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Manifest Destiny and the West

Frances Flora Bond Palmer, James Merritt Ives, Currier and Ives, Across the Continent:

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?