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Manifest Destiny and the West

Train tracks slice across a flat, grassy landscape with log cabins to our left and a river and mountains to our right in this horizontal lithograph. The scene is printed with vivid colors and is packed with tiny details. A train engine puffing black smoke pulls five cars from the bottom right corner away into the distance, angling to our left before disappearing on the horizon, which comes about three quarters of the way up the composition. Writing across the tops of the first three cars reads, “Through line New York San Francisco” in all caps. The open windows on the fourth car are crowded with riders. Tucked into the lower left corner, eleven log-built structures are mostly clustered closely together. Children play and run around the open door of the building closest to us, which is labeled “Public School.” Other people in long skirts or suits, some in hats, stand waving near the tracks. Four men in long-sleeved shirts or jackets and long pants, all with hats, chop down trees or hold shovels in a wooded area in the lower left corner. Four wagons, three of them covered and drawn by ox, move away from the town. All of the people in the town and on the train appear to have pale, peachy skin. The black smoke pouring from the train engine turns to slate gray where it blankets the ground to our right. Two people with brown skin, long black hair, feathered headdresses, and yellow and red clothing sit on horseback and are nearly swallowed by the smoke. A glassy, blue river winds into the distance to our left. One person is in a canoe on the river, which is lined by pines and other trees. White clouds kick up against the snowy mountain peaks that span the right half of the horizon against an otherwise bright blue sky. The margin around the scene is foxed, speckled brown against the white paper. Printed below the image, in all caps, the title reads, “Across the Continent. “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way.” In tiny letters, immediately below the printed image are three more inscriptions. They read, to the left, “J.M. Ives, Del.” At the center, “Entered according to Act of Congress in the year AD. 1868 by Currier & Ives in the Clerks Office of the District Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York.” And to the right, in all caps, “Drawn by F.F. Palmer.”

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

In what ways was the US settled and unsettled in the 19th century?

What role did artists play in shaping public understandings of the US West?

When you think about the US West, what images and stories come to mind?

Across the Continent: “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” shows a vision of settling the United States that in many ways still resonates today.

A wagon train of settlers; expansive, empty lands; evidence of the concept of “progress”—these elements appear again and again in works of art and other media in the 19th century. Together these elements illustrate the idea of manifest destiny, a belief (held by some) that expansion of the US westward toward the Pacific Ocean was destined and justified. Across the Continent helped perpetuate this narrative among people who purchased and saw the print. Westward expansion was not inevitable, though, nor was it necessarily easy or pleasant for those who were impacted by the country’s rapid growth.

The United States paid $15 million to France in 1803 for lands that doubled the size of the country in what many have called the “real estate deal of the century,” the Louisiana Purchase. Yet France, and Spain before it, did not have actual legal rights to the land other than claims they asserted through colonial conquest. By purchasing rights to the territory of Louisiana—stretching from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains—from France, the United States averted fights with the Spanish or French, but precipitated conflict with the hundreds of Native nations who lived in those lands.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830, passed during President Andrew Jackson’s tenure, established treaty making as the main mechanism for relocating indigenous peoples to make way for primarily white settlers. However, when tribes refused to sign treaties and leave their ancestral homelands, Jackson ignored legislation and ordered troops to forcibly relocate people. Thousands of people were killed during death marches, including members of the Muscogee (Creek), Chahta (Choctaw), Aniyunwiya (Cherokee), Chikasha (Chickasaw), Seminole, and Potawatomi nations. Even more were decimated by disease, including the Mandan. Others fought back or resisted, like the Seminole, Lakota, and Diné (Navajo) nations. In general, tribes across the country relocated, voluntarily or not, as settlers and new immigrants claimed land.  

Other people also inhabited the US West in the 19th century. French Canadian traders and Spanish colonists and missionaries had arrived centuries earlier. When gold was discovered in California in 1848, news spread quickly and immigrants from around the world rushed to San Francisco, including thousands of Chinese migrants who sailed across the Pacific. Both freed and enslaved Africans and African Americans also lived throughout the West; the Compromise of 1850 admitted both slave and free states after new territory was acquired in the US–Mexican War.

There is no single story of the West. Whose perspectives, experiences, and cultures are visible and represented in the works of art in this module? Whose stories are left out or marginalized? And what more might we need to find out?