Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West, by H.W. Brands

December 14, 2019 at 2:49 pm (Book review, books, History)

I was  casting about for a single word or phrase to describe this book. I came up with:

blood-soaked.

The Sand Creek Massacre. The Mountain Meadows Massacre. The Wounded Knee Massacre. Shooting, knifing, scalping, mutilation – there seemed to be no end to the carnage.

And yet…there were moments of grace, of peace, like this one, taken from A Day with the Cow Column in 1843 by Jesse Applegate, one of the leaders of what became known as The Great Migration of 1843.

It is not yet 8 o’clock when the first watch is to be set; the evening meal is just over, and the corral now free from the intrusion of cattle or horses, groups of children are scattered over it. The larger are taking a game of romps; “the wee toddling things’ are being taught that great achievement that distinguishes man from the lower animals. Before a tent near the river a violin makes lively music, and some youths and maidens have improvised a dance upon the green; in another quarter a flute gives its mellow and melancholy notes to the still night air, which, as they float away over the quiet river, seem a lament for the past rather than a hope for the future. It has been a prosperous day; more than twenty miles have been accomplished of the great journey….

But time passes; the watch is set for the night; the council of old men has been broken up, and each has returned to his own quarter; the flute has whispered its last lament to the deepening night; the violin is silent, and the dancers have dispersed; enamored youth have whispered a tender “good night” in the ear of blushing maidens, or stolen a kiss from the lips of some future bride for Cupid here, as elsewhere, has been busy bringing together congenial hearts, and among these simple people he alone is consulted in forming the marriage tie.

Earlier in the day of this particular journey, a woman had given birth. Mother and infant were doing well.
*****************
Near the end of this book, there’s a chapter entitled John Muir’s Last Stand. The ‘stand’ in question involved the building of a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a project to which John Muir was vehemently opposed:

“These temple destroyers, devotees of raging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, life them to the Almighty Dollar….Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”

Don’t know about you, but after I read  this, I wanted to stand up and shout, YES!! And I couldn’t help thinking, with apologies to Wordsworth:

John Muir, thou shouldst be living at this hour;
America hath need of thee…

John Muir, c1902

Finally, there is this speech, a model of eloquence and heartbreak, spoken by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce:

I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ He who led the young men [Olikut] is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are — perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, 1877

As you have no doubt gathered, Dreams of El Dorado was a wrenching reading experience. Yet at the same time deeply learned and memorable, beautifully written and meticulously researched. I do recommend it – but fortify yourself.

‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now….’

H.W. Brands has appeared on C-Span BookTV to discuss this book.

 

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