Picturing the West 2

In the second part of the forum I’d like us to examine the ways in which the debate over the “frontier as a process versus the West as a place” has played out in the visual West. How can one convey this debate in a visual way so as to illuminate the reasons why each approach has been powerful and useful?

I must admit here that I fall firmly into the “West as place” school, myself; by this I mean that when I say “the West,” I mean a place with longitude and latitude that can be located unmoving on a map. Still, as a cultural historian, I can hardly ignore the compelling influence that Turner’s conceptualization of the West has played on the West from outside but also internal self-definitions used by Westerners. Thus, I would argue that there is some usefulness in understanding the idea of a moving frontier-but only when “frontier” is defined as a zone of interactions between Eastern-linked Euroamericans on one side and “others” on the other side. The West is an actual place, with actual definitions on a map, and actual characteristics (both historical and geographical); the frontier is an idea applied to a place, and while the “zone” may shift, like the front line in a battle, the West itself doesn’t move around. But how to convey that the Frontier and the West are not interchangeable terms for the place? It is a challenge, because the terms are used so imprecisely (“Frontier” is used when “West” is meant, and “West” is used when “Frontier” is meant, etc.).

Clearly, the discussion has to start with a definition and a delineation of which is which. But, by terming “The Frontier” an idea and the “West” as a place, I do not mean to say that one is *only*imagined while the other is real. Ideas are real, too; the Frontier was, at different times, an actual line on the map (delineated in government acts, borders, etc.). As a concept in the mind of those who looked west, it was a very real thing (the point at which familiarity grew scarce) with real consequences. It also seems to have meant something real from the other side of the zone-signifying the point at which trade could be established, or the point at which one lost contact with ones own population. So, the “imagined” versus “actual” argument here is not the central one. Instead, the struggle is to understand how the idea and the place interacted, and to trace the shorter history of the idea against the never-ending history of the place.

This “shorter history” of the idea of the Frontier asks us to look at visual representations from the period in which that idea held sway-since the arrival of Europeans in what we now call the United States. This would mean that we need to examine not only an English concept of a frontier but also the Spanish, the French, and the Russian concepts of the zone of interaction. For our purposes, however, it would be sufficient to focus on the high points of Frontier ideology in the national context, which would be the moments at which Westward expansion became a national focus. This focus is clearest in the context of “Manifest Destiny” broadly defined, to include not only the 1846-1848 War against Mexico but also the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. The visual history of this concept is rich and includes most of the iconic nineteenth-century images of the West. Several (Emanuel Leutze’s 1861 painting Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (Westward Ho!), Andrew Melrose’s 1867 painting Westward the Star of Empire Takes Its Way-near Council Bluffs, Iowa, Albert Bierstadt’s 1867 painting Emigrants Crossing the Plains, and John Gast’s 1872 American Progress) have been included in previous forum postings or the essay. Many of these images were reproduced via lithograph to form a part of the recruitment propaganda for expansion. Additional notable examples include William Ranney’s Daniel Boone’s First View of Kentucky (1849), George Caleb Bingham’s Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap (1851), and William S. Jewett’s The Promised Land — The Grayson Family (1850). All carry strong messages about an empty land awaiting conquest often with overtly religious overtones (appropriate to the religious Manifest Destiny ideal). Bingham’s Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap is filled with religious imagery as well as the presence of a civilizing” woman, a scene which Patricia Hills has likened to “the Lord who with a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night, led the Israelites into the Land of Canaan.” Ranney’s Daniel Boone’s First View of Kentucky, Hills argues, promises Mexican-American War-wearied viewers that the westward expansion will be peacefully achieved. In these “Manifest Destiny” images, allegorical figures, as well as historical ones, stand in for the American polity, inscribing both a historical narrative and a predictive story onto the idea of the Frontier.

William Ranney, Daniel Boone's First View of Kentucky, 1849

William Ranney, Daniel Boone's First View of Kentucky, 1849

George Caleb Bingham, Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap, 1851

George Caleb Bingham, Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap, 1851

William S. Jewett, The Promised Land -- The Grayson Family, 1850

William S. Jewett, The Promised Land -- The Grayson Family, 1850

The longer history of the West can be represented with maps outlining the unchanging features of the landscape, as well as images of the place itself. A richer approach is to then examine the supposedly “value-free” images collected to document the place through the same lens applied to the more overtly opinionated “Frontier” images. For instance, a large body of survey materials-paintings, photographs, maps, and the like-survive, commissioned for the most part by the federal government. Thomas Moran, who accompanied the Geological Survey of the Territories to the Yellowstone River basin, produced numerous images of the grandeur of the landscape, mixing his pigments from local clays so as to accurately record the colors of the place (several examples of his work appear in the essay). Timothy O’Sullivan, who accompanied the U.S. Geological Exploration of the 40th Parallel, produced hundreds of photographs that recorded not only landscapes but also native peoples in the Southwest (see, for instance, O’Sullivan’s photographs South side of Inscription Rock, N.M., Navajo weavers, Near old Fort Defiance, New Mexico, White House Ruin, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, and Old Mission Church, Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, all taken 1873).

Timothy O'Sullivan, South side of Inscription Rock, N.M., 1873

Timothy O'Sullivan, South side of Inscription Rock, N.M., 1873

Navajo weavers, near old Fort Defiance, New Mexico, 1873

Navajo weavers, near old Fort Defiance, New Mexico, 1873

Timothy O'Sullivan, White House Ruin, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, 1873

Timothy O'Sullivan, White House Ruin, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, 1873

Timothy O'Sullivan, Old Mission Church, Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, 1873

Timothy O'Sullivan, Old Mission Church, Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, 1873

Andrew J. Russell, Driving the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869

Andrew J. Russell, Driving the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869

Comparing these “survey” images to later (twentieth-century) attempts to recreate the processes used to record the “visual data” provides a fascinating account of how much influence over the image the artist, in fact, had (we will talk more about this in the third section of the forum, which compares the nineteenth- and twentieth-century visual Wests). I have mentioned the fact that maps, even while accurate, were rarely value-neutral (see, for instance: Peter Fidler, after Ac ko mok ki, An Indian Map of the Different Tribes, that Inhabit the East and West Side of the Rocky Mountains . . . (1801); Panoramic map of Spokane Falls, Washington, 1890; and Rio Colorado of the West . . . (1858) in the essay). But neither were “scientific” images. Moran’s images of the Yellowstone echo the emptiness of the Manifest Destiny images; O’Sullivan’s sometimes played with perspective to enhance the dramatic effect of natural features.

Thus, I would conclude with an open-ended question for the forum: How do you help students to understand the difference between the West as a place and the Frontier as a process visually? What are the challenges inherent in the process of separating the two ideas even while examining their interactions? The difficulty that I find myself confronting is the challenge of presenting the argument in a sufficiently subtle way that does not end up just seeming like the splitting of hairs. The danger of reading the “process” and the “place” images side by side for interactions is that doing so can be confusing-in recognizing continuities, differences get eroded.

By way of throwing out an image and letting the forum participants play with it (something I like to do with my classes), let’s see what we can make with this one: the iconic photograph by Andrew J. Russell titled Driving the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869. Is it an image of the process or the place? Or is it both? What needs to be understood to read the image, to go back to the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, “thickly”?


  1. Posted October 8, 2009 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    The differences between “process” and “place” can, it is true, be taken in extreme when it comes to splitting hairs. If I may suggest a compromise that could help students get a visual on both: Examine the frontier process through “place” as a character in the process.

    This is primarily a literature tool, but can work well here. In literature, the setting acts almost like a character in it of itself, in that its actions, or inactions, can often spur the action of the protagonists. Ranney, Bingham and Jewett’s paintings illustrate this well. In each, the frontier process, the act of entering lands “untouched” by Europeans is set against the Western backdrop–a backdrop shown as majestic, yet forbidding, rugged and almost impersonal. The process, in effect, is a conflict: which will win: the frontier pioneers or the “place”? The Donner party would argue the latter, but that’s just a guess :)

    As for the Promontory Point photo, it seems to me that it shows more of a process than a place. I say this because the place itself is not much of a character here: it is almost completely obscured by man and its inventions. Furthermore, the context of the picture–the events leading to this ceremony–is required to achieve the full impact of the scene.

  2. Posted October 9, 2009 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    To understand the meaning and significance of the golden spike photo it is necessary to have a concept of the vastness of our country, the process of westernization, and the frontier as both a concept and a place, even though the particular fixed location of the event is not important to know.

    I approach study of the West from the point of view of the location theme of geography. Location has two factors, the absolute location as defined by latitude and longitude, and the relative location of any two points. Doing this helps my broach the idea of the West as an absolute location and the western frontier as a variable relative location.

    Images like Ramsey painting help reinforce the idea of the frontier as a variable when I pair it with a modern map of the US states. Students see that Kentucky is not the West as the students usually think of it.

    My special education students generally need concrete evidence to understand abstract ideas. Comparing photographs of the West with paintings of an idealized West, helps them see that the West is both a place and an idea. Their individual foci are so limited that the concept of a frontier as a place that moves with increased experience. Understanding that each person has individual frontiers helps them understand the idea of collective frontiers like space or the ocean bottom. All that has to be established before I can raise the idea of a frontier vs. the Frontier.

  3. Josh Brown
    Posted October 9, 2009 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    I’d propose a third category to add to process and/or place under which to we might put Andrew J. Russell’s photograph: event. And not only the event of the joining of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, but an event that included crucial figures but the visual evidence left to us excluded them from the camera frame:

  4. John McClymer
    Posted October 10, 2009 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    I concur with Deven Black’s comment about needing a conception of the “vastness of our country, the process of westernization, and the frontier as both a concept and a place.” One approach I have tried is to pair Stephen Douglas’ explanation of the necessity of a transcontinental railway with some of the railroad maps at the Library of Congress. Here is Douglass:

    How are we to develop, cherish and protect our immense interests and possessions in the Pacific, with a vast wilderness fifteen hundred miles in breadth filled with hostile savages, and cutting off direct communication? The Indian barrier must be removed. The tide of emigration and civilization must be permitted to roll onward until it rushes through the passes of the mountains, and spreads over the plains, and mingles with the waters of the Pacific. Continuous lines of settlements with civil, political and religious institutions, under the protection of law, are imperiously demanded by the highest national considerations. These are essential, but they are not sufficient. . . . We must therefore have Rail Roads and Telegraphs from the Atlantic to the Pacific, through our own territory. Not one line only, but many lines, for the valley of the Mississippi will require as many Rail Roads to the Pacific as to the Atlantic, and will not venture to limit the number.

    Here is the link to the Library’s Railroad Map teaching site,
    Here is a map I sometimes use. It shows the transcontinental routes under consideration when Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska bill. The “golden spike” photograph celebrates the culmination of a process that helped tear the country apart and required the displacement of all the native peoples between the Mississippi Valley and the Pacific.

  5. Posted October 10, 2009 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Following up on John’s comment, there were fascinating unintended consequences of the joining of the rails, a good lesson about contingency that is bolstered by visual evidence. While the the Promontory Point, Utah, event marked the triumph of the railroads as the industry that would dominate the economy, model the unaccountability and rapaciousness of Gilded Age entrepreneurship, and trigger the booms and busts that ravaged, seriatim, the nation for the rest of the century-it also marked the unification of a labor movement that persistently challenged that power, often with the support of localities along railroad lines that directly experienced the impact of decisions made by men whom they had never met in cities hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away.

    After the completion of the transcontinental railroad, pictures such as this

    “West Virginia.-The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad strike-The disaffected workmen dragging firemen and engineers from a Baltimore freight train at Martinsburg, July 17th,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 4, 1877

    became ubiquitous in the pictorial press (this one marking the start in Martinsburg, West Virginia, of the two-week unprecedented national railroad strike in July 1877). Or this

    “New York City.-A tramp’s ablutions-An early morning scene in Madison Square,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 21, 1877

    showing tramps, who were a new, unforeseen “byproduct” of the repeated economic crises of the era and whose appearance around the country was assisted by the network of railroad lines along which they traveled (albeit in, under, and on top of boxcars).

  6. Posted October 10, 2009 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    I am intrigued by John Brown’s observation about the unintended consequences of the joining of the rails. Too often when we teach history we divide time into discrete eras or teach disconnected series of events and do not convincingly teach that history is a continuous process.

    It would be an interesting approach to trace the strands of anticipated and unanticipated developments that follow from the singular event of driving the golden spike. This tracing a historic event forward in connected developments could give students not only a sense of how past events play out to affect their lives, but also more of a holistic sense of the interconnectedness of people, places and times.

  7. Posted October 10, 2009 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Here’s some related material involving the expansion of the railroads.

    The first is a brief video showing the history of the US railroad system from 1830 to 1990:

    The second is an almost seven minute video on the history of the transcontinental railroad. It has a very childish start, but once past that there are some great photos of the building of the railroad, railroad posters and more:

  8. Fritz Umbach
    Posted October 11, 2009 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    One way to think about the process/place debate is to look for similar events elsewhere in the world at roughly the same time. Argentina, for example, experienced a remarkable similar process of expanding railroads, foreign investment, native resistance, and capitalist consolidation in the 1870-1890 in what’s known as Conquista del Desierto. The results were much the same: devastation of the Mapuche Indians, emergence of export-based mono-crop agriculture and attendant boom-and-bust cycles, environmental damage, and the rise of frontier myths and iconography explaining civilization’s triumph over savagery (and far too many restaurants named “Pampa”). Placed in such a context, the U.S.’s “West” can seem much less a place and much more a global process.

  9. John McClymer
    Posted October 11, 2009 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    To follow up on Josh’s comments about the great strike of 1877 I want to recommend Will Thomas’ site at the University of Nebraska, It is part of his Railroads and the Making of Modern America, I have used it with my students in the U.S. survey, and they did some fairly wonderful things with the resources there.
    There are several very rich sites dealing with the strike. The New York State Library put together a packet of materials and lesson plans for high schoolers, but you can use the documents and other resources with college students as well,
    The Archives of Maryland series: Documents for the Classroom includes a rich collection of materials on the The Baltimore Railroad Strike & Riot of 1877,
    In teaching the strike I encourage students to use contemporary illustrations in constructing narratives of what happened., scroll down to Feb. 1. To see what my students did, see
    I take it as part of Josh’s larger point that the connecting of east and west by rail unified a emerging labor movement from West Virginia to St. Louis and from Albany to Pittsburgh and Chicago. His posting of the tramps in NYC nicely reminds us that we can see the impact of westering in New York as well as in Denver.

  10. Mary Niall Mitchell
    Posted October 11, 2009 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    First, I really like the juxtaposition with Argentina Fritz proposes, to present this migration and settlement in global, or at least Pan-American terms. I suppose my quibble with the process/place debate is that, in its terminology, it begins not with human activity, but with disembodied historical change and empty space. The photograph at Promontory Point intrigues me precisely because it is so blatant in its use of metaphor, one rooted in human action and the man-made system of railroads: people staking a claim not just on the present (the moment the picture was taken, the joining of the railroad) but also on the future (where the railroad would take them). Like the paintings of Ranney and Bingham, it contains within it the seeds of possibility, the sense that something will be happening beyond the frame.
    Not everyone pictured (including the Chinese laborers Josh Brown points to) had the same stake in the completion of the railroad, but all were in some way invested in it. This may sound like an old-fashioned way of reading it, but perhaps it also offers us a more expansive means of thinking about the West, not simply as a place or a process, but as a destination, a concept that combines both process and place and implies human movement through time and space. As a shared destination-for pioneers, Native Americans, African Americans from the South, Chinese and Mexican laborers-it shaped the identities of those groups who made the trip, or even those who just thought about making the trip because others like them had gone before. To borrow from Benedict Anderson’s discussion of migration and the construction of “imagined communities”, the trek to the West asked individuals and groups to think about why they were headed in the same direction. So, while I would explain the fundamentals of the process/place debate, I’d be more likely to use visual materials in the service of the West as destination: the Promontory Point photo, photographs of immigrants traveling by rail to California, maps marking the boundaries of Indian reservations, the photograph of Navajo weavers and “A tramp’s ablutions” (posted above) the promotional flyers for black settlement in Kansas, frontier women in front of sod houses.
    With all of these visual sources assembled, I’d ask students to think about how to situate the experiences of the people these images represent. What was their stake in the West as a destination? What role did westward movement play in the formation of allegiances and conflicts, of ethnic identities, and gender identities? What can these images tell us about the consequences (intended and unintended, to pick up on John and Josh’s idea) of westward migration and development? And (to tie the West into the broader national narrative) what does this migration reveal about the places they left behind?

  11. Posted October 12, 2009 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    An important point that is being made by all the commenters is that neither place nor process is static. As much as the different groups of people affect each other in different processes for differing purposes, so, too is the place in a state of constant flux.

    I’m returning to place as a character in process because it’s important to understand that “place” responds in its own way as does the various groups of people, often for its own reasons and rationale. If we look at pictures of settlement, or the Promontory Point photo, we often see the place, and its elements, as something of a canvas: a blank slate wherein actions happen. Yet the place provides obstacles and impediments to human interaction, and also exudes its own response to human development, often by a lack of response. We don’t see the tunneling or the landscaping required to stretch a railroad across the continent, and we have a whisper of the changes the railroad will create.

    The best examples of this for my students is the growth of cities in the West, especially in the 20th Century. Show students scenes of what is today Phoenix, Los Angeles, Denver, Seattle, or Las Vegas. In each, examine how the environment provided obstacles or even assisted in human development. Then show how the “place” responds to human progress: lack of water, change in air quality, lack of arable land, adjustment in wildlife and plant life, etc.

  12. Arthur Green
    Posted October 14, 2009 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    I have taught the “west” for some thirty years but, until last summer, I had never visited it. It was all “fly over country” to this New Yorker. Driving west thorugh South Dakota. Wyomong and part of Idaho was more than a “wake up call.” I was amazed at its vastness and the size of all features of the land. I had the good fortune to stop in a number of small towns and speak with people. Indeed, their outlook on life and politics (particularly the relationship between the citizen and the federal government) has been shaped by forces completely absent from my experience. One example of this springs to mind. In a conversation about the reintroduction of wolves into the Yellowstone area, a rancher informed me he “wasen’t real happy about the decision.” His explanation of his losses in terms of cattle, property and money was enlightening.

    I believe my experience will inform my teaching. Students need to undeerstand that the west was a place (however shifting) that led to, and continues to inspire, a mindset.

  13. Catherine Lavender
    Posted October 15, 2009 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    There are a lot of great suggestions here; I’d like to highlight a few.

    First, the usefulness of using a comparative approach (both intra-nationally, comparing regional interconnections as suggested by Josh Brown, and internationally, as with Fritz Umbach’s suggestion of the value of looking at Argentina, an approach that brings with it a valuable challenge to American exceptionalism):

    Second, the importance of viewing the process from multiple perspectives, a point which Mary Niall Mitchell makes very clearly (I also appreciate her raising the important question of gender, something that I must admit my comments have not done). The shifting meaning of the process of expansion to different communities (and even within those distinct communities) is an important part of the story.

    Third, the importance of the temporal, meaning keeping the events tethered to the passage of time rather than using them as symbols of progress or civilization (one of the largest challenges of the process-oriented approach). I’m thinking here of Josh Brown’s suggestion that “event” could be a third category, or Luciano D’Orazio’s suggestion that place (the “setting” of Western history) could be treated as a character with a through-story and a continuous timeline of history.

    Fourth, the importance of what is NOT visible – the things not recorded on the one hand, and the things only promised on the other. Josh Brown and John McClymer indicate these erasures with their discussion of what is edited out by the framing of the photograph of Promontory Point; Mary Niall Mitchell’s nicely states the indication of the “promise” of action and progress in the image as “the seeds of possibility, the sense that something will be happening beyond the frame.”

    Fifth, the process of Westering as “work” with the accompanying material struggles that that spawns, reflected both in the emphasis on the building of the railroads as a human endeavor (illustrated by Devon Black’s links) and as a site of continued struggle (as Josh Brown highlights in his comments and as captured in John McClymer’s astute and beautifully ironic statement that the joining of the rails “celebrates the culmination of a process that helped tear the country apart” rather than the more typical reading of the event as a uniting).

    In conclusion, a few words about the image and why I chose it. I like that this image is iconic and calls to mind the most immediate marker of Western rusticity – the railroad – even while it is also a reflection of the technology and concentration of resources (the coalition between the state and industry, for example) that it required. As a result, this image simultaneously encodes the West as “different” from the rest of the country even while it does so by showing it as, in fact, the same (its vastness and isolation overcome by the application of technology). In juxtaposition to the “lone pioneer” it shows the collective nature of most Western expansion. So, even on its surface, it begs the question of how much of what we see in the Visual West is actually in the image or already there before we see it in our minds.
    In addition, as several have pointed out, it is a consciously “cropped” image: it omits many of the people involved in making the event possible (most notably the Chinese workers); it marks not the original moment of the joining but an event which had been postponed due to foul weather and a labor dispute on the Union Pacific side (the latter an event rarely mentioned); and it does not mark, in fact, the completion of a coast-to-coast railroad (that did not actually happen until September of 1869, with the completion of the Mossdale Bridge crossing the San Joaquin River in California). But there is even more complexity to the story of the image’s cropping: while the image I’ve provided here does omit Chinese laborers, other views exist which include Chinese employees of the Central Pacific who had come on the construction train at Victory to join the festivities on the tenth. A. J. Russell’s Stereoview #539


    shows Chinese workers at the celebrations (eight Chinese workers laid the final rail); but when the iconic photograph was taken, the Chinese workers had left to attend a dinner in their honor hosted by Superintendent James H. Strobridge. As reported in the Sacramento Bee on May 12, 1869, “J.H. Strobridge, when the work was all over, invited the Chinese who had been brought over from Victory for that purpose, to dine at his boarding car. When they entered, all the guests and officers present cheered them as the chosen representatives of the race which have greatly helped to build the road…. a tribute they well deserved and which evidently gave them much pleasure.” Of the eight that laid the final rail, three of the Chinese workers – Ging Cui, Wong Fook, and Lee Shao – also participated in the fiftieth anniversary parade in 1919.

    A starting point for this more nuanced re-evaluation of the image is at the richly-documented Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum:

  14. Catherine Lavender
    Posted October 15, 2009 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    A clarification on my comment:

    The point I wish to make is this: The raw material — the photographic evidence — is there for us to make an historically accurate iconic image; however, we have chosen instead to make an image that was patently, transparently, consciously counter-historical into our iconic image of an event. The image’s status as counter-historical is not some imposition of “current day” concerns for multiculturalism; instead, the other documentation from that historical moment (contemporary accounts in newspapers and images created at the same time by the same photographers) show it to be counter-historical. And yet, it is the iconic image. That says, I would argue, a lot.

  15. Clarissa Lynn
    Posted October 15, 2009 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps the best way to encourage students to understand the difference between the West as the frontier and the place would be to conduct compare-contrast activities with students. Analyzing which people (if any) are depicted in the landscapes and the activities performed in them will help students grasp this abstract difference. I would likely choose Jewett, The Promised Land — The Grayson Family, 1850 and O’Sullivan, White House Ruin, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, 1873 to complete a model comparison with a whole class, before giving small student groups sets of two images (one representing the process of settlement and another representing place) to compare and contrast. I would start with the above images because it will help students understand that the concept of “frontier” exists in certain people’s point of view (namely European-Americans). By including images that feature the Anasazi cliff dwellings (evidence of civilization and settlement) it will enable a discussion on perspective so crucial to this topic. The O’Sullivan image further complicates the discussion if you address the way the photograph is taken to make the ruins look like a part of the scenery as opposed to the main element of the photo. This can provide the basis for the Eurocentric and racist tendency to relegate indigenous people and their cultures to a status near flora and fauna. By contrasting O’Sullivan’s photo to the human activity depicted in the Jewett painting, which forms the focal point in The Promised Land — The Grayson Family, students can grasp and criticize the perception of the frontier for white “civilization.”

    I cannot think of a more powerful way to use images in the classroom. Abstract concepts are particularly difficult when reaching ESL students as fluency level affects the ability to grapple with language the very complicated discussions that will follow most of the queries raised in the preceding posts. Using these images will provide a foundation on which to build vocabulary for rigorous discussion. I would also provide a detailed graphic organizer for students to guide their comparison. Some blank space should be left for students to create their own categories for comparison. Modeling a critical viewing of the images is of utmost importance. This will guide the students not only in how to analyze paintings, but also in the particular focus questions that will help generate a discussion of frontier vs. location.

  16. John McClymer
    Posted October 19, 2009 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    I did not know until I read Catherine’s post why there were no Chinese in the iconic “golden spike” photograph. leads to an iconic image of a different sort. It shows a giant leg belonging to the Workingmen’s Party of California literally booting the Chinese out of California. It sits atop the Regular Workingmen’s Ticket for the 1879 California Constitutional Convention for Santa Cruz County. Here is yet another “West,” the one that met the “East.” I use it as part of a very ambitious exercise called “Securing a White Man’s Country, 1877-1920” in my 19th Century U.S. course, (scroll down to Apr. 20).
    I would like to suggest that, in addition to thinking in terms of Argentina as a comparable case, a very excellent idea, we can also think in terms of an East/West dichotomy that underlay Chinese Exclusion. There are lots of visual materials that can help make this clear for students, some of them linked to on my course web site. And, in my quest to complicate my students understanding of their history, I follow the “Chinese Must Go” campaign with the uproar occasioned by the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Bureau of the Statistics of Labor calling French Canadians “the Chinese of the Eastern States” and their determination to prove that they were a “white people.”

  17. Mary Niall Mitchell
    Posted October 19, 2009 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Thanks to John McClymer for the links to his 19th-century course, and the great exercise about “securing a white man’s country”. On that note, I suppose that when we are looking at iconic photographs like the one Caroline has asked us to consider, there are “editorial” exclusions (like the Chinese workers) and then there are other exclusions–exclusions that relate not so much to the actual photograph, but to what viewers and subsequent generations have made of it. What we see is not a celebration of women’s work at “taming” the West, but rather, the promotion of the manual labor and technical mastery of men. And this should perhaps give us pause regarding the *potentially* gendered nature of the terms we use to describe visual representations of Western settlement. The photograph at Golden Spike is also a photograph of manly accomplishment, of (manly) civilization’s conquest of large swaths of “unpopulated” and rough terrain. To return to Caroline’s original query, I wonder, when we are looking at visual images, does the work of women fit less easily into the frame of “process” than it does into visions of the “frontier”? Or is it the other way around?

  18. Catherine Lavender
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    John McClymer is absolutely correct in suggesting the powerful image “The Chinese Must Go” – a reminder of the very real anti-Chinese sentiment that was the rule rather than the exception in the West. I wouldn’t want it to be misunderstood that my arguing for a more subtle reading of the absence of Chinese workers from the Promontory Point photograph is an attempt to say “it really wasn’t that bad – they invited them in for dinner!”

    Indeed, I would ask this: if the photograph had been taken fifteen minutes earlier, and those eight Chinese railroad workers had been in it, would that have sufficiently transformed the image into one which was not fraught with complications and untruth? For my own part, looking at the “Promontory Minus Fifteen Minutes” photograph would immediately raise the question of how eight Chinese workers – who, if you look at the images which reflect their presences, were brought in more because of their expertise and ability than in order to honor them – can possibly represent all the Chinese workers who built the Central Pacific. And that “merely symbolic” inclusion would have then to be linked to the realization that both those who made the image and those who made it iconic assumed that the process that the image served was not the Chinese workers’ process. This marks an even deeper exclusion that transcends the Promontory moment and stretches into history. The absence in the actual photograph takes on an even deeper meaning than the mere erasure of the Chinese from a historical moment; it represents exactly what John’s image “The Chinese Must Go” argued – the disowning of Chinese westerners from the West that they labored to make.

    Clarissa Lynn and Mary Niall Mitchell have raised the related issue of the exclusion of women from this story. And also, as it turns out, from the Promontory photograph, despite the fact that several women, like the Chinese workers, were also present at the ceremony. (One wonders if they were trundled off to have tea somewhere when the photograph was taken, but the Sacramento Bee is silent.) For a larger image of the Promontory photo, see:; and for images which include women from earlier in the day, see:

    “Officers of the U.P.R.R. at laying of Last Rail.” Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869.

    A.J. Russell Imperial View #226, detail


    Andrew J. Russell, Imperial View, “Laying of Last Rail.”

    Archived on the CPRR’s museum site is a commentary on J. N. Bowman’s article, “Driving the Last Spike at Promontory, 1869,” California Historical Quarterly, vol. XXVI (1957): 97-106 (

    “Bowman states there were few women present [at the ceremony], and states only two or three were seen in the photographs. One image by Russell, taken next to Durant’s special car, shows six women. There are other women in the photographs, not officials’s wives or family. One wonders who the woman on horse back is in the Russell image number 537, looking from the locomotive “Jupiter” to the “No. 119.” Presumably a number of women were part of the contingent of “locals” (from Corrine and near by) that were present at the ceremony. However, the number of individuals in attendance from surrounding communities was probably small because of the long, rough wagon road to the site. In the famous Russell photograph of the two locomotives pilot to pilot, the “champagne photograph,” there appears to be a Native American (with long hair in ponytails on each side of his head) standing in the throng just in front of the pilot of the UP #119. His face is in shadow under his hat, but lightening a digital photo brings him out.” (p. 61)

    Also interesting is this, from p. 60:

    “Most of the railroad work crews, several thousand in April, had been sent home, or remained at work camps miles east and west of Promontory Summit. There is some suggestion that officials feared that mob warfare might break out, especially between the Union Pacific’s Irish crews and the Central Pacific’s Chinese.”

    But, as Lynn and Mitchell point out, there is a much larger erasure of women in the process story, something that I hope we can discuss in more detail in the third section, which asks us to look at the place of women as both symbols and historical actors in the West. And I’d also point out that it is an erasure that Western women themselves have resisted, in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.