The prolific American historian turns his attention to the conquest of the West.
As Brands (Chair, History/Univ. of Texas; Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants, 2018, etc.) notes in opening, the American West was, in ancient times, the Asian East and the Beringian South. By the time Thomas Jefferson signed off on the Louisiana Purchase, it was definitively part of North America, contested by European powers but almost inevitably a part of the United States. The author identifies three commanding themes in Western history: the capacity of the region for “the evoking and shattering of dreams,” a pattern of constant violence, and unparalleled irony “in the form of paradox, contradiction and unintended consequence.” Emblematic of the first was Theodore Roosevelt’s dream of ranching in the Dakota Territory, a failed enterprise that nonetheless cast New York City native Roosevelt as “that damned cowboy,” as politician Mark Hanna called him. The second figures throughout the author’s lucid, fluent narrative at places like the Alamo and Wounded Knee. (One of the recurrent characters is the Sioux leader Black Elk, who lived a long life after many key battles.) Brands locates irony in the fact that the West gave us the iconic figures of the lone gunfighter and stalwart settler while the conquest of the region was emphatically an exercise in collective power on the part of the federal government. Another irony, especially given current events in the region, is the fact that “by scores, then by hundreds and thousands, illegal immigrants poured into Texas” in the 1820s—illegal immigrants from, that is, the U.S., creating the conditions that led to war with Mexico. The author turns up little-known historical facts: two subsequent invasions of Texas, after the collapse of Mexican rule under Santa Anna, by Mexican armies; the admission of California as a state in which slavery was illegal—but in which blacks were almost forbidden to enter; and many more, lending depth to his narrative.
A lively, well-written survey full of novel observations on a region shrouded in legend.