorado. This book attempts to cover the broad history of the West, essentially from Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory all the way to Theodore Roosevelt being the first “cowboy” President. 

The book is a well-written and engaging overview of the time period. Brands' writing style is one of my personal favorites when it comes to covering a wide swath of history like this – focus primarily on individual topic/person storylines but find common themes and intersection points between them to give an idea of how those stories overlap. Then, without becoming too tendentious, incorporate some mild commentary on how you interpret the significance of these themes. For Brands, his title of "El Dorado" is the commentary that holds these episodes together. I found some of the stories he recounts more interesting than others (I’m sure it will vary depending on the person), but each one is given attention to historical context/detail and is often spiced up with fun anecdotes and quotes. An overview book like this can’t be exhaustive, but I walked away feeling like I knew and understood “The American West” more deeply than I ever have. For the history reader, I recommend this book.

Like my previous history book blogs, I’d like to share some reflections. The reflections are a mix of actual word for word quotes from the book, a paraphrasing of the words, a synthesis, and my own words. So take that for what it is.

1. The Dream of the West (the thesis of the book): The dream of El Dorado had originated with the Spanish conquistadores, but it persisted deep into the American period of the West where it represented opportunity and became the peculiar repository of American dreams. 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. 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 acts of violence against indigenous peoples, foreigners and one another that might have appalled them if they hadn’t been so hell-bent on chasing the dreams. A few would realize their dreams, many saw them warped, but many more would endure danger and hardship only to come up short. Yet so broad was the West, and so great its promise, that there were always others with dreams yet undashed.

Thomas Jefferson dreamed of an easy water route from the Missouri to the Pacific, but the Lewis and Clark expedition closed that door. The explosion of the Tonquin blasted John Jacob Astor’s dream of an American fur empire. Many emigrants to Oregon were delighted at how their long journey ended yet many more suffered in the passage, died, or found farming as difficult as anything back East. The forty-niners came seeking riches, which some did find, but many ended up laboring long hours in the underground mines asking why they had ever come west. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman dreamed of Christian salvation for the Cayute people of the Oregon territory but were ultimately killed by the very people they came to rescue. Brigham Young dreamed of a Mormon refuge beyond the reach of a gentile government but was ultimately unable to escape their reach. The cowboys who helped to define the West during the cattle drive years found themselves working the year around, at the beck of a cost-counting boss, wondered what had become of their freedom.

As the West passed from dream to reality, it became more like the East, until nothing significant distinguished the one from the other. The Great Plains were dotted with farms, including the bonanza spreads of Dakota and the debit-ridden parcels of Kansas and Nebraska. Railroads crossed the mountains, making the journey from St. Louis to San Francisco pleasant and swift. Dams were beginning to modify the aridity of the Great Basin and would soon restrain the flow of even the most powerful rivers of the West. The earlier West had been a zone of conflict; from the explosion of the Tonquin to the campaigns of U.S. soldiers against Crazy Horse, Quanah Parker, Captain Jack and Joseph, violence and armed conflict had characterized the American West. When the violence ended, most brutally and definitively in the massacre at Wounded Knee, the West, in its historical sense, was no more. A twentieth-century Horace Greeley might have sent his young protégé to Wall Street or Washington as readily as the West. 

2. The Mississippi River & the Louisiana Purchase: I’ve always known the Mississippi River was one of the world’s greatest rivers and played an influential role in American history, but it wasn’t until this book that I realized just how pivotal a place it had. The Mississippi River became the defacto frontier boundary after the Revolutionary War. So many goods and cargoes continued to travel by the Mississippi and out through the city of New Orleans that it was seen as the key to the American West. When France’s Napoleon offered the Louisiana territory to Thomas Jefferson, and thus full control of the Mississippi and New Orleans, Jefferson saw opportunity: for American expansion, for the individual farmer to find enough land to keep his own freedom, and for expanding trade as a quick route to the Pacific Ocean might be discovered. Unfortunately, his political ideology was against such imperialism.

The dream of the West in Jefferson forced him to turn a political somersault to justify the purchase of the Louisiana territory; but somersault he did. In deciding to launch Lewis and Clark’s discovery expedition he broadened the the federal government’s role again in supporting scientific research. The difficulty of Lewis and Clark’s expedition to find an easy route to the West coast proved to dash Jefferson’s dream of an easy route to the Pacific. If Jefferson could have foreseen how the Dakotas would eventually be used for giant bonanza farms in the late 1800’s he would have shuddered. Jefferson considered the vast tracts of land a guarantee of the independence of generations of yeoman farmers, who in turn would guarantee the independence of the American republic. Independence was nowhere in sight on the bonanza farms. The men who did the work on the farms were beholden to their bosses, and the bosses were entangled in a web of global commerce that controlled them far more than they controlled it.

The Mississippi River was so important to the future of the West, that Brands argues it was a possible deciding factor in Lincoln’s decision to make war on the seceding south:

“Even before his inauguration, Southern states began to secede: first South Carolina, then six more. The last two of the seven – Louisiana and Texas – were crucial. Had secession been limited to states east of the Mississippi, many Northerners, conceivably including Lincoln, might have been tempted to let them go. Hey would never be more than a rump country on the wrong side of history, weighed down by slavery while the rest of the civilized world, under the inspiration of democracy and industrialization was abandoning the feudal institution. But when secession leaped the Mississippi, it put Lincoln in the position Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had been in when they rejected the idea that any part of the great river [Mississippi] could be in foreign hands... Franklin hadn’t been willing for Britain or Spain to threaten access to the West; Jefferson wouldn’t suffer France to do the same thing. Now Lincoln refused to let the Confederacy endanger the West and jeopardize America’s future.” (286)

3. The Stories of the Oregon Territory:
My favorite part of the entire book is how Brands weaved together the stories of two men in particular - Joe Meeks & Marcus Whitman - into an impressively colorful and informative overview of the fur-trapping trade, the mountain men of the West, and the Oregonian emigrants in the settling of the American West. I'm fairly well studied in American history and I may have heard the stories of these two men in passing, but I am now shocked at how their lives have not been made into compelling Hollywood films.

Brands begins this particular thread with a colorful accounting of British and American efforts in the fur trade, how it was an early example of globalization, and the rendezvous system that developed with the mountain men like Joe Meek, fur company men, and Indians attending. Into this story comes one of the earliest emigrants to the Oregon territory, the missionary family of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman who meet men like Joe Meek at one of the fur trading rendezvouses. The Whitman’s travel West, settle, and find their work with the Cayuse tribe difficult. The 24th chapter is the riveting account of how the Whitman's and others are murdered by the Cayuse who came to see them as the enemy. Since there is no state government, the fur trading companies and the now settled in Oregon Joe Meeks gets involved in the hunt for the killers and the chance to bring them to justice. This leads to Meeks’ arrival in Washington D.C. to persuade the government to declare it officially a U.S. Territory. Meeks would eventually become the first U.S. Marshall in the Oregon Territory and be the hangman for those charged with the Whitman’s murders.

It’s a fascinating and epic story that I can't help but hope they get the treatment John Adams got in that wonderful HBO series bearing his name. Seriously, I’ve taken notes on where each episode of the series would end and begin in the margins of the pages of the book. I need Tom Hanks, Spielberg, DiCaprio, or Scorsese to get on this immediately! 

4. A Slice of Life: One of the treasures of this book is when the author takes up several pages to detail and outline the day-to-day details of some of the major figures that make up the West. The two I’d like to recommend, the two I got the most enjoyment out of, was the detailed descriptions of life on a wagon caravan heading out to the Oregon country (pgs. 171-178) and the entirety of chapter 42 that covers the history and lives of cowboys and the cattle drive. It’s engagingly written and filled with quotes from those who lived it. 

5. The Myth of the West – Rugged Individualism vs. Federal Collective Guidance: The West is often viewed as the last bastion of American individualism but woven through its entire history is a strong thread of collectivism. 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 primarily gained by the federal government through wars, treaties, and purchases. Thus, it was the federal government’s land and they decided what would happen with it. 

After making the Louisiana purchase, Jefferson decided to use federal funds to scientifically research and explore the newly owned land. This set the template that development of the trans-Mississippi West would be a top-down affair driven by the federal government that would reach its ultimate culmination by landing a man on the moon in the 1900s. The American East had been the handiwork of the original states, which antedated the Constitution and had claimed territory to the Mississippi. The West, by contrast, was called into American existence by the federal government. The overwhelming majority of land in the West was initially federal; nearly all of the Western states began life as parts of federal territories. 

These territories, unlike the East, were arid and not very suitable to individual farms. This meant that policies, laws and customs that had evolved in the East had to be modified, or wholly transformed, if the West was to thrive. Individualism had built the East, but it would fail in the West unless complemented by large doses of collective action. Irrigation was the central task and it demanded collective effort: dams, canals, and pipelines. No individual farmer had the ability to build such infrastructure. But farmers acting together could marshal the requisite authority and funding. 

Another way the federal government collectively guided the creation of the West is through privatization – giving land grants to private individuals to use, improve, in return for the ability to tax the land and production that came from it. Privatization had justified the grant of federal land to railroads to spur construction. Privatization was the heart of the Homestead Act. Privatization was what had made the California gold rush happen: 

“In 1848 gold mining had been something an individual could do profitably with minimal investment, just enough to buy a pan and some beans and bacon. By 1849 the pans were being supplanted by sluice boxes and candles, which required money to fashion and teamwork to operate. Hydraulic mining was more expensive still, demanding pipe, nozzles, and fittings that had to be manufactured in the East and imported. Quartz mining multiplied the required investment even more. Heavy, specialized machinery – digging device of various sorts, hoists for miners and ore, pumps to drain water from the mineshafts, giant stamps to crush the ore, chemical equipment to separate the gold from the quartz – necessitated capital amounting to thousands of dollars…The ironic result of all this was that in the 1850s Americans farthest frontier was also its least frontier-like, in any traditional sense. It was an industrial frontier, with corporate boards and banks calling the tune…America’s Industrial Revolution unfolded over decades in most of the country in the Far West it happened in just a few years.” (240-241)

The federal government also guided the protection of federal lands in the creation of national preserves and parks. The idea of setting aside federal land for a park cut against the privatization grain. It would deprive individuals of resources they could have put to commercial use, and it would deprive the government of revenues that could have been realized from the sale of such resources. Yet, it was the federal government’s will that would bring this about. 

Western individualism sneered, even snarled, at federal power, but federal power was essential to the development of the West. The individual cowboy, mountain man, and homesteader is a romantic and powerful image of the individualism of the American west – but none of them would be possible without the influential and guiding hand of the federal government.