In the mid 1800’s the US was in a state of rapid expansion westward. There was territory that had not been developed in the western United States, and as the population grew in the United States, people wanted to move to where they could own land. The expansion of the railroads, including railroads that spanned the entire United States, helped accelerate this movement. However, there were also multiple Native American tribes that had territory out west. As the population expanded westward, the Native Americans were pushed further and further westward.
Eventually the Native American tribes were largely relegated to specific reservations. This was partly due to racism that was present during that time in United States history. As these events occurred, artists created pieces depicting expansion, racism and technology in the mid to late 1800’s. To demonstrate these themes, I will describe a fictional museum exhibition displaying some paintings describing the American frontier. The exhibition will be titled “The Frontier: Technology, Expansion, and Ethnocentrism in the American West”. In this exhibit will be multiple painting centered around the exhibition title theme.
It will be organized chronologically, as the United states slowly expanded from East to West. The first painting that will be exhibited is The death of Jane McCrea by John Vanderlyn in 1804. This piece depicts a woman, Jane McCrea, who is seconds away from being scalped by Native Americans. McCrea looks terrified, as would be expected, while the Native Americans look as though they are to be feared. The fear shown in this painting most likely contributed to a feeling in the United States that all Native Americans were terrifying savages.
This was not the case for all Native Americans. While ome did murder innocent people, some were also very peaceful. Nonetheless, actions taken by Native Americans, including scalping, did not help the case of those that were peaceful. In addition, such depictions could also be used to justify expansion and taking of the Native American’s land. The thought process for some may have been along the lines of “If they are so brutal and murder innocent people, they do not deserve to live and keep their land”. This sets up some of the conflict that is to come during American expansion westward. Next in the expansion westward comes Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap.
This was created by Caleb Bingham in the early 1850’s and shows the beginnings of expansion westward through the Appalachian Mountains in the late 1700’s. Here you can see some of the fear of Native Americans manifested, in the form of armed protection of settlers passing through the Cumberland Gap. You can see some men with guns protecting a woman on a horse, as well as a man on horseback who sees to be cutting something, or someone, down. In addition, the painting portrays the settlers journeying into darkness, and bringing the light with them. We will see this as a common theme in multiple paintings about American expansion.
That is the key aspect to draw from this piece: white Americans are bringing the light with them west. This is evident in our next piece. Another piece to be exhibited in “The Frontier: Technology, Expansion, and Ethnocentrism in the American West” is one by Emanuel Leutze, entitled Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way. It was created in 1861, as the move west was starting to get in full swing. The first thing we can draw from this is the ethnocentrism displayed in the title. The title indicates that it is the duty of the Empire, meaning the United States of America, to take the land out west.
By expanding through the land west, the United States was fulfilling the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. The painting itself shows multitudes of famous figures and settlers that have helped with expansion in the United States. They are shown traversing mountains and triumphing as they made way west. A few settlers are pointing to the left of the painting, toward what we can only assume is west, as if leading the way. At the bottom of the painting is a sea or lake with two land masses on either side. I take this to mean “from sea to shining sea”, part of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.
One thing that appears absent from this are Native Americans. This particular piece seems to be focusing more on the romanticization of expansionism, rather than the reality. There were other paintings that romanticized American Expansion. Another piece that romanticizes the vision of American expansion is American Progress by John Gast. This painting, created in 1872, portrays different periods of expansion and technological improvement during the move west. You can see the some of the themes that were displayed in paintings about the so-called “empire” of the United States.
The painting spans from the east coast, and what appears to be New York City, to the unexplored west coast, inhabited by “savages”. This, and the angel displayed at the center of the painting, represent Manifest Destiny. The idea that the Native Americans were “savages” is indicated by the sun rising in the east, in territory already belonging to the United States, and the darkness in the west. This light can be construed as “Civilization bringing the light to the American West”. The angel in the center of the painting is also holding a book, titled “School Book”.
We could take this to mean that Americans believe they are more educated than the Native Americans, and are bringing education with them westward. We can also see that the expansion westward displayed in this painting is causing the Native Americans and wildlife to be fearful and attempt to run away. Included here is wildlife like deer, bears, and most importantly buffalo. The buffalo were important to the Native American way of life, as they provided not only food, but utility as well. By taking the land of the Native Americans, and destroying their main source of food, resentment grew between the Native Americans and he American frontiersmen.
These aspects of the painting belong under the ethnocentrism theme of the exhibit title, as they all exhibit judging the culture of the Native Americans based on the standards held in the United States. Technology is also a very prominent aspect of this painting. At the bottom of the painting we settlers with farming equipment, cultivating the land. This is in contrast to Native Americans, who practiced agriculture, but did not use advanced farming equipment. We can also see transportation technology throughout the painting. Coaches are displayed heading west, from old Conestoga wagons to “modern” coaches.
There are trains following behind the angel, ready to expand the railroad and connect the East and West coast. The angel is holding telegraph wire, extending it across the land. Closer to the east, toward what we can assume is New York City, are a variety of ships. Even further back we can see a bridge spanning the river. All of this technology the Native Americans did not possess, and as the frontiersmen expanded westward, they brought it with them. The technology also allowed them to expand at a faster pace; as the railroad caught up, it became easier to resupply frontiersmen.
The American frontiersmen sense of ethnocentricity led them to believe that there would not be consequences to expanding without taking the land and Native Americans into account and bringing their technology with them. However, we will see this was not case. A painting that shows extreme contrast to American Progress is Westward the Star of Empire Takes Its Way–Near Council Bluffs, Iowa. Created by Andrew Melrose in 1865, this piece takes the idea of Americans bringing the light with them west and turns it on it’s head.
In this piece, it seems as though the sun is setting in the west, and the train and technology is bringing with it darkness. This can be construed as the Americans are not bringing with them the dawn of a new era, rather they are causing the sun to set on the era of the Native Americans. Going with the theme of light, the light of the train is most likely the star referred to in the title of this painting. While the frontiersmen probably thought this star was again bringing light west, in this piece it seems to be disrupting nature, in the form of deer running from the train.
This theme of disrupting nature is displayed elsewhere in the painting. Toward the left of the painting, we see what appears either to be a cabin constructed by Americans. In the process of building this cabin, it appears the Americans cut down almost an entire forest. You can see the stumps of many, many trees strewn around the cabin, all the way up to the railroad tracks. The ethnocentricity of the settlers disrupted the natural order of things, to a point where it would have consequences the frontiersmen most likely did not foresee.
The next painting in the exhibition displays what the natural order of things was before the settlers began expansion west. The piece The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak, created by Albert Bierstadt in 1863 displays a Native American encampment below the Rocky Mountains. Nature is displayed prominently, in the form of a peaceful lake, a waterfall, and lush, green forests. There is no violence displayed by Native Americans in this painting. The Native Americans here are living the way of life they have lived for thousands of years.
Even still, many Americans, due to ethnocentric views, believed the Native Americans were savages and brutes, and they were allowed to take their land in part due to that view. As seen here, many Native Americans were peaceful, and were not violent, as compared to the first painting of the exhibit. Nonetheless, the Americans pushed westward, destroying the way of life of the Native Americans. The United States government began forcing Native Americans onto reservations, to take the land that was once inhabited by the Native Americans. While some submitted, other Native Americans decided to fight back.
The painting Railway Train Attacked by Indians displays, as the title suggests, a railway line being attacked by Native American warriors. The painter, Theodore Kaufmann may have seen previous paintings of Native Americans, as the concept of light and darkness is once again displayed in this piece. The train almost seems to be bringing the darkness with it, snuffing out the light displayed about the Native Americans. Keeping with the theme of light, the light on the approaching train is red, and looks extremely menacing. This could be representative of how the Native Americans viewed technology expanding across the frontier.
The Native Americans are attacking the train by removing rails from the track, causing the train to crash. This indicates resentment from the Native Americans toward the encroaching frontiersmen. They were most likely attacking to prevent further expansion of Americans to the west. Specifically, they were upset that their land was being taken by the United States government, and that they were being forced onto reservations. This conflict between an expanding population of the United States and the existing Native American population came to a head during the Battle of Little Bighorn.