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Book of the Week — The Central Gold Region

“The untransacted destiny of the American people is to subdue the continent — to rush over this vast field to the Pacific Ocean — to animate the many hundred millions of its people, and to cheer them upward — to set the principle of self-government at work — to agitate these herculean masses — to establish a new order in human affairs — to set free the enslaved — to regenerate superannuated nations — to change darkness into light — to stir up the sleep of a hundred centuries — to teach old nations a new civilization — to confirm the destiny of the human race — to carry the career of mankind to its culminating point — to cause stagnant people to be re-born — to perfect science — to emblazon history with the conquest of peace — to shed a new and resplendent glory upon mankind — to unite the world in one social family — to dissolve the spell of tyranny and exalt charity — to absolve the curse that weighs down humanity, and to shed blessings round the world!”

The Central Gold Region: The Grain, Pastoral and gold regions of North America
William Gilpin (1813-1894)
Philadelphia: Sower, Barnes & co.; St. Louis: E.K. Woodward, 1860
First edition

E179 G47

William Gilpin, who served as a U.S. army officer, was a veteran of the Mexican War. Afterwards, he was given command of a volunteer force to protect the Santa Fe Trail against attacks by Native Americans. He was part of John Charles Fremont’s second, 1843, expedition searching for a route over the Continental Divide which took him as far as Walla Walla. A friend of Andrew Jackson (and Jackson’s personal appointee to West Point) and Thomas Hart Benton, he was the first governor of Colorado Territory, from 1861-1862. Before this, he slept in the White House as a volunteer bodyguard to Abraham Lincoln. He took advantage of all of this to become a land speculator. A devout believer in Benton’s Manifest Destiny, in a series of articles and speeches, collected in this publication, he argued that the development of the interior between the east and west coasts of the United States, made possible by the building of a transcontinental railroad and a rail line over the Bering Strait, would create commercial communication between Europe and Asia, assuring a world dominance by the nation.

Gilpin, the expansionist and promoter, had an early intuition about gold in Colorado that proved to be correct. The region became a destination for thousands of hopeful prospectors. In 1860, he published his near mystical history of the region, The Central Gold Region. He wrote, “The destiny of the American people is to subdue the continent,” predicting that the Mississippi River valley would become the center of western civilization with the settlement of Denver as its capital. Gilpin dreamed of Empire, “This mission of civic empire has for its oracular principle the principle of the physical characteristics and configuration of our continent, wherein the Basin of the Mississippi predominates as supremely as the sun among the planets…[The] intermediate geographical position between Asia and Europe…invests her with the powers and duties of arbiter between them. Our continent is at once a barrier which separates the other two, yet fuses and harmonizes their intercourse in all the relations from which force is absent.”

Dreaming big, Gilpin wrongly, but doggedly, supported the “rain follows the plow” theory of increased rainfall in the arid West in which the land would become as fertile and green as that of the Eastern seaboard. For Gilpin, although he had traveled extensively in the West, desert was a myth. Gilpin was one of many diverse American thinkers who thought of the vast western lands as the stage for “the untransacted destiny of the American people, expressed in an Anglo-Saxon penchant for democracy and a particular industrious energy.” Lumping Anglo-Saxons as one, he did the same with the American Indian: “…from Darien to the Equimaux and from Florida to Vancouver’s Island a perfect identity in hair, complexion, features, religion, stature, and language,” ignoring (Anglo-Saxon) ethnological and anthropologist writings, such as that of Albert Gallatin. Ignoring, too, the occupation of the West by Native Americans, he offered the frontier of the American Plains as an antidote to the class struggles presenting on either coast, caused, in no small part no doubt, by non-Anglo-Saxon newcomers. Gilpin’s mythology would not be seriously questioned until John Wesley Powell’s own investigation of the region eight years after Central Gold was first published. Even so, Gilpin’s book was reprinted several times, under a different title, through 1874.

“Divine task! immortal mission! Let us tread fast and joyfully the open trail before us! Let every American heart open wide for patriotism to glow undimmed, and confide with religious faith in the sublime and prodigious destiny of his well-loved country.”

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