Admission is always free Directions
Open today: 11:00 to 6:00

Manifest Destiny and the West

Fanny Palmer created this print for Currier and Ives, a printmaking organization that sold millions of inexpensive colored prints in the 19th century. Palmer’s print reinforces the ideology of manifest destiny—the belief that US expansion westward was destined and justified—using a variety of details and symbols:

·      The depiction of the railroad anticipates the 1869 completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, emphasizing technological progress and connectivity.

·      The subtitle, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” directly quotes the title of an 1861 mural by Emanuel Leutze located in the US Capitol that also tells a triumphant story about westward migration.

·      Expansive, empty lands seem available for the taking, even though hundreds of Native tribes lived in these areas.

·      Smiling families, tidy buildings, and a prominent school and church make settlement look attractive and civilized, although in reality it was arduous for settlers and threatened the lives of indigenous peoples.

·      Americans Indians—commonly feared and perceived as a hindrance to westward expansion in the 19th century—are cut off from settlement by the train tracks and left behind in the train’s exhaust.

Palmer, a British immigrant, would likely have never traveled to the western United States. Today, scholars debate whether prints like this one informed and shaped viewers’ thoughts and values, or whether they reflected what consumers already believed.

How is the story depicted here similar to or different from the story you’ve learned about westward migration?

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

 

1 of 21

This portrait of White Cloud is part of a grand project artist George Catlin undertook beginning in 1830 after working as an attorney and lithographer. Catlin decided to document and depict indigenous peoples that were quickly disappearing in the United States in the 1830s and 1840s due to violence and disease. Ultimately, Catlin visited numerous tribes and created hundreds of paintings.

Catlin and his works have been both praised and criticized. He has been praised for the following reasons:

·      His portraits show individuals, not just romanticized stereotypes.

·      Portraits, including the portrait of White Cloud seen here, present alternative cultural representations of wealth and leadership, in the same vein as portraits of George Washington and other US figureheads.

·      He showed sympathy with and interest in American Indians—even defending them publicly—at a time when many European Americans, as well as the US government, denigrated and feared indigenous peoples.

·      Some of his works depict people, practices, and events that otherwise are not visually documented.

However, looking through a 21st-century lens, Catlin’s work may be challenging:

·      He saw himself as a savior, even superior to his subjects: “I have flown to their rescue—not of their lives or of their race (for they are ‘doomed’ and must perish), but to the rescue of their looks and their modes.”

·      Neither his works nor his written accounts of his travels around the US are strictly factual depictions, even though his work is often seen as ethnographic.

Mew-hu-she-kaw, known both as White Cloud and No Heart-of-Fear, was one of several tribal chiefs of the Iowa people in the mid-19th century. Catlin painted his portrait while the chief was in London trying to raise money for the Iowas, who had been forced to a small reservation in southeast Nebraska. What do you think and feel about this portrait now? What questions would you ask White Cloud if given the opportunity?

To learn more about White Cloud and the Iowa people, explore this NGA lesson plan.

George Catlin, The White Cloud, Head Chief of the Iowas, 1844/1845, oil on canvas, Paul Mellon Collection, 1965.16.347

2 of 21

This print is adapted from one of 27 murals titled The History of California that artist Anton Refregier completed for the Rincon Annex Post Office between 1940 and 1948. Refregier depicted the moment in January 1848 when James W. Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in northern California.

While gold had been discovered earlier in the area, the publicity of this discovery prompted 300,000 people to “rush” to California in search of gold and wealth. “Forty-niners” faced treacherous conditions as they traveled across the western US, while others endured long sea trips from Latin America, Europe, Pacific islands, and China. The discovery of gold brought wealth to some, but many others experienced discrimination, loss, or even death, including thousands of Native peoples who were murdered by forty-niners and US military members.

Look closely. What emotions do you think the men in Refregier’s print are feeling? What do you think gold symbolized for them? What do you think gold might have symbolized to Native peoples in the area? Note that Refregier likely depicted at least one Chinese man, second from right. According to the Library of Congress, “No first-person memoirs of the Chinese experience in nineteenth-century California are known to survive.”

For a deeper dive into other first-person narratives from the California gold rush, see the Library of Congress’s collection “California as I Saw It”.

Anton Refregier, Discovery of Gold, 1949, screenprint, Reba and Dave Williams Collection, Gift of Reba and Dave Williams, 2008.115.4064

3 of 21

The “Mexican News” referenced here was that the US–Mexican War was coming to an end in 1848, after two years of fighting. Richard Caton Woodville completed the original painting in 1848, and artist Alfred Jones engraved a copy for distribution to members of the American Art-Union.

This may look like a scene from everyday life, but Woodville filled the work with symbols and metaphors:

·      The “American Hotel” is meant to represent the whole country.

·      The worn wooden porch and the dual-purpose hotel/post office represent the frontier.

·      The porch holds voting citizens, white males, whose faces suggest a variety of opinions about the war.

·      Those outside the porch stand in for all disenfranchised African Americans and women, who had no voting rights.

Most people in the US would have been keenly interested in the outcome of the war. A win meant newly acquired territory (more than 500,000 acres) and a debate over the addition of slave or free states.

Ask your students to take on the point of view of a character shown in this work. What do you think their thoughts or feelings might be about the news, given their body language and facial expressions? What might this news mean for them at this moment in time? Who might have been affected by this news but excluded from the image?

Consider how you receive news today. How does it affect you, and how might it affect others similarly or differently?

Alfred Jones, Richard Caton Woodville, American Art-Union, Mexican News, 1851, engraving in black on wove paper, Corcoran Collection (Gift of Donald Webster), 2015.19.1049

4 of 21

The original title of this painting was Mountain Lake. Albert Bierstadt renamed the painting Mount Corcoran after collector William Wilson Corcoran to persuade the wealthy businessman to purchase the painting and place it in his museum (which he ultimately did).

Bierstadt actually named a mountain after Corcoran, but it does not look like the grand peak in this painting. He, like other landscape painters before him, sometimes combined details drawn from real life to create imaginary scenes. Albert Bierstadt followed in a long line of US landscape painters who suggested that American history and destiny could be found in its geography. Bierstadt’s massively scaled paintings—showing craggy mountains, alpine lakes, and stunning vistas—confirmed that the US possessed majestic natural resources comparable to those found in Europe.

As the US government acquired territory to the west, residents back east became curious: What do these new lands look like? How can I get there? Might I be able to make a new life there? Bierstadt—who joined expeditions to survey newly acquired territories—made his final paintings back east and traveled with them from town to town, where residents paid a small fee to get a glimpse of them.

What can we learn about the West from Bierstadt’s works? Why might it matter that Bierstadt’s paintings were fictionalized? If you had never seen a picture of the western United States before, do you think these paintings might have convinced you to move there?

Albert Bierstadt, Mount Corcoran, c. 1876–1877, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund), 2014.79.4

5 of 21

Green River, Wyoming, was a bustling railroad town when Thomas Moran arrived in 1871. Three years earlier, Union Pacific construction crews had arrived intent on bridging the river. Their tent camp quickly became a boomtown boasting a schoolhouse, hotel, and brewery. Yet none of these structures appear in Moran’s Green River paintings. Even the railroad is missing. Instead, the dazzling colors of the sculpted cliffs and an equally colorful band of American Indians are the focus. In a bravura display of artistic license, Moran erased the reality of advancing settlement, conjuring instead an imagined scene of a preindustrial West that neither he nor anyone else could have seen in 1871.

Compare Moran’s painting to what Green River would have looked like around the time when he arrived.

How do you feel about Moran’s painting after looking at the photograph? Why do you think he included groups of American Indians on horseback? Does it matter if the painting is truthful or not? In what ways might this painting connect to current events today?

Thomas Moran, Green River Cliffs, Wyoming, 1881, oil on canvas, Gift of the Milligan and Thomson Families, 2011.2.1

6 of 21

The US buffalo (or bison) population had been reduced from millions in the early 19th century to about 1,000 when Albert Bierstadt created this painting in the 1880s. Multiple forces coincided to kill off the bison:

·      Plains Indians had become increasingly dependent upon the bison; hunting the animals was easier after the Spanish brought the horse to the continent in the 16th century.

·      Market demand in the US and Europe for bison hides increased dramatically in the 1870s.

·      Modern rifles and newly completed railroads across the West made it easy and economical to kill animals and transport hides.

·      The US military realized that eliminating the buffalo meant the elimination of Plains Indians: “I wanted no other occupation in life than to ward off the savage and kill off his food until there should no longer be an Indian frontier in our beautiful country,” said Lieutenant-General John M. Schofield, head of the Department of the Missouri from 1869 to 1870.

Bierstadt’s painting, while reflecting the reality of the loss of the bison, is also romanticized and imagined. He fabricated this vista and harks back to a time when the Plains Indians were the only predators of the buffalo.

This was Bierstadt’s last great Western painting, and he created it at a time when interest in such paintings was waning. Why do you think he might have chosen to depict the loss of the buffalo in this way? What emotions do you have looking at this painting? How might this painting connect to global issues today?

Albert Bierstadt, The Last of the Buffalo, 1888, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Gift of Mary Stewart Bierstadt [Mrs. Albert Bierstadt]), 2014.79.5

7 of 21

The US West is marked by stunning geologic features and a vast landscape that dwarfs humans. Early photographers to the West set out to capture a sense of this for Easterners.

Timothy H. O’Sullivan and William H. Bell, both immigrants and Civil War veterans, each served as photographers for the Wheeler Survey, which set out to first explore, then map, US land west of the 100th meridian.

Compare this depiction with William H. Bell’s depiction of the Grand Canyon. How are they similar? How are they different? Which photograph gives viewers a better sense of the scale of the West? Compare these photographs with paintings by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. Do you think these photographs or the paintings would have been more persuasive to potential settlers?

Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Wall in the Grand Canyon, Colorado River, 1871, albumen print, Gift of Mary and Dan Solomon and Patrons’ Permanent Fund, 2006.133.112

8 of 21

The US West is marked by stunning geologic features and a vast landscape that dwarfs humans. Early photographers to the West set out to capture a sense of this for Easterners.

Timothy H. O’Sullivan and William H. Bell, both immigrants and Civil War veterans, each served as photographers for the Wheeler Survey, which set out to first explore, then map, US land west of the 100th meridian.

Compare this depiction with Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s depiction of the Grand Canyon. How are they similar? How are they different? Which photograph gives viewers a better sense of the scale of the West? Compare these photographs with paintings by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. Do you think these photographs or the paintings would have been more persuasive to potential settlers?

William H. Bell, Looking South into the Grand Cañon, Colorado River, Sheavwitz Crossing, 1872, albumen print, Eugene L. and Marie-Louise Garbáty Fund, 2011.99.1

9 of 21

This painting was probably intended to be an homage to fur trappers as well as a political commentary.

Trappers, especially those who lived and worked in the West, assumed national hero status in the 1850s and 1860s. Their rugged lifestyles and perilous adventures, romanticized in novels and images, came to symbolize burgeoning US character and exceptionalism. John Mix Stanley, who tended to focus his artistic efforts on indigenous portraits, capitalized on this interest by depicting white trappers in this highly detailed scene. The fur trade drove European involvement in the continent for centuries. By the 1820s, US trappers had made their way to the Rocky Mountains, though the fur trade died by the 1840s due to lagging demand.

This painting went by the title The Disputed Shot for many decades. It may have been intended to show trappers modeling civil dialogue at a time when disagreements over slavery were mounting. While there’s no proof Stanley met Dred Scott, the infamous Dred Scott case was decided by the US Supreme Court in 1857, the year before Stanley painted this scene.

If Stanley intended this picture to model civil dialogue, what roles do each of the men shown play? What do you think the outcome of the discussion might be? Where do you see civil dialogue happening today?

John Mix Stanley, The Trapper’s Cabin, 1858, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Gift of William Wilson Corcoran), 2014.79.44

10 of 21

Does this game look familiar? How would you describe the competition?

Seth Eastman depicted a group of Santee (Eastern Dakota) playing a game that was a precursor to lacrosse. Stakes were high—games could last for days, and winners received both prizes and food.

Eastman, an artist and US Army officer, was stationed twice at Fort Snelling (in present-day Minnesota), which was located near where the Santee lived. During his first tour, which began in 1830, Eastman became fluent in Santee and married Wak inajin win, the 15-year-old daughter of Chief Maḣpiya Wic̣aṡṭa (Cloud Man). Eastman left behind his wife and new baby when he was reassigned after three years. He returned to Fort Snelling for a second tour as post commander from 1841 to 1848. He brought a new wife with him, and together they embarked upon studying the Santee, later publishing their writing and illustrations in a book.

Fort Snelling was constructed after the conclusion of the War of 1812 to protect US fur trade interests and build relationships with indigenous peoples, including the Santee and Anishinaabe (Ojibwe). It was built on a site of strategic and cultural importance, where the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers meet. To the Santee, this was a sacred area known as B’dote, the “center of the earth.” The confluence served as a critical fur trading juncture throughout the 19th century.

Fort Snelling later became an internment camp where more than 1,700 Santee women, children, and elders experienced disease and death after the US–Dakota War of 1862.

Seth Eastman, Ball Playing among the Sioux Indians, 1851, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Gift of William Wilson Corcoran), 2014.79.46

11 of 21

Music, dancing, relaxing—these men are enjoying themselves as they navigate a flatboat down what is likely the Missouri River, the longest river in North America.

In the early 1800s, goods and people moved via a network of waterways across the country. Flatboats were rectangular vessels designed to carry large loads of cargo. George Caleb Bingham, a self-taught artist, lived near the Missouri River and depicted the culture of trappers and boaters in his paintings. Flatboats were commonly used by farmers, and later, professional boaters, but by the start of the Civil War, steamboats and railroads had largely displaced flatboat use.

Abraham Lincoln navigated a flatboat twice down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, first as a 19-year-old in 1828, and again in 1831. Scholars have argued that these trips to the Deep South shaped his beliefs about slavery.

Looking at Bingham’s painting, what do you imagine life was like for a flatboatman? What parts of the experience are not revealed here? What challenges might flatboatmen have encountered, and what skills might they have needed to navigate the rivers?

George Caleb Bingham, The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1846, oil on canvas, Patrons’ Permanent Fund, 2015.18.1

12 of 21

When you picture a cowboy in your head, what comes to mind?

This bronze sculpture reflects the popularity of cowboys at the turn of the century. Cowboys became national folk heroes in part because of Frederic Remington’s paintings, sculptures, illustrations, fiction, and nonfiction that idealized the US West, cowboys, and American Indians.

What was the life of a cowboy really like? Who was a cowboy? The romanticized white male cowboy may dominate visual media, but in the late 19th century one-quarter of cowboys were black, and American Indians, Mexicans, Latinos, and women also held those jobs.

Frederic Remington, Off the Range (Coming Through the Rye), model 1902, cast 1903, bronze, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase), 2014.79.38

13 of 21

What do you think of when you hear the word pioneer? In the United States, the word is still strongly associated with the many European American settlers who made their way west in the 19th century.

This object—described using the word pioneer—was painted by an artist hired by the US government during the Great Depression as part of a project called the Index of American Design. One of the goals of this project was to “record material of historical significance which has not heretofore been studied and which, for one reason or another, stands in danger of being lost.”

Examine this image. What can you learn from this object about “pioneer life”? Dive deeper into the topic by reading Andrea Warren’s Pioneer Girl: A True Story of Growing Up on the Prairie.

European American settlers claimed lands in the West from indigenous peoples who left their homelands or were forcibly relocated. How does this information affect the way you think about pioneers?

Verna Tallman, Pioneer Doll, c. 1937, watercolor, graphite, and gouache on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.15444

14 of 21

What do you think of when you hear the word pioneer? In the United States, the word is still strongly associated with the many European American settlers who made their way west in the 19th century.

This object—described using the word pioneer—was painted by an artist hired by the US government during the Great Depression as part of a project called the Index of American Design. One of the goals of this project was to “record material of historical significance which has not heretofore been studied and which, for one reason or another, stands in danger of being lost.”

Examine this image. What can you learn from this object about “pioneer life”? Dive deeper into the topic by reading Andrea Warren’s Pioneer Girl: A True Story of Growing Up on the Prairie.

European American settlers claimed lands in the West from indigenous peoples who left their homelands or were forcibly relocated. How does this information affect the way you think about pioneers?

Elbert S. Mowery, Pioneer Salt Gourd, 1935/1942, watercolor, pen and ink, and graphite on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.11364

15 of 21

What do you think of when you hear the word pioneer? In the United States, the word is still strongly associated with the many European American settlers who made their way west in the 19th century.

This object—described using the word pioneer—was painted by an artist hired by the US government during the Great Depression as part of a project called the Index of American Design. One of the goals of this project was to “record material of historical significance which has not heretofore been studied and which, for one reason or another, stands in danger of being lost.”

Examine this image. What can you learn from this object about “pioneer life”? Dive deeper into the topic by reading Andrea Warren’s Pioneer Girl: A True Story of Growing Up on the Prairie.

European American settlers claimed lands in the West from indigenous peoples who left their homelands or were forcibly relocated. How does this information affect the way you think about pioneers?

American 20th Century, Pioneer Bath Tub, 1935/1942, watercolor and graphite on paperboard, Index of American Design, 1943.8.8644

16 of 21

William Henry Jackson and Carleton Watkins are often recognized for their striking photographs of the natural landscape of the US West, but they also captured the region’s rapid economic development.

Central City, Colorado, was founded in 1859 after gold was discovered nearby. Jackson’s photograph shows a city already well developed after just 20 years. Even Jackson himself had attempted to make a living as a miner in the past.

What story of the West does this image tell? What surprises you about this photograph?

William Henry Jackson, Central City, Colorado, c. 1881, albumen print, Amon G. Carter Foundation Fund and Buffy and William Cafritz Fund, 2011.21.1

17 of 21

William Henry Jackson and Carleton Watkins are often recognized for their striking photographs of the natural landscape of the US West, but they also captured the region’s rapid economic development.

San Francisco experienced a massive population boom after gold was discovered in northern California. In less than two years the mining town’s population increased from 1,000 to 25,000, including a large Chinese population. Fears that Chinese immigrants were driving declining wages and taking the jobs of native-born US residents led to the passage in 1882 of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major US law restricting immigration to the country. The law effectively prohibited Chinese people from entering the US and barred Chinese immigrants from becoming US citizens for decades.

What story of the West does this image tell? What surprises you about this photograph?

Carleton E. Watkins, Alcatraz Island and San Francisco Bay, Looking North, 1880s, albumen print, Gift of Mary and Dan Solomon and Patrons’ Permanent Fund, 2006.133.134

18 of 21

Look closely at this portrait of Ne-Sou-A Quoit, originally painted by Charles Bird King. How is the figure dressed? What expression can you detect on his face? What does his body language communicate?

Between 1821 and 1842, King created a series of portraits of Indian dignitaries visiting Washington, DC, for Thomas McKenney, Superintendent of Indian Affairs. King’s portraits were copied by lithographers, distributed for a fee, and bound in a book published by McKenney and James Hall titled History of the Indian Tribes of North America. McKenney was an advocate and supporter of Indian sovereignty. He installed artifacts and these paintings in the War Office Building next door to the White House, where Native and non-Native visitors alike could view the display.

While some scholars have argued that European American artists like King romanticized or imposed a European vision upon their indigenous subjects, others have argued for the agency and autonomy of Native sitters. Ne-Sou-A Quoit is dressed in clothing that indicates he was a leader and authority of his people. All Native and non-Native diplomats were judged by their appearance and dress at this time. A Peace Medal depicting President Andrew Jackson hangs around Ne-Sou-A Quoit’s neck. Although the presence of the medal may be surprising to viewers today, the Meskwaki (Fox) chief may have worn it knowing it could contribute to more successful negotiations with the US government.

The Meskwaki, closely associated with the Sauk (Sac), ultimately signed a treaty in 1842 with the US ceding lands in Iowa, where they had moved from Wisconsin, and before that, Ontario.

Albert Newsam, Charles Bird King, Lehman & Duval Lithographers, Edward C. Biddle, Ne-Sou-A Quoit, a Fox Chief, 1837, hand-colored lithograph on wove paper, Donald and Nancy de Laski Fund, 2014.168.1

19 of 21

This figurehead of Davy Crockett adorned the front of a ship named after the 19th-century folk hero; the ship was built in 1853 in Mystic, Connecticut.

Crockett grew up in Tennessee and represented the state as a member of the US Congress. He opposed many Jacksonian policies, including the Indian Removal Act, and fought in the Texas Revolution, where he died.

The figurehead was selected for inclusion in the Index of American Design, a federally sponsored Depression-era project that employed artists to document “material of historical significance.”

Research more about Davy Crockett. Why did he become a national folk hero? To whom was he a hero?

Whom would you consider a contemporary folk hero?

Ethel Dougan, Figurehead: Davy Crockett, 1938, watercolor, graphite, and pen and ink on paperboard, Index of American Design, 1943.8.17407

20 of 21

Look closely at this photograph. What do you think it shows? During which decade do you think it might have been taken?

It may surprise you to learn that the photograph was taken in the 1990s and shows the remnants of a railroad that made travel to the US West possible. The Central Pacific Railroad was part of the US Transcontinental Railroad. Construction began in Sacramento and moved east until it famously connected to the Union Pacific Railroad in Promontory, Utah.

Mark Ruwedel took photographs of the railway remnants in the US and Canadian West for nearly 20 years. He titled the project “Westward the Course of Empire,” alluding to 19th- and early 20th-century expansionist ideologies while documenting the once-mighty railroad’s decline.

How does this photograph make you feel? Where can you find evidence of built environments or industry from the past in your community? What story do these remains tell?

Mark Ruwedel, Central Pacific #28, 1993–1994, gelatin silver print, Gift of Dan and Jeanne Fauci, 2012.112.3

21 of 21