The Contested Plains

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The discovery in 1858 of gold in Colorado transformed the plains states, bringing a rush of entrepreneurs of all sorts and forcing the Indians farther and farther to the margins of the encroaching new culture. Author Elliott West tells this engrossing story in three separate but interrelated narratives in THE CONTESTED PLAINS: INDIANS, GOLDSEEKERS, AND THE RUSH TO COLORADO.

Part one, “Visions,” sketches the long history of the Plains Indians and their migrations north and south along the front range of the Rocky Mountains. From the Clovis peoples of 10,000 B.C. through the later hunting societies, the mound builders, and innovative agriculturalists, the plains were home to a succession of people coming and going while enduring enormous, sometimes catastrophic, changes in climate, flora, and fauna.

Part two, “Gold Rush,” traces the three main routes the eager pilgrims followed from eastern Kansas to the Colorado gold fields. They were a ragged lot, most of them fortune hunters, and they traveled in all kinds of conveyances. The trials of Byron and Mollie Sanford, newlyweds from Nebraska, are often comic: West notes “the turbulent crossing of the river that drowned their rooster, Mollie’s crying bitterly after Byron cursed the oxen, and Byron’s rising thirsty from their bed for a long pull from a water bucket in which Mollie had set his muddy socks to soak.”

Part three, “Power,” pulls together accounts of the many forces- -political, commercial, social—that converged on the plains after the gold strike. For the Plains Indians who observed the great upheaval from the margins, it was often catastrophic. West’s chapter on “The Miseries of Failure” describes poignantly the efforts of the whites and the Native Americans “to live out irreconcilable images of what the plains were to be.”