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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