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Uncovering America

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Manifest Destiny and the West
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Additional Resources

1816 map of the United States created by John Melish, Library of Congress

American Indian Removal: What Does It Mean to Remove a People? lesson unit, National Museum of the American Indian

Essential Understandings about American Indians, National Museum of the American Indian

Westward Expansion: Encounters at a Cultural Crossroads lesson unit, Library of Congress

Westward Expansion (1801–1861) lesson unit, Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Growing Crisis of Sectionalism in Antebellum America: A House Dividing lesson unit, National Endowment for the Humanities

Rae Carson, Walk on Earth a Stranger (Gold Seer Trilogy, Book 1) (New York: HarperCollins, 2016) – grades 7–12 historical fiction

Manifest Destiny and the West: Point of View Narratives | Activity

Frances Flora Bond Palmer, James Merritt Ives, Currier and Ives, Across the Continent: "Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way", 1868, hand-colored lithograph, with touches of gum arabic, on wove paper, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1985.64.160

Invite individuals or small groups of students to examine reproductions of Across the Continent: “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way. Ask them to identify the characters in the work, the setting, and what story is being communicated. Share with them that the artist was a British immigrant who never visited the West, and that the print’s audience was likely white European Americans living in the Eastern United States. Then, introduce one of the books listed below or tell a story about a specific indigenous nation’s experience with US settlement.

  • Brian Floca, Locomotive (New York: Atheneum Books, 2013)
  • Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney, Black Cowboys, Wild Horses (New York: Dial Books, 1998)
  • Louise Erdrich, The Birchbark House (New York: Disney-Hyperion, 2002)
  • Sherry Garland, Valley of the Moon: The Diary of María Rosalia de Milagros (New York: Scholastic, 2001)

After reading or hearing the story, identify areas of inaccuracy or exaggeration in Across the Continent with students. What changes do they suggest for the picture? Whose perspectives should be included in the story? Ask them to write or create a new story from a single point of view. What would they see, hear, feel, and experience? Alternatively, students could modify or create a new version of Across the Continent using art materials or perform a dramatic story as a small group.

Encourage students to develop a new title or headline for their story or work of art after it’s completed.

Manifest Destiny and the West: Developing Cultural Awareness | Activity

Do you call the United States home? Research which indigenous peoples lived where you do prior to colonization. Do they still live there? If not, under what circumstances did they leave? What kinds of interactions did they have with the US government? Where do you see evidence of their presence, past or present, in your community today?

Investigate one of these peoples more deeply using a cultural iceberg model. Go beyond what is “visible” on the surface, such as food, celebrations, and dress, to uncover deeper, “invisible” aspects of culture, including values, social norms, ethics, and attitudes.

Begin by listening to indigenous classmates, teachers, or other living members of the community. They may not live in the area anymore, but many American Indian communities have a robust digital presence.

How might you honor, recognize, or make visible the story and culture of these people to others in your school or community? Share the model of a land acknowledgment with your students to spark their thinking.

Manifest Destiny and the West: American Exceptionalism | Activity

American exceptionalism is the belief or perception that the United States is special in comparison to other countries. While the concept has a long, complex history, exceptionalism took hold in the 19th century in a distinct way. The country’s rapid and frequently violent acquisition of territory was defended by many in power who claimed the United States was destined by God to expand westward. The link between manifest destiny and exceptionalism was further solidified in 1893 by historian Frederick Turner, whose “Frontier Thesis” claimed that the experience of pioneers who blazed the frontier uniquely strengthened and distinguished American democracy.

Many of the works in this module connect in some way to the concept of American exceptionalism. Which work of art in this module best illustrates this ideology? Ask your students to select one work, conduct additional research, and defend their choice using any visible and uncovered evidence.

Extend this activity by having a group discussion about American exceptionalism. What do your students think about this concept? How has American exceptionalism been both a positive and negative force? Where can they see this belief being promoted today?