The Mild, Mild West: On “Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West”

By Karl JacobyOctober 13, 2019

The Mild, Mild West: On “Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West”

Dreams of El Dorado by H. W. Brands

FOR A PEOPLE OBSESSED with expansion, Americans have spent more than a century confused about how best to tell the history of their spread into the West. At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, attendees could step into one of the White City’s hastily constructed pavilions to listen to the professor Frederick Jackson Turner unveil his “frontier thesis.” Or they could cross the street to catch a performance by William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his “Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World,” the most popular show business act of its time.

Each figure offered a synoptic history of the West, but otherwise they diverged starkly from one another. Turner managed the neat trick of making “free land” the key factor in the rise of American democracy without ever once mentioning the dispossession of the continent’s indigenous peoples that made it possible. Cody, by contrast, made warfare with American Indians the preeminent feature of his Wild West Show. This trigger for this violence, however, was not US expansion but rather Native American aggression toward peaceful settlers. Among the highlights of his troupe’s performances were scenes in which real-life Indians, many of them recent survivors of violent encounters with the US Army, reenacted attacks on stagecoaches and log cabins only to be dispatched at the last minute through the heroics of Buffalo Bill and his “Cowboys.”

Present-day historians of the American West still find themselves wrestling with the errors of Turner and Cody. Over 30 years ago, Patricia Nelson Limerick published The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, a book that sparked the “New Western History” with objections to Turner’s inattention to gender and ethnicity. Shortly afterward, Richard White released “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West, a work that placed the federal government rather than rugged individuals at the center of the story.

Limerick’s and White’s books inspired a flood of new monographs about the American West, transforming a field that had degenerated into an academic backwater into one of the most dynamic areas of study in US history today. But no scholar attempted a single volume synthesis until this year when H. W. Brands, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, published Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West.

Brands is a well-regarded biographer who tells his story through character sketches. He opens and closes his book with Teddy Roosevelt (the subject of Brands’s 1998 biography, T. R.: The Last Romantic), an archetype of the effete Easterner who reinvented himself under big Western skies. As one contemporary lamented after Roosevelt’s ascension to the nation’s highest office in 1901, “That damn cowboy is president of the United States.”

The rest of Brands’s narrative marches through a series of crisply written vignettes centered on various individuals, some of them well known (Lewis and Clark, Stephen Austin), others less so (Joseph Meek, an early fur trapper and settler to Oregon), most of them white and male (among the exceptions: the missionary Narcissa Whitman; the Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph; the Lakota holy man Black Elk). To the extent that Dreams of El Dorado advances a sustained argument, it is that the West’s promise of new beginnings and fresh starts often proved illusory: “More commonly […] the reality fell short — often far short — of the dreams.” In a nod to Turner’s nostalgia about the supposed close of the frontier in 1890, Brands situates the West’s significance in the past, with only a “residue” slipping through into our present day: “The gambling spirit of the Gold Rush found its echo in the venture capitalism of Silicon Valley.”

Although the book’s publication date is in October, Dreams of El Dorado has the feel of a book crafted for the Father’s Day market. Brands’s has a deft narrative touch and a talent for highlighting the human drama undergirding historical events. But Dreams of El Dorado is not challenging history. It is scholarship as entertainment, history as adventure story. The book’s purpose is not to cause the reader to rethink their conventional understanding of the American past, but rather to affirm what on some level they already know. Brands is Cody-like in his treatment of history as a vast theatrical pageant, and unfortunately Turner-esque in consigning the violence against indigenous people to the historical background.

If there is any larger insight to be gleaned from Dreams of El Dorado, it has to do with how difficult it remains for many historians to include a complete treatment of Native Americans in their narratives. Brands’s book appears on the heels of several other books by popular historians, both inside and outside the academy, that have struggled with making North America’s indigenous peoples meaningful actors in the past. Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States purports to be a comprehensive single-volume history of the United States, but as Christine DeLucia detailed for LARB readers several months ago, for the vast majority of Lepore’s narrative, Indians are “simply ghosts, spectrally off-stage in the American story.” The title of David McCullough’s new book, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, betrays the book’s not-so-subtle biases. McCullough may be a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the very voice of history to many Americans thanks to his frequent narration of PBS documentaries (including Ken Burns’s The Civil War). But The Pioneers recycles tired 19th-century tropes of Indians as savage obstacles to white efforts to bring “American ideals” to the “unbroken wilderness.”

Brands is too smart a scholar to ignore Native Americans or to reduce them to cardboard stereotypes. But they exist nonetheless as foils to what in his telling emerges as the real story of the American West: white settlers exploring a new landscape and making it their own. Brands has little interest in the methodological challenges involved in Native history. He makes no use of indigenous records, such as the calendar sticks of the Tohono O’odham or the winter counts of the Lakota, to try to understand an Indian perspective of events. While he quotes at length from the well-known autobiography Black Elk Speaks, Brands confines to a brief footnote the questions over the reliability of Black Elk’s recollections: the spiritual leader’s words were filtered through both an interpreter and the imaginative pen of the Nebraska poet (and non-Native) John Neihardt. In reworking his interviews with Black Elk into a popular book, Neihardt obscured key details, such as the fact that his Lakota holy man was actually a catechist for the local Catholic Church. (Indeed, the Vatican is currently considering Black Elk for sainthood.) Dreams of El Dorado makes no attempt to explore the indigenous discourse about the genocidal practices of the United States that Jeffrey Ostler managed to unearth in his innovative, just published Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas.

Although Turner and Cody remain the most famous interpreters of the American West to present at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, they were not the only ones. The Windy City’s mayor invited the Potawatomi leader Simon Pokagon to speak at the fair as well. The Potawatomi people had once inhabited the Great Lakes region, including the land where Chicago now stood, a fact Pokagon was quick to point out to his listeners: “Where these great Columbian show-buildings stretch skyward, and where stands this ‘Queen City of the West’ once stood the red man’s wigwams.” Pokagon went on to decry the same US expansion that Turner and Cody had so celebrated: “The cyclone of civilization rolled westward; the forests of untold centuries were swept away; streams dried up; lakes fell back from their ancient bounds; and all our fathers once loved to gaze upon was destroyed, defaced, or marred.” Repurposing a traditional Potawatomi resource, Pokagon printed up his speech on birch bark and hawked copies, bearing the title The Red Man’s Rebuke, to nonplussed attendees at the World’s Fair.

Pokagon’s words soon sunk into obscurity. But one has to wonder what present-day histories might look like if the Potawatomi leader had served as the inspiration for future narratives about the American West rather than Turner or Cody. At a bare minimum, we might at last have an honest reckoning with the costs of US nation-building. For the West was not only won; it also was lost. The place we know today was constructed atop a preexisting indigenous world with a terrifying degree of violence and environmental destruction. Yet professional historians have often shied away from this topic, finding it unrelated to what they see as the central narrative: the growth, however imperfect and halting, of American democracy. In place of Brands’s elusive dreams, we might instead read about Pokagon’s enduring nightmare.


Karl Jacoby is the Allan Nevins Professor of American History at Columbia University. His most recent book is The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire (W. W. Norton, 2016).

LARB Contributor

Karl Jacoby is the Allan Nevins Professor of American History at Columbia University. His most recent book is The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire (W.W. Norton, 2016). (Photo courtesy of Deborah Lopez.)


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