Book review || Dreams of El Dorado: History of the West

My fascination with the American West began in May 2002, when my father and I drove from North Carolina to Boulder, Colo., where I had a summer internship with GoLite. The landscape felt familiar until somewhere in Kansas, in hindsight roughly coinciding with the 100th Meridian, and from that point on I kept my eyes glued outside.

The novelty of the plains were lost on my father, who grew up on an Air Force base in South Dakota, but even he perked up when the snow-capped Rocky Mountains first jutted into the skyline, somewhere in eastern Colorado.

Review: Dreams of El Dorado, by H. W. Brands

My wife Amanda is the real reader in our house, and last month she came home from the library with Dreams of El Dorado: A history of the American West, by H. W. Brands. I moved quickly through its 480 pages (with an occasional photo), and thought it was one of my more enjoyable recent reads.

The book title is technically accurate but overly generous — more realistically, it’s like CliffsNotes of the American West, consisting of several dozen of the most important vignettes. None are very long — 10 to 20 pages each, enough to tell a good story with most of the main points, but without ever resorting to dry details.

It starts with Jefferson and Lewis & Clark, and finishes with TR. In between, it recounts (in no particular order) the fur trade, the California gold rush, the founding of Texas and Oregon, cowboys, the Mexican-American war, Wesley Powell, the Mormons, the Sand Creek Massacre, Hetch Hetchy, and many other key events and people. On the whole, the reader is left with a holistic history of the West.

Supplemental reading & watching

If you find a topic to be particularly interesting, you can always go deeper with another body of work. For instance, the completion of the transcontinental railroad was one of the most pivotal moments in the West, but it gets only 12 pages in Dreams of El Dorado. For the full account, go with Nothing Like It In The World by Stephen Ambrose.

Similarly, if you’re intrigued by Powell’s Report on the Lands of the Arid Region, then pick up Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner, which is the definitive history of water in the West. And, finally, watch Ken Burns’ The West, which is available on Prime Video and which tells a less triumphant story about how America really took control of the frontier.


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Posted in on February 6, 2020
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7 Comments

  1. Matt Long on February 6, 2020 at 5:59 pm

    Appreciate the recommendations. These will be added to my TBR list. I enjoyed Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose which I read about 11 years ago but that is very specific to the Lewis and Clark adventure.

    • Andrew Skurka on February 6, 2020 at 10:13 pm

      Funny enough, I put down Undaunted Courage to start reading this. The early chapters about Jefferson and Lewis’ youth were boring me — let’s just get to the adventure!

  2. PackmanPete on February 7, 2020 at 1:22 pm

    Love reading about American west history. It’s filled with lots of colorful characters. Walker, Fremont, Carson, and the list goes on and on. What they did on their long treks, hunting as they went, bartering and fighting with Indians, dealing with isolation, navigating by stars, is amazing. It makes a thru hike look like kiddy play.

  3. Steve on February 15, 2020 at 1:56 am

    To be disappointed with a book that thick must be frustrating. Like the last season of Game of Thrones frustrating.
    Do you have any recommendations for reads covering the western colonialist explorations prior to Louis and Clark? Like the periods around Portola’s and Escalante’s expeditions…or earlier? Very curious about how the Spanish and French (and Russian?) experienced the North American west. That Ken Burns film got me interested with the story of the 16th century Spaniard who made his way through the Southwest and to Mexico City after shipwrecking in Texas. I’d love to read more about things along that line if you have any suggestions.

    • Andrew Skurka on February 15, 2020 at 7:15 pm

      I wasn’t disappointed by this book, I actually really enjoyed it. The quantity-over-quality approach was a refreshing break from the opposite, which is more common.

      Try “Off the Map” by Fergus Fleming. Similar format to Brand — it has a bunch of relatively short accounts. Fleming goes back a little further for North America, starting with Hudson, Fox and James (Northwest Passage), La Salle (French Canada). He also covers a lot of North American Arctic (and some Antarctic) expeditions.

      • Steve on February 26, 2020 at 3:06 pm

        Gotcha. I misinterpreted Cliff Notes as a pejorative. “Off the Map” looks very interesting. Do you have an affiliate link?

        • Andrew Skurka on February 27, 2020 at 8:58 am

          Thanks for asking. You don’t need a specific link to that book. Affiliate links are actually product-neutral — Amazon (and other vendors) will recognize that I sent you there recently if you were click on the Dreams of El Dorado link, and will credit with me with any purchases you make thereafter (until you click on another site’s affiliate link, or a time period expires, like 30 days).

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