Q&A: Professor discusses new book about American West

James Robertson

In “Dreams Of El Dorado: A History of the American West,” history professor H.W. Brands chronicles the epic and violent national struggle to settle the American West. Weaving together larger narratives with intimate personal narratives, Brands creates a sweeping tapestry of Western expansionism that ranges from the expedition of Lewis and Clark to the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.    

The Daily Texan caught up with Brands to discuss his new book. 

The Daily Texan: How did you go about crafting the narrative of your book?   

H.W. Brands: I knew about the California Gold Rush, the American colonization of Texas, migration to Oregon, and the battle for the Great Plains in the northern plains and the southern plains. I knew there were big stories I wanted to cover. Then, what I had to do was arrange them chronologically, so they would make sense in terms of the history and the unfolding of things. Then, to the extent that I could, I needed to find eyewitnesses. I needed to find people who were there and who left accounts to find voices to make these movements come alive.

DT: With these great aspirations for the West, how can readers approach the idea of whether these are simply dreams or tangible accomplishments? 

HWB: The book is called “Dreams of El Dorado,” and there are lots of people who are seeking dreams of various sorts. Some people succeeded, like those who went to California and those who went to Oregon and found farms where they built a foundation for their families for decades in the future. So, some of the dreams were played out. Other dreams were destroyed. Black Elk, the Lakota Sioux, is one of my main characters, and he had the vision of the circle of the hoop — how everything was supposed to fit together in his case and for his people. The dream was shattered. It was shattered over the course of 20 years and finally destroyed permanently in the massacre of Wounded Knee.

DT: How should we, as modern readers, reckon with the bloody and violent legacy so deeply intertwined in the history of the West?

HWB: There were dreams of missionaries, such as Narcissa Whitman, who dreamed she was going to convert the Indians to Protestant Christianity. Her case I find to be particularly interesting and revealing. She had the interests of people other than herself at heart. But on the other hand, the way she interpreted those interests was from a particularly narrow perspective. She thought these people need to be brought to the Christian gospel. In doing that and being part of the immigration movement to Oregon, she helped introduce various diseases to the Native American population, including the Cayuse Indians, among whom she settled and whose numbers were decimated by disease. And in response to that, among other things, she and her husband and several other people at the mission were massacred.