The American march of destiny
or
The West of Life and Legend
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John Gast, American Progress

"The building of the Union Pacific is more than an episode in history; it is a great American myth. The story of how this proud enterprise was ruined by rapacious promoters is an integral part of the myth as the romantic versions of the explorations that preceded the road, the battles with the Indians, the armies of men pounding an Anvil Chrorus across the plains, the race to finish and the driving of the golden spike. Those who cherish the myth in all its aspects need not to be distraught because of the rummaging of scholars. Once formed, myths are sturdy things. They can withstand the findings of a dozen documented studies. The myth of the Union Pacific is probably invincible. The Indians will continue to be routed, the golden spike will continue to be driven, and the road will conntinue to be ruined by unscrupulous promoters in story and song, regardless of what is written in history books." (from: Robert William Fogel, The Union Pacific Railroad - A Case in Premature Enterprise)

 

Frederick J. Turner's 'Thesis of the American Frontier'

When in 1890 the closing of the frontier was made public, the historian Frederick J. Turner, professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, held a speech three years later in front of the 'American Historical Association' in Chicago in which he developed a completely new interpretation of American history which from then on was known as his 'thesis of the frontier'. In his thesis, Turner stated that the American frontier was clearly more than a 'safety valve' for social conflicts in the regions already settled. It was the frontier, he stated, that for America and Americans had always served as a kind of 'fountain of youth', a means thus of national rejuvenation that had constantly renewed the concept of American democracy. It was in the tradition of Jefferson that Turned described the pioneer going west as the carrier and symbol of American democracy. In brief, it was the frontier that made America different from Europe and that allowed Americans to carry forward (=westward) the torch of progress. This myth of the frontier has survived until today, reinforcing the Americans' belief in the uniqueness and desitny of their country that allows and seemingly justifies the role they are playing in the world today.

marchofdestiny.jpg (51766 Byte)In the mid-nineteenth century, as the West acquired a decidedly American imprint, the region became the focus of a particularly nationalistic school  of painting that celebrated the region and its recent American settlers as an expression of the country's democratic values and boundless possibilities. Not surprisingly, such art was generally created by those who interpreted 'Western' history as a triumph of American culture. Art by natives conveyed, of course, a somewhat different story.

 

 

 

Politicians too (or their greed) readily embraced the idea of the (commercial) opening of the American West ...
Speech of Congressman Whitney in the 28th Congress: "...the transcontinental once built, the drills and sheeting of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, and the other manufactures of the United States, may be transported to China in thirty days; and the teas and rich silks of China, in exchange, come back to New Orleans, to Charleston, to Washington, to Baltimore, to Philadelphia, to New York, and to Boston, in thirty days more. [...] Comment is unnecessary. Your honorable body will readily see the revolution to be wrought by this in the entire commerce of the world, and that this must be inevitably be its greatest channel - when the rich freights from the waters of the Mississippi and the Hudson will fill to overflowing, with the products of all the earth [...] It would be the only channel for the commerce of all the western coast of Mexico and South America, of the Sandwich Islands, Japan, all China, Australia, Java, Singapore, Calcutta, and Bombay - not only all ours, but the commerce of all Europe, to most of these places, must pass this road.
Europeans were lured like this...
The West looked like that...
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You see that Frederick Jackson’s frontier thesis of 1893 was somewhat inaccurate. Not only that more land would be settled in the 20th century than in the nineteenth, but his ethnocentric omission of the Native Americans’ claims to the lands is, from a present-day point of view, rather striking. Indeed, Turner’s west turned out to be exactly the legendary and mythic ‘West’ that had taken deep roots in American imagination and society. It is a west that is a product of songs, novels and paintings and a west that stands in opposition to the real west; the west of farmers, miners, prostitutes, railroad barons and Natives. Turner’s west is a legendary west, Huck Finn’s west, a place of adventure, romance and contemplation, where one can escape from society and its pressures. "The expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society," he argued, "furnish the forces dominating the American character." The frontier experience, he continued, had produced a practical, inventive, self-reliant people who valued individualism and freedom because they had experienced them firsthand in the wide-open spaces of the West. Overlooking the senseless violence and ruthless exploitation of the land and its original dwellers, Turner unconsciously demonstrated the powerful hold of the frontier on the national imagination. Turner, in fact, was caught up himself in a myth that expressed the West’s numerous so-called ‘opportunities’ for personal and nationalistic gain. The settlement of the West can thus be regarded from two perspectives: on the one hand as a formidable episode in the social, economic and political history of the United States, and on the other as a great mythic process that would help Americans to come to terms more easily with their problematic past.

 

back to: The Building of the Transcontinental Railroads

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