On the surface Elliott West's "Contested Plains" seems to address a much explored period of history, namely the Colorado Gold Rush of te 1850s. Whilst the book does an admirable job of explaining the conflict which eventually led to the formation of Colorado, the scope of this work is so much bigger.
West uses the story of the Colorado Gold Rush as as lens through which to examine the vast story of settlement and conflict on the Great Plains. Echoing the work of Turner, West asks us to consider the role of the Plains in shaping the destinies of those who have settled there. Unlike Turner however, West's Plains are not fixed and unchanging, but dynamic and shifting. He asks us to understand how different cultures' visions of the Plains have fundamentally shaped how they have been approached: the Spanish who saw them as worthless desert, the Cheyennes who viewed them as a the key to a new nomadic lifestyle, and of course the White Americans for whom the sparkle of gold caused them to see the West as a land of opportunity. In doing this, West also explains why conflict began: not the result of an every shifting frontier, but the end product of two competing, flawed, and ultimately irreconcilable views of the Plains.
West expertly combines the larger ecological narrative and the human stories which illuminate this period so poignantly. In doing so, he moves beyond traditional retellings of the Indian Wars of the 1850s-70s. There is no time here for Turnerian heros shaping the land to their will, nor indeed for peace-loving Indians, perfectly in tune with nature. The Sand Creek massacre and the death of Black Kettle are no less moving because they are not wrapped in a layer of post-colonial guilt. Indeed, the people in West's Colorado are far more real than Dee Brown's martyrs and villains. Every person in West's narrative has their own motivation, their own unique fortes and flaws, their own visions shaping and molding their thoughts and actions. The attention West pays to this aspect is what makes the book such a moving and important piece of history. Every character is a human being.
Anyone interested in the story of the Gold Rush, indeed anyone interested in the history of America and its place in the world today, should read this book. A lively, engaging, thought provoking, and ultimately ground-breaking approach to understaning the American West.