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 frontierâ€”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 zoneâ€”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 swayâ€”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.
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 materialsâ€”paintings, photographs, maps, and the likeâ€”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).
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 confusingâ€”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”?