After coming to love historical novels, I discovered a large gap in my knowledge of the development of the United States. The historical fiction series The Daughters of the Mayflower began the journey raising so many interesting questions and giving me a snapshot of what really transpired at the close of each novel. Dreams of El Dorado by H.W. Brands is the continuation of that journey for me and it’s been a great education!

“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 foothold—a very large one—beyond the Mississippi. It ends in the early twentieth century, when the West had become enough like the East to make the Western experience most comprehensible as a piece of the American whole rather than as a place apart. 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 had been.”

Dreams of El Dorado by H.W. Brands

And this book does exactly that! Brutally honest (I read with my eyes closed over some of the carnage left by the wars fought during this period), the author doesn’t flinch from sharing what took place during this land-grabbing mania. I knew anecdotally what happened in major movements such as the Californian Gold Rush but, without context, it didn’t have any meaning to me. Walking through this history, the sequence of events which lead to the end of the “wild” west, was fascinating and tragic!

“The destruction of the Tonquin dealt a heavy blow to the Astor project; it also revealed the simple but ineluctable theme of violence in the history of the American West: of humans killing one another in the struggle for control of Western resources. As time would prove, violence would be the defining characteristic of the West. When the violence diminished to the background level of the rest of the country, the West would no longer be the West but simply another part of America.”

Dreams of El Dorado by H.W. Brands

Living in South Africa, land claims is a sensitive subject and I found it interesting to reflect on how land was handled just a century and a half earlier in the Americas! I had no idea the Mexicans and Spanish were in Texas so late into the 1800s nor how the Chinese were essential to the building of the railroad nor the way cowboys calmed thousands of longhorn cattle by circling them as they crossed the plains…All these nuggets of fascinating happenings! This book is jam-packed full of them and yet the narrative thread is so strong, it pulls the reader through intrigued to know how the politics will unfurl! In fairness, this may partly be due to my ignorance and those more familiar with the history may find it less astonishing but the reviews I’ve read suggest H.W. Brands really has written something quite exceptional!

If history interests you, this is one to pick up and relish! Whilst I flew towards the end, I was relieved to be reaching the end of this bloody period of time, I was sad to see the end of this book and I’ll be looking for more form H.W. Brands! Carefully researched, beautifully compiled and compellingly written, I highly recommend it! It’s a five out of five on the en-JOY-ment scale.

From the back cover:

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.

I received a complimentary copy of the book from Perseus Books through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

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