Title: The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado
Author: Elliott West
Year: 1998
Categories: The American West, Indians, Environmental History, Settlement, Gold Rush, 
Place: The Central Plains (American West)
Time Period: 1850s-1860s

Argument Synopsis
Elliott West writes an environmental history of the Colorado Gold Rush of 1859 that inspired over 100,000 people to swarm to the region and the resulting clash with Indians during the early 1860s. West stresses the role of environmental imagination in this process. He argues that before 1858, the plains and mountains of the region were seen as an inhospitable land to be crossed over to the Pacific. After the discovery of gold, it was transformed via promotional literature and a fevered national imagination into a prosperous vision of abundant gold, fertile farms, and as a neatly interlocking piece of the growing nation. Of course, this vision did not reflect reality: West insightfully points out that far more money flowed to Colorado than out of its gold mines: from a financial standpoint the rush itself was actually extremely costly. This vision ran up against the vision of the plains Indians. West discusses the longer history of the region, stretching back thousands of years, before highlighting the amazing creativity on the part of Cheyennes, Comanches, and other groups during the 16th-18th centuries, as migrant Indians reshaped their entire worldview with adoption of the horse. By using this new technology, West points out that they were able to harness abundant source of energy (grass) that had previously been useless to them.

West's discussion of Indian's (particularly Cheyenne) adoption of the horse speaks to a broader environmental theme of Contested Plains: that of energy. West argues that, by the 1850s, nomadic Indians had expanded to the boundaries that nature placed on its ability to sustain so many horses. With grass becoming scarcer, the sudden influx of thousands upon thousands of white settlers in 1859 proved ecologically disastrous for Indians. Backed by the presence of the US Army and facilitated by the rise of uniform and established transportation routes, white settler expansion became an ever-tightening noose around Indians as they struggled over increasingly scarce resources. These struggles became increasingly desperate and fractured Indians over whether to more actively resist white encroachment or to try to reach accommodations. Internal fighting during the 1850s decimated much of the male population of various Indians groups, and drought in the early 1860s made the situation even more desperate. West caps his narrative with the Sandy Creek Massacre in 1864, in which the army launches a brutal attack on a peaceful group that had sought accommodation, touching off four years of bloody battle between Indians and the military. By 1870, the Indian vision of the plains, one predicated on nomadic pastoralism and horse transportation, had been effectively destroyed. 

Key Themes and Concepts
- Role of imagination in transforming the environment and its social and physical results in a context of quests for power
- Environmental limitations on expansion of horse political economy of Indians 
- Horse vision vs. Gold vision of plains
- Discovery of gold transforms the vision of the plains and mountains from a region to cross over to a region to go to, part of a larger nation
- Struggle over energy

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U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries by Cameron Blevins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.