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"Surmounting Every Barrier", yet "Trampling on People"
Real Roads, Rail Roads and Visions of the West

Timothy K. Conley


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"I see over my own continent," Walt Whitman confidently, gloriously proclaimed in "Passage to India" (1871), "the Pacific railroad surmounting every barrier":

I see continual trains of cars winding along the Platte carrying
freight and passengers,
I hear the locomotive rushing and roaring, and the shrill
I hear the echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world.

(longer version)


A different view of the arrival of Euro-Americans and their engines appears in the Native-American oral poem, "They Came from the East":


They came from the east when they arrived.
Then Christianity also began.
. . .
it was the beginning of tribute,
the beginning of church dues,
the beginning of strife with purse-snatching,
the beginning of strife with blow guns;
the beginning of strife by trampling on people.

(longer version)

The Euro-American conquest of the west and the building of the transcontinental railroad, "rushing and roaring" across an apparently deserted but certainly grand landscape, in fact depended upon such trampling for its success. To justify this conquest, Euro-American writers supplied an imaginative vision of the nation, the land, and Indian peoples so that the outcome would appear both just and inevitable. This vision had three primary components: Exceptionalism, Expansionism, and Indianism.


Exceptionalist rhetoric established the divinely-ordained mission of the United States to serve as a beacon for the entire world--or at least for the decadent European world. Even writers apparently sympathetic to Indian peoples (such as Freneau) accepted the premises of exceptionalism, which identified the United States as uniquely free of European tyranny and thus justified, in fact impelled to establish its domain over the entire continent. Crevecoeur (in the early Letters), Whitman, and even Thoreau, who is typically seen as an oppositional voice, express a remarkably similar confidence in national destiny.

Many of these same writers express a similar confidence in Expansionist terms of both personal and cultural transformation. Franklin, Freneau, Bryant, Thoreau, and Whitman envision a continually expanding national boundaries and, particularly in Thoreau’s and Whitman’s writings, a concomitant expansion of the self.


Such an expansion would, as the writers themselves acknowledge, encounter opposition from the Indian peoples living within these bounds. It therefore became essential to construct an imaginative model of "the Indian" as either a primitive savage to be eliminated (or perhaps converted, itself a type of elimination), or as a romantic (and dead) savage to be eulogized. Thus, writers in many ways sympathetic to Indian causes (e.g., Freneau, Cooper, Bryant, Irving) themselves participated in the construction of an Indianism which could be used to justify the conquest.


zitkala-sa1.gif (8858 Byte)Such an Indianism, however, was rejected by the peoples whom it pretended to describe and praise. The words of Tecumseh, John Ridge, Black Hawk, and Zitkala-Sa remind us that such Indianism did not triumph without opposition. Among the Euro-American writers we considered, both Hawthorne and Thoreau opposed unbridled acceptance of technology, Fuller opposed America’s sir-mounting, and Garland opposed the effects of monopoly capitalism.


The West may have been won, the frontier closed, and every barrier surmounted, but only with the aid of the rhetoric of Exceptionalism, Expansionism, and Indianism and not without subduing voice in opposition.

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