Francisco Vázquez de Coronado wasn’t the first to watch his dreams dissolve under a Western sky—and he wouldn’t be the last. In the 1540s, the brutish and implacable Spanish explorer ranged all the way up to Kansas, losing men and money along the way. Only a few years earlier, the conquistador Hernán Cortés had beheld glimmering Aztec pyramids in Mexico, unsure “whether the things that we saw were not a dream.” Little wonder that a whole generation of men like Coronado could believe stories of lands with silver bed pans, and a king, El Dorado, who robed himself in gold dust each morning only to wash it off at night.
First a Spanish friar, then a series of Indian guides pointed Coronado and his troops north to the golden cities of Cíbola: shimmering castles just out of reach. Más allá, his scouts were always telling him. Behind each mirage lay only cornfields and thatched huts—or worse, infinite plains and deserts that could engulf a man “as if he were traveling on the sea.” Coronado returned to Mexico in disgrace, but not before garroting his guide.
For Texas folklorist and literary critic J. Frank Dobie, twentieth-century Southwesterners were still Coronado’s Children—the title he gave to his 1930 collection of buried-treasure tales told in the borderlands. In a region of contradictions, filthy lucre could exist alongside sacred aspirations: “El Dorado was a man, a lake, a city, a country, a people, a name, a dream—a dream at once absurd and sublime—an allegory of every phantom that the high heart of man has ever pursued.”
In a new popular history, historian H. W. Brands—professor at Dobie’s old stomping ground, the University of Texas—embraces this protean metaphor. Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West makes only brief mention of Coronado since, as Brands puts it, “any work of history must have a beginning and an end,” and his begins with the Louisiana Purchase. But the specter of Cíbola hangs on the horizon as Brands charts a course through the history of the western United States. Roughly chronological, the book’s fifty-four short chapters cover most of the major figures and places: Lewis and Clark, the Alamo, the Gold Rush, the Oregon Trail, the Battle of Little Bighorn, the Transcontinental Railroad, the National Parks.