Sunday, December 10, 2006

The great movement west

The westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century is one of the pivotal periods in its history. But knowledge of what "the west" meant in this context came late to me. For long I had thought that the west referred to the geographic west of present-day United States, only to the states of California and Arizona, with Texas being a permissible anomaly. But in the United States of the mid nineteenth century, the west referred to lands that lay beyond the Mississippi river.

At the Olmstead County History Center today, I got a more complete sense of how far east the expanding frontier had been. The history center is in Rochester, in southeastern Minnesota, about fifty odd miles west of the Mississippi river (the river forms the tortuous boundary that separates Wisconsin from Minnesota). The exhibits and buildings at the center inform its visitors of the pioneer heritage of the region; there is a recreation of the log cabin of William Dee, one of the region's first settlers in the mid 1850s. At the time, a settler’s journey to this part of Minnesota involved traveling by rail, then a steamship, and finally a horse-drawn wagon. But the long journey was only the beginning. For upon arrival, the settler faced great uncertainty: he was far away from what was familiar; he was in a new land and had little knowledge of how to work it; he had the difficult task of being the first to identify the skills needed to survive.

The nineteenth century movement west - and the subsequent settlement there - has been one of the epic successes of America; and the spirit of those pioneer settlers, of working against odds in a new land, is celebrated and venerated time and again.

A wrought iron marker titled "Our Pioneer Heritage", just outside the main building of the history center – with the flag of the United States on a tall pole nearby – expresses respect and awe:
"The great westward migration which took place in the nineteenth century marked more than a settlement of new land. It gave witness to the birth of a new and unique creed of men. Perhaps no Americans met the challenge of their era so well as did our pioneer fathers. Olmstead County shares in the great traditions of this pioneer heritage. From the shores of the Atlantic, from New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana came her first citizens, and here in the valley of the Zumbro, in the land of the north star, they built their homes and raised their families. The way of life we enjoy had its beginning here in the crude log cabins that dotted the countryside.

From the days of the frontier, from the era of the ox-cart and the covered wagon, from the days of the Indian wars, come reflections which make us feel humbly grateful for their sacrifice and courage."
The only discordant note here – in what is otherwise a paean – is the mention of the Indian wars; it is a hint that the land wasn’t as empty and new as it might have seemed. But the guilt of Native American dispossession was swept aside by the perceived inevitability of the expansion. Indeed, for many Americans at the time the expansion was something ordained; it was destined to happen. The term Manifest Destiny came to define this belief.

In John Gast’s allegorical representation of the idea of Manifest Destiny (American Progress, circa 1872, shown in the picture above), Columbia, the female national personification of America (just as Uncle Sam is the male one), is shown as a white beacon of progress, an angel-like figure, leading men westward. She is stringing telegraph wires as she travels; and marching along with her are covered wagons, trains, and pioneers with cattle. At the back of the painting are boats and ships on what is possibly the Mississippi river. And ahead of her, fleeing from the advance, are Native Americans and wild animals; one of the depictions is that of a fleeing herd of buffalo to the left-centre of the painting.

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