Dreams of El Dorado

A History of the American West


By H. W. Brands

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“Epic in its scale, fearless in its scope” (Hampton Sides), this masterfully told account of the American West from a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist sets a new standard as it sweeps from the California Gold Rush and beyond.

In Dreams of El Dorado, H. W. Brands tells the thrilling, panoramic story of the settling of the American West. He takes us from John Jacob Astor’s fur trading outpost in Oregon to the Texas Revolution, from the California gold rush to the Oklahoma land rush. He shows how the migrants’ dreams drove them to feats of courage and perseverance that put their stay-at-home cousins to shame-and how those same dreams also drove them to outrageous acts of violence against indigenous peoples and one another. The West was where riches would reward the miner’s persistence, the cattleman’s courage, the railroad man’s enterprise; but El Dorado was at least as elusive in the West as it ever was in the East.

Balanced, authoritative, and masterfully told, Dreams of El Dorado sets a new standard for histories of the American West.


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FOR THEODORE ROOSEVELT IT WAS LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT. Which was saying a lot, since Roosevelt’s first sight of the West didn’t show the region to best effect. The young New Yorker, plagued in boyhood by illness and a sense of physical insufficiency, had long dreamed of the West. Its explorers, hunters, soldiers and cowboys became his heroes, the models of the man he struggled to be. On a break from a budding political career, he took a Western vacation in 1883. He rode a train across the prairies west of Chicago and onto the high plains of Dakota Territory. In the middle of the night the Northern Pacific conductor deposited him at the scruffy hamlet of Little Missouri, where the rail line crossed the river of that name. “It was bitterly cold,” he wrote to his wife, Alice, though the calendar registered early September. “And it was some time before, groping about among the four or five shanties which formed the ‘town,’ I found the low, small building called the ‘hotel.’” Roosevelt hammered on the door and eventually roused the innkeeper, who cursed him for spoiling his sleep. The visitor was shown to a barracks room, where he spent the rest of the night amid snoring, snorting men the likes of which the silk-stocking Manhattanite had rarely seen, let alone slumbered with.

Morning made him wonder what had brought him to this locale. “It is a very desolate place,” he wrote, “high, barren hills, scantily clad with coarse grass, and here and there in sheltered places a few stunted cottonwood trees; ‘wash-outs,’ deepening at times into great canyons, and steep cliffs of the most curious formation abounding everywhere.” The scenery didn’t improve on closer examination. Roosevelt enlisted a guide to show him the Badlands, as the crazily eroded terrain was called. They rode mustangs—horses as wild in appearance as the land—around and through the gullies, hoodoos, buttes and cliffs. It was “frightful ground,” Roosevelt said. And utterly inhospitable. “There is very little water, and what there is, is so bitter as to be almost a poison, and nearly undrinkable.”

The weather was as dismal as the scenery. The autumn rains commenced upon Roosevelt’s arrival, and for days the leaden sky poured, drizzled and misted, turning ground that had been dusty days before into a sticky, bottomless gumbo. Roosevelt had come to Dakota to hunt buffalo; he had been told that some of the last remnants of the once uncountable herds had been seen on the Little Missouri. But his guide was reluctant to venture out into the slop. The buffalo knew enough to take shelter, he said; so should hunters. Yet Roosevelt insisted, and offered a bonus. Out they went. They got cold, soaked and muddy. And they found no buffalo. But Roosevelt, who equated tests of the body with tests of the soul, found the experience exhilarating. He had been slightly ailing before coming west. No longer. “I am now feeling very well, and am enjoying the life very much,” he told Alice.

Eventually the weather broke. His guide located a buffalo—a feat the nearsighted Roosevelt could never have managed on his own. Roosevelt skirted downwind of the beast, which was even more myopic than he was, and crawled close enough to get a shot. He fired once, then twice more. The buffalo took off running. Roosevelt thought he might have missed entirely. But he and the guide gave chase, and after crossing a ridge they discovered the buffalo lying dead on its side. Roosevelt whooped for joy and did a victory dance. He pulled out a hundred-dollar bill and gave the guide a bonus.

The experience persuaded Roosevelt to plant a flag in the West. His difficulty finding a buffalo drove home the fact that the West was changing; the indigenous bovines were being replaced by introduced ones: cattle. Roosevelt scouted the opportunities for investment in the cattle industry, and before he left Dakota he designated two locals as his agents, with instructions to buy him a cattle ranch. Believing Westerners more honest than the swindlers he knew in the East, where his political enemies included the grafters of New York’s Tammany Hall, Roosevelt wrote a check for fourteen thousand dollars and accepted no security beyond a handshake.

He got his ranch and became a cattleman. He struggled to master the arts of the cowboy. To Roosevelt, as to many of his generation in America, the cowboy was the embodiment of the West and of its spirit of rugged individualism. If Roosevelt could prove himself as hardy, as resourceful, as brave and strong as the cowboys who rode the Dakota range, he would have become the man he longed to be.

He made an odd figure for a cowboy. His laconic neighbors chuckled at the “Bully!” and “Deeelighted!” that burst from his mouth. His thick eyeglasses earned him the inevitable moniker “Four-eyes,” which alternated with “the Dude.” But his determination and stamina eventually won him the respect of his new comrades. He learned to ride like a cowboy, rope like a cowboy, herd cattle like a cowboy, stand up to thieves and other bad men like a cowboy.

He poured his inheritance into his Dakota ranch, and following the untimely death of his wife, he poured his heart into it. Alice had been his only true love, and he was devastated by her loss. He sought refuge on the ranch and in the solitude of the Badlands. He fell under the spell of the West. “I have been three weeks on the roundup and have worked as hard as any of the cowboys,” he wrote from the range to an Eastern friend. “But I have enjoyed it greatly. Yesterday I was eighteen hours in the saddle—from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m.—having a half hour each for dinner and tea. I can now do cowboy work pretty well.”

He dreamed of becoming a cattle baron, a Western equivalent of the business tycoons of the East. Many others had made fortunes in the West; why couldn’t he?

He learned soon enough. Winters in Dakota had been deceptively mild during the brief time since whites had begun settling there. The winter of 1886–1887 reverted to the mean, and then some. Rainfall had been scanter than usual that summer, and it didn’t pick up in the fall. The cattle became thin, rather than packing on the weight needed to carry them through the winter. And winter came early. A typical winter on the plains featured brief storms that dropped a few to several inches of dry snow on the ground and then abated. The air might be cold, but the snow wasn’t too deep for the cattle to paw aside, baring the cured grass beneath. This winter was different. The first storm came in November as a full-bore blizzard. It caught the cattle not only thin from the summer but lacking their winter coats. It dropped drifts of snow that defied the efforts of the hungry animals to dig through it. Where they did manage to penetrate to the bottom of the drifts, there wasn’t any grass, due to the summer’s drought.

This first storm was followed by another, and another. Temperatures plummeted far below zero. The cowboys, who normally thought nothing of risking their lives for the cattle, couldn’t leave their cabins without themselves freezing in minutes. The cattle sought shelter in creek bottoms and wherever the wind slackened. But it was in precisely these places that the snow drifted deepest, burying the cows until they couldn’t move or even breathe.

The winter went on and on. The cattlemen could only guess at the toll it was taking on the herds. When spring finally came, they got their answer. “In the latter part of March came the Chinook wind, harbinger of spring, releasing for the first time the iron grip that had been upon us,” recalled a neighbor of Roosevelt on the Little Missouri. “At last, it seemed, the wrath of Nature had been appeased.” The ice in the river broke apart, and the stream brought it down in big chunks. It soon brought something else, something the cattlemen could never have imagined. “For days on end, tearing down with the grinding ice cakes, went Death’s cattle roundup of the upper Little Missouri country,” Roosevelt’s neighbor continued. “In countless valleys, gulches, washouts, and coulees, the animals had vainly sought shelter from the relentless ‘Northern Furies’ on their trail. Now their carcasses were being spewed forth in untold thousands by the rushing waters, to be carried away on the crest of the foaming, turgid flood rushing down the valley.”

ROOSEVELT’S WESTERN DREAM DIDN’T SURVIVE THAT BRUTAL winter. He gradually retired from the West and returned to politics in the East. But he never lost his emotional connection to the West, nor his belief that the West, for all its ability to shatter dreams, was where the American spirit shone brightest and most true.

The evoking and shattering of dreams was one theme of Western history. A second touched Roosevelt less directly, but he benefited from it nonetheless. Roosevelt’s Dakota ranch lay two hundred miles from the battlefield where Lakota warriors under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse had annihilated a contingent of the U.S. 7th Cavalry led by George Custer a decade earlier. The victory had been a pyrrhic one for the Indians, for it prompted a federal response that broke the back of native resistance to white encroachment upon Indian lands. It was no accident that the demise of the Plains tribes coincided with the destruction of the buffalo, which had long been their sustenance. The violence against the Plains Indians and the buffalo was merely the latest, and, as it turned out, almost the last, manifestation of the persistent violence that had marked the West since before it became American.

Roosevelt was too sober-minded to appreciate a third theme of Western history. Irony is inherent in human endeavor and therefore human history, but in no area of American history has irony—in the form of paradox, contradiction and unintended consequence—been more central to the tale than in the West. The West was often viewed as the last bastion of American individualism, but woven through its entire history was a strong thread—at times a cable—of collectivism. Western individualism sneered, even snarled, at federal power, but federal power was essential to the development of the West. The West was America’s unspoiled Eden, but the spoilage of the West proceeded more rapidly than that of any other region. The West was the land of wide open spaces, but its residents were more concentrated in cities and towns than in most of the East. The West was where whites fought Indians, but they rarely went into battle without Indian allies, and their ranks included black soldiers. The West was where fortune beckoned, where riches would reward the miner’s persistence, the cattleman’s courage, the railroad man’s enterprise, the bonanza farmer’s audacity; but El Dorado was at least as elusive in the West as it ever was in the East.

Its elusiveness simply added to its allure. Dreams of El Dorado inspired one generation of Americans after another to head west. Not all sought immense wealth, but most expected a greater competence than they could find in the East. Their dreams drove them to feats of courage and perseverance that put their stay-at-home cousins to shame; their dreams also drove them to acts of violence against indigenous peoples, foreigners and one another that might have appalled them if they hadn’t been so hell-bent on chasing the dreams.

Any work of history must have a beginning and an end. This one commences with the Louisiana Purchase at the start of the nineteenth century, when the United States first gained a foothold—a very large one—beyond the Mississippi. It ends in the early twentieth century, when the West had become enough like the East to make the Western experience most comprehensible as a piece of the American whole rather than as a thing apart. Western dreams didn’t die; Hollywood and Silicon Valley would be built on such dreams. But the dreams were no longer as distinctively Western as they once had been.





AMERICA’S WEST ENTERED HUMAN HISTORY AS ASIA’S EAST and Beringia’s south. Except that Asia, in that archaic time, didn’t think of itself as Asia, and Beringia, the northern plain that connected Asia and America when the oceans were low, didn’t think of itself as anything at all. It was cold, windy and barren, the sort of place people transited rather than settled. The transit took hunters from Asia to America, where they spread and multiplied. The process consumed thousands of years, during which the earth’s climate warmed, glaciers melted, sea levels rose, Beringia was submerged, and the hunters, now Americans, were cut off from Asia and its peoples.

They forgot where they had come from; most developed origin stories that fixed them in place from time immemorial. They knew as little of the peoples beyond the Americas as those peoples knew of them. At least once the two worlds met: when Norsemen planted a colony on the Atlantic coast of what would become Canada. But the colony didn’t last, and knowledge of its existence, which had never spread far inland, faded.

In a few places dense populations developed and, with them, cities and elaborate systems of government. From the Valley of Mexico the Aztecs conquered an empire. The Mayas did something similar in lowland Central America, and the Incas in the Andes Mountains of South America. But elsewhere populations were mostly thinner, and governments less complicated.

Different factors inhibited population growth in different regions. In what would become the American West, the critical constraint was lack of water. A coastal strip beside the Pacific caught clouds and rain, and mountains inland snagged snow in winter, feeding a few large rivers. But elsewhere—in the valleys and basins between the mountains, and on the great plains that would form the eastern zone of the West—aridity was the unrelenting theme. Agriculture was out of the question, for the most part; the inhabitants hunted, fished and gathered to support themselves. The optimal size of bands of hunters and gatherers is no more than a few hundred, and they require large amounts of land to sustain themselves. Even today, an air traveler crossing the West is struck by the barrenness of vast parts of it. The vegetation is sparse, and evidence of humans sparser still.

In select spots, however, nature and the cleverness of those humans combined to sustain larger communities. Along the Columbia River and its tributaries, the spawning salmon made the fishing peoples rich and powerful. A thousand miles to the southeast, where the Rio Grande descends from the Rocky Mountains en route to the southern desert, communities of farmers corralled the runoff from the mountains to irrigate crops of corn and beans and squash. They built small cities of stone and dried mud—nothing like the grand cities of Mexico and Peru, but notable for the American West. And on the Great Plains, enormous herds of bison, or buffalo, provided the same kind of concentrated food source that salmon did in the Northwest. The buffalo weren’t as helpful as the salmon in gathering for their own slaughter; the peoples of the Great Plains had to chase the buffalo, much as their Siberian and Beringian ancestors had chased deer and woolly mammoths to America in the first place. The moving limited the size of the Plains bands and tribes, but the resource was reliable and their existence relatively secure.

But only relatively secure. The fat living of the favored peoples drew the attention of hungrier sorts. Competition developed for control of the hunting and fishing grounds and the corn and bean fields. Nothing like the wars of Europe and Asia—lasting years or decades and involving tens of thousands of soldiers—occurred in the American West; even the most favored tribes lacked the numbers and resources for such hostilities. But the wars of the West could be sharply violent. A tribe seeking to displace the possessor of a bountiful ground might wipe out an entire village and move in. Warring tribes carried off women and children to boost their own populations, sometimes enslaving the captives, sometimes incorporating them into the tribes.

Successful tribes grew stronger; unsuccessful ones diminished and occasionally disappeared. Fragments of failing tribes might band together to create a new tribe, or they might apply to join a successful one. The tribes of the West lacked writing, and such records as recalled the histories of tribes were generally oral, handed down from generation to generation. But in a few places physical remains told of earlier times and peoples. The Pueblo peoples of the upper Rio Grande lived among ruins left by predecessors they called the Anasazi, who had vanished for reasons unknown. The ghosts of the Anasazi whispered among the ruins, but what they said the Pueblos couldn’t quite grasp.

AT THE HEART OF NORTH AMERICA WAS THE GREATEST RIVER of the continent, whose tributaries drained most of what would become the United States. The Mississippi took its name from an Ojibwa phrase for “great river,” and it had three main branches. The Ohio River originated in the mountains of the East and flowed west. The Mississippi proper rose in the North and ran south. The Missouri began in the highlands of the West and flowed east. Especially in those days before convenient and cheap land travel—and long before air travel—the Mississippi held the key to the future of much of the continent.

The victory of the United States in the Revolutionary War delivered the eastern half of the Mississippi basin to the new nation. The western half, originally claimed by France, had been transferred to Spain to keep it out of British control. Until this point the name Louisiana had applied to the whole Mississippi watershed; henceforward it meant just the western half of the region. Yet this was still a mighty realm, larger than modern Mexico.

And now it was Spanish. Or rather, its title was Spanish: in nomenclature—Louisiane became Luisiana—and in international law. Its people were French, African and Native American. The French merchants and planters, the African and African American slaves, and the Native Americans belonging to scores of different tribes paid little attention to the change of management. Most likely a majority of the people who lived within the boundaries of Louisiana—the Mississippi in the east, the crest of the Rocky Mountains in the west, the Red River Valley of Texas in the south, the Milk River basin of Canada in the north—never knew their home had changed hands. French authority had been notional beyond New Orleans, the city near the mouth of the Mississippi, and in a few other populated spots. Spanish authority, stretched painfully thin in New Spain, was vaguer still.

Yet it was sufficient to rankle the Americans who depended on the Mississippi for their livelihood. In the days before canals and railroads, nearly everything grown, mined or manufactured in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys funneled down to New Orleans, where it was gathered and loaded onto ocean-going ships bound for the American East Coast, the West Indies and Europe. Whoever controlled New Orleans controlled the fate of all those American farmers, miners and manufacturers. In the negotiations at the end of the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin insisted on the importance of the Mississippi to America’s future. “I would rather agree with them to buy at a great price the whole of their right on the Mississippi than sell a drop of its waters,” Franklin said, referring to the Spanish. “A neighbor might as well ask me to sell my street door.”

Franklin and America got a partial right to the Mississippi. American territory included most of the eastern bank of the Mississippi, conferring navigation rights on that stretch of the river. But Spain kept Florida, whose panhandle then ran all the way to the Mississippi and Spanish Louisiana. Thus the Spanish controlled both banks of the river near its mouth, and hence the river itself. Franklin and other American diplomats negotiated for navigation rights on the lower river, and for the right of deposit at New Orleans—the right to use the docks and warehouses of the city without tariffs—but they were only inconsistently successful. In 1795 Spain signed a treaty with the United States securing the right of navigation and deposit to American shippers, but in 1798 the Spanish revoked the treaty and the right. Americans in the Ohio Valley hated the “dons,” as they called the Spanish; more than a few spoke of dispossessing them forcibly of Florida, Louisiana and perhaps Mexico. At the very least, the American government must restore and guarantee the free passage of the Mississippi and the right of deposit at New Orleans.

The problem became Thomas Jefferson’s in 1801, upon the Virginian’s inauguration as president. Jefferson had been looking west for decades. He saw the country’s population expanding, and he judged that America’s territory must expand, too, lest America become as crowded and conflict-prone as Europe. Jefferson understood the dissatisfaction of the Ohioans and Kentuckians and Tennesseans; he didn’t doubt that if the American government didn’t resolve their Mississippi River concerns, they might take matters into their own aggressive hands.

Once in the White House, Jefferson started modestly, by seeking to purchase New Orleans. This would guarantee the right of deposit and navigation. He discovered that France, under Napoleon Bonaparte, had reacquired Louisiana from Spain, by a treaty that was supposed to be secret but didn’t stay so for long. Jefferson sent envoys to Paris with authority to spend $10 million for New Orleans.

Napoleon answered with a breathtaking counterproposal. Would the Americans care to purchase all of Louisiana? Napoleon had dreamed of re-creating France’s New World empire, but his dream had foundered in Haiti, where a slave revolt and yellow fever had exacted a frightful toll on French troops. Napoleon proposed to cut his losses and liquidate his western holdings: the Americans could have Louisiana for ready cash.

The offer flummoxed Jefferson. The president prided himself on his strict construction of the Constitution, and the Constitution said nothing about acquiring new territory. Where the charter was silent, Jefferson had always said, government mustn’t venture. He had been willing to stretch his philosophy to accommodate the purchase of New Orleans. But the purchase of all of Louisiana? His philosophy would be in tatters.

Yet Napoleon was offering the deal of a lifetime. The acquisition of Louisiana would double the size of the United States, ensuring a handsome patrimony for generations of American farmers. And the mercurial Napoleon might change his mind. He might resurrect his plans for a French American empire, or return Louisiana to the Spanish, strengthening New Spain and forestalling future American expansion.

Jefferson couldn’t say no. He swallowed his scruples and signed an agreement promising France $15 million for Louisiana. Jefferson’s Federalist opponents in Congress, who had branded his small-government thinking naive when they were in power, had a moment’s enjoyment at Jefferson’s expense before falling into line. Not even for political benefit could they spurn the handsomest bargain their country was ever likely to see.



WHAT, EXACTLY, THE BARGAIN CONSISTED OF REMAINED to be determined. The purchase of Louisiana created the American West as it would be understood for the next century. America’s earlier West, between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, was suddenly annexed to the East in the minds of forward-thinking Americans. To be sure, many Bostonians still considered Ohio to lie at the western edge of America, if not of the earth. Eastern provincialism would persist into the twenty-first century. But Jefferson’s bargain, viewed broadly, established a new template for American geography. The country now had two halves, an East and a West, with the Mississippi providing both the line of division and the seam tying the halves together.

Only a comparative handful of Americans—traders working out of St. Louis, mostly—had penetrated much beyond the Mississippi into the new West. Otherwise Louisiana was terra incognita to nearly all but the Indians who called it home. Jefferson set about filling in the blank space on the map between the great river and the crest of the Rocky Mountains. In doing so he diverged still further from the small-government philosophy that had carried him to office, and established an enduring principle of Western history. Development of the trans-Mississippi West would be a top-down affair driven by the federal government. East of the Mississippi, individuals and states had taken the lead in promoting settlement and development. State claims to territories east of the Mississippi antedated the creation of the federal government, which subsequently gave its blessing to the creation of new states but otherwise kept to the rear. West of the river there were no states or state claims; all the land was federal land. The Louisiana Purchase provided Jefferson a tabula rasa on which to write the federal will. As he did so, and as subsequent presidents and Congresses followed suit, they dramatically expanded federal powers. The American West owed its existence—as an American West—to the federal government. And the federal government owed much of the legitimacy and authority it assumed during the nineteenth century to the American West.

As a first step toward promoting Western development—beyond the huge step of the Louisiana Purchase itself—Jefferson persuaded Congress to support expeditions of scientific and geographic discovery into the West. The precedent Jefferson established here, of putting the federal government in the business of sponsoring scientific research and exploration, would far transcend the West and long outlast the nineteenth century; at the two-thirds mark of the twentieth century it would transport Americans to the moon. Congress gave Jefferson money for four expeditions. One would ascend the Red River, another the Ouachita, a third the Arkansas and the last the Missouri. The Missouri was the largest of the tributaries to the Mississippi, and it deserved the biggest expedition.


  • "Lively...[Brands] knows how to write in a popular style that draws us in and holds our interest...[He] also pauses to make some thought-provoking insights, which round out the narrative and present his subject in a fresh light...An engaging, eminently readable introduction."—Wall Street Journal
  • "An exciting new history of the American West and how it was settled, from the California gold rush to the Oklahoma land rush and more."—New York Post
  • "[Brands] has a deft narrative touch and a talent for highlighting the human drama undergirding historical events...History as adventure story."—Los Angeles Reviewof Books
  • "[A] fine new history."—Houston Chronicle
  • "Brands surveys the past three centuries of the West, chronicling all-too-human tales of hope, greed, triumph, tragedy, and irony. His history is propelled by the stories of amazing characters, some famous, others obscure...A marvelous short history of the West, rewarding both expert and neophyte readers."—Booklist (starredreview)
  • "Brands is a master storyteller...[Dreams of El Dorado] will enthrall aficionados of 19th-century American history."—Library Journal
  • "A lively, well-written survey full of novel observations on a region shrouded in legend."—Kirkus
  • "Brands argues convincingly that the reality of the American West was very different than the way it was mythologized...Lucid prose and short, tightly focused chapters...This broad but clearly structured study, with its many well-chosen illustrations, is likely to have wide appeal."—Publishers Weekly
  • "The expansion of the United States across what would become the American West is the sort of sprawling, tumultuous epic that is best told by a calm and concentrated mind. Fortunately the author of this book is H.W. Brands, who has the vision and supreme narrative skill to braid the chaotic tendrils that make up the past into a story that is almost as exciting for its coherence as it is for the heroic and heartbreaking events it so vividly renders. Dreams of El Dorado is the latest reason to think of Brands as America's go-to historian."—Stephen Harrigan, author of Big Wonderful Thing and The Gates of the Alamo
  • "A subject this monumental demands prose to match it, and I am pleased that to report that, in this sprawling epic, H. W. Brands is at his sparkling best. He is of the American West and grew up in its myths, which may explain why he writes about it with such passion and clarity."—S. C. Gwynne, New York Times bestselling author of Empire of the Summer Moon and Rebel Yell
  • "The 'winning' of the American West is that biggest and most daunting of subjects, so big that most historians have found it necessary to bite off small corners of this grand and sordid tale of empire-building. But here H.W. Brands endeavors to tell it all, from Texas to California, from beaver pelts to buffalo robes, from the hoofbeats of horses to the steam blasts of the first transcontinental trains. Epic in its scale, fearless in its scope, this is a bravura performance from one of our master historians."—Hampton Sides, bestselling author of Blood and Thunder

On Sale
Oct 22, 2019
Page Count
544 pages
Basic Books

H. W. Brands

About the Author

H. W. Brands holds the Jack S. Blanton Sr. chair in history at the University of Texas at Austin. A New York Times-bestselling author, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography for The First American and Traitor to His Class. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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