- - Friday, January 10, 2020

H.W. Brands opens his book on the exploration and settling of the American West by noting that any work of history must have a beginning and an end.

“This one commences with the Louisiana Purchase at the start of the nineteenth century, when the United States first gained a foot-hold — a very large one — beyond the Mississippi. It ends in the early 20th century, when the West had become enough like the East to make the Western experience most comprehensible as a piece of America whole rather than a thing apart,” Mr. Brands writes in the prologue of “Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West.”

“Western dreams didn’t die; Hollywood and Silicon Valley would be built on such dreams. But the dreams were no longer as distinctively Western as they once were.”


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“Dreams of El Dorado” is the story of the migrants, missionaries and mountain men, as well as the rovers, ranchers and railroad men who explored and settled the American West.

Mr. Brands recounts the story behind the Louisiana Purchase. Negotiated by President Thomas Jefferson, the purchase of Louisiana created the American West as it would be understood for the next century, Mr. Brands tells us.



“Only a comparative handful Americans — traders, working out of St. Louis, mostly — had penetrated much beyond the Mississippi into the new West. Otherwise Louisiana was terra incognita to nearly all but the Indians who called it home. Jefferson set about filling in the blank space on the map between the great river and the crest of the Rocky Mountains,” Mr. Brands writes.

“In doing so, he diverged still further from the small-government philosophy that had carried him to office and established an enduring principle of Western history. Development of the trans-Mississippi West would be a top-down affair driven by the federal government.”

While east of the Mississippi the lead in promoting and developing settlements had been taken by individuals and states, west of the river there were no states or claims and all of the land was federal land. The Louisiana Purchase gave Jefferson a clean slate to write the federal will. As a first step toward promoting development in the West, Jefferson persuaded Congress to support scientific and geographic discovery.

Mr. Brands writes of the Lewis and Clark expedition, in which Jefferson gave clear orders: “The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, and such principal stream of it as by it its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean — whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river — may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce.”

Lewis and Clark were also instructed to take observations of latitude and longitude of remarkable points on the river, and at the mouths of rivers, rapids, islands, and other natural and durable marks that would be recognized thereafter. Jefferson also instructed the explorers to convey to the Indians they encountered that they come in peace, but they also came by right. Louisiana was America’s by right of purchase, while Oregon would be America’s by right of discovery.

“Joseph Meek didn’t grow up intending to enter the fur trade. Nor, when he ran away from home in Virginia at the age of seventeen, did he think he would wind up in Oregon,” Mr. Brands writes. “But those who knew him saw traits characteristic of many Americans who found their way west. He chafed under the expectations of family and society. And he was willing to take a gamble on his future.”

Joseph Meek was one of the men who answered the call for 100 enterprising young men to join him in St. Louis for the adventure of their lives. The men were trained in the way of the mountains, the Indians and the beaver. After the beaver trappers came the wagon trains, the famers seeking land, and the U.S. Calvary to maintain order and safety.

I would like to have read more about the lawmen and outlaws of the Wild West, a keen interest of mine, but that subject has been covered in many other books. Mr. Brands chose to concentrate on the explorers and settlers of the West in this excellent history of how the West was won.

“The West was where whites fought Indians, but they rarely went into battle without Indian allies, and their ranks included black soldiers,” Mr. Brands writes. “The West was where fortune beckoned, where riches would reward the miner’s persistence, the cattleman’s courage, the bonanza farmer’s audacity; but El Dorado was at least as elusive in the West as it ever was in the East.”

• Paul Davis writes the On Crime column for The Washington Times.

• • •

DREAMS OF EL DORADO: A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN WEST

By H.W. Brands

Basic, $32, 544 pages

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