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Book Summary: Dreams of El Dorado by H.W. Brands

My Personal Summary

This book is about the settling of the American West, from the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 to when Teddy Roosevelt became president in 1901.

A large chunk of the western half of the U.S. was obtained through the Louisiana Purchase, but much of the west coast and southwest territories were obtained through war and violence with the Spanish, Mexicans and British.

The Indians who lived in much of the land in the West had to endure brutal conflict with the U.S. government and were often terrorized and had their land forcefully removed from them.

Many individuals who lived in the eastern half of the U.S. made the journey to the west in search of opportunity and economic advancement.

Book Notes

Part 1: Napoleon’s Gift

  • Winning the Revolutionary War in the late 1700’s gave the U.S control over most of the land east of the Mississippi River. Then, in 1803 Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana territory from Napoleon Bonaparte and the French for just $15 million, giving the U.S. control over most of the land west of the Mississippi River.
  • Jefferson appointed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to lead an expedition to explore the Missouri River all the way to the Pacific Ocean and take copious notes along the way about the terrain, the types of animals in each region, the relations among the various tribes of the West, etc.
  • The three dozen men in the Corps of Discovery left St. Louis in 1804 to begin the expedition.
  • On New Years of 1805, the Corps stopped in modern day Bismarck, North Dakota. It was here that they met Sacagawea and her husband, who joined them on their journey. Sacagawea was several months pregnant at the time.
  • Lewis and Clark hoped that the Missouri River would offer them a water route all the way to the Pacific Ocean, but in May of 1805 they encountered the steep falls of the Missouri River that would make it impossible to continue by water. They would instead have to use horses. Specifically, Sacagawea was able to identify certain landmarks that led the Corps to her home tribe, the Shoshones, who were able to lend the Corps horses that they could use.
  • At one point, the Corps was in such a treacherous area of the Rocky Mountains that they couldn’t even find animals to hunt and had to kill some of their horses for food.
  • On December 3, 1805 the Corps finally reached the Pacific Ocean. They then returned to St. Louis by September of 1806.
  • The duration of the journey was longer than Thomas Jefferson anticipated, which was an indication that the terrain was more formidable than he thought. He was disappointed that there wasn’t an easier water route from the middle of the country to the Pacific Ocean.

Part 2: A Skin for a Skin

  • In the 1820’s, many men were drawn west to become beaver trappers, a profession that could be lucrative since there was little competition in the west. The fur on the undercoat of beavers could be used to make coats and hats, which was in high demand at the time. Beaver trapping was tough work though and many men died from drowning, pneumonia, or other ailments.

Part 3: Gone to Texas

  • The U.S. wanted to annex the land of modern day Texas from Mexico and in 1836 American troops fought Mexican troops in San Antonio at the Battle of the Alamo, a famous fight in which 200 American soldiers refused to surrender to 2,000+ Mexican soldiers although all of the American soldiers were ultimately all killed.
  • Under the command of Sam Houston, Texas troops defeated Mexican troops at the Battle of San Jacinto. This was a temporary defeat, as skirmishes between the Mexicans and the Texans continued for several more years until eventually the Republic of Texas was established and then Texas was eventually annexed as a U.S. estate.

Part 4: The Great Migration

  • Fashion trends changed in the 1840’s and demand for beaver skins for coats and hats declined, which meant that fur trappers in the Rocky Mountains were suddenly out of jobs. Many decided to venture to Oregon to start new lives on lands that were mostly unclaimed.
  • In the early 1840’s, more families began to emigrate west, but travel was not easy. “Emigrants would be at the mercy of the weather, sleeping roofless for months, chilled at times, broiling at others. Axles would break and oxen grow weary; children would fall under wagons or be kicked by mules; guns would discharge accidentally; women would die in childbirth.”
  • One of the most common reasons people emigrated to Oregon was for health reasons. The Mississippi Valley region had grueling winters and even worse summers with oppressive heat and humidity, which were perfect conditions for cholera, malaria, typhoid and other diseases that were carried by mosquitos that thrived in the region. By contrast, Oregon didn’t suffer from the same environmental conditions.
  • One side effect of the new travelers to Oregon was that they brought with them diseases (like measles) that the native Indians in the region had never encountered before and it wiped out large swaths of Indian populations.

Part 5: The World in a Nugget of Gold

  • James Polk, the president of the U.S., initiated war with Mexico over the land that is California, New Mexico and Arizona and in 1848 signed a treaty to take the land and paid the Mexican government $15 million to solidify the transaction. This marked the completion of the American West by the federal government.
  • In January of 1848, an operator of a saw mill named James Marshall discovered gold deposits in California.
  • Interesting: It took several months for news of the gold deposits to reach the East coast of the U.S. because it took 15,000 miles to travel from California around Cape Horn to New York or 3,000 miles over land – both routes took several months to complete.
  • It’s estimated that 80,000 Americans flocked to California in 1849 in search of gold.
  • Interesting: Death Valley in California got its name from a group of men in 1849 who nearly all died there (only one actually died) on their way to the gold mines due to lack of food and water.
  • “San Francisco, the Queen City of the gold rush, was unique among American cities. Eastern cities had grown slowly. Boston was two centuries old before it’s population reached fifty thousand. Sam Francisco passed that milestone in less than two years.”
  • Crime was rampant in San Francisco because there was little authority or government established yet and most people carried gold on them, which only incentivized the poor to rob from the rich.

Part 6: Steel Rails and Sharps Rifles

  • In 1850, Chicago was quickly becoming the gateway to the west because of its convenient location. Stephen Douglas, a senator in Illinois at the time, wanted to build a railroad to connect Illinois to California to bolster business in his home state and to keep California connected to the eastern part of the U.S. and lower it’s chances of wanting to become its own independent country. In order to get southern senators on board with his plan, he had to agree to repeal the Missouri Compromise in Kansas and Nebraska, which was made to ensure slavery was illegal in those states. This become known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This appeased the senators in the southern states but lead to fighting between abolitionists and slavery supporters in Kansas.
  • The Civil War broke out in 1861 between the northern states that opposed slavery and the southern states that supported it.
  • In 1863 the government passed The Homestead Act, which granted 160 acres of free federal land to any head of household or individual adult. This encouraged emigration to the west.
  • “The Homestead Act held out the promise that anyone, of whatever means, could take part in the American dream of land ownership.”
  • “The construction of the pacific railway was the grandest project of its kind in American history until then. It was certainly the greatest thing the west had ever seen. Two companies took charge of the building. The Union Pacific Railroad a company started in Omaha, Nebraska and worked west; the Central Pacific started in Sacramento and worked east.”
  • The total distance to be covered on the pacific railway was 1,500 miles and the companies were in a race to cover ground because they were able to claim ownership of future railroad passenger fees on the sections of the track they completed.
  • In 1869 the transcontinental railroad was completed. This brought the western territories into alignment with the northern states at the time and made the transportation of both goods and people significantly easier.

Part 7: The Middle Border

  • Before the Civil War, eating beef cattle was not common. Americans were pork eaters. But when the Confederate army needed to be fed, beef cattle from Texas became a primary source of food.
  • Abilene, Texas became a primary hub where cattle were bought and transported from Texas to Chicago so people in the north could incorporate more steak into their diet.
  • “The cattle industry wasn’t much different from the trades in beaver pelts and buffalo hides. In each case, profit required connecting a Western resource to consumers in distant cities.”
  • Interesting: One threat that cattle wranglers faced was getting struck by lightning. “Summer storms brought lightning, besides torrential rain; on the open plains a man on horseback was the tallest thing around, and the likeliest to attract the thunderbolts.”
  • In 1869, John Wesley Powell lead an expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers through the Grand Canyon to map out the region.
  • Powell’s main finding from his expedition: the West was a very dry region compared to the Eastern half of the U.S. where rain was much more abundant. This presented a serious challenge for farming in the West at the time, which would rely heavily on irrigation instead of natural rainfall.
  • In 1872, the Yellowstone Bill was passed by Congress, which designated Yellowstone as a national park and a region that was protected from commercialization.
  • Interesting: The states along the west coast like California, Oregon and Washington were populated first and then the states in the middle of the country were backfilled.

Part 8: The Cowboy in the White House

  • Theodore Roosevelt tried his hand as a cattle rancher in the Dakota’s in the 1880’s but had little luck.
  • As president, Roosevelt took a huge interest in preserving the beauty of the West.
  • During his presidency, Roosevelt would create 5 national parks and over 150 national forests.

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