the Continent: 'Westward the Course of Empire'
Takes Its Way" (1868). Move cursor over the image
to see a real vision of the west.
"The Great West" (1870).
Click to enlarge.
A broad expanse of open green acreage, a train
safely through the mountains, and a clean, bustling town are
some of the motifs that show up repeatedly in Currier and Ives'
prints and that echo the cry throughout the country to go west.
In 1850, the population density west of the Mississippi, not
Americans, was less than five persons per square
In 1870, sections of seven states west of the Mississippi had
between five to 49.9 persons per square mile, and pockets of
population at 90 and 99.9 persons per square mile, but the vast
majority of the nation still held under five persons per square
Even by 1920, nine western states still had an average of fewer
than five persons per square mile. The west coast had five to
49.9 persons per square mile, but from North Dakota south and
east, population density ranged from five to 100 persons per
square mile. (26)
Despite what may seem like slow growth, more than
"11.5 million people migrated from Europe to the United
States between 1865 and 1895." (27)
Mechanization of farming and land grants attracted immigrants
to try their hand at farming; by 1880 about 2,500,000 farms
fed an urban population of 14,000,000. The land was fickle,
however, as were the weather and prices. Farmers throughout
the 1860s and 1870s became sensitive to the money markets, becoming,
for example, specialists in wheat, corn, hogs, or cattle. A
farmer could make or lose a fortune in a day.
(28) After the panic
of 1873, a surge of agricultural expansion pushed settlers and
emigrants west, where the land–unlike that pictured in
prints by Currier and Ives, in novels, and in the press, was
far from green.
As described in The Last Best Hope: A History
of the United States, this surge:
...carried settlement throughout the Great Plains,
a region long regarded as uninhabitable. As one moved westward
from the Mississippi River, rainfall decreased progressively
until, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, it was a mere fifteen
inches a year–far too little for any kind of farming
familiar to Americans. Most of this vast region was grasslands,
devoid of trees and thus lacking the material that farmers
depended on for fuel, shelter, furniture, and fencing. Traditional
game was scarce. Summers resembled the Sahara and winters
the Artic (586).
"Across the Continent: 'Westward the Course of Empire
Takes Its Way'" was titled after an 1861 painting by Emanuel
Leutze. The painting and its copycat print were meant to illustrate
and encourage what John L. Sullivan in 1845 called "the
fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent
allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly
Notice that in the Currier and Ives prints the railroad lines
point the eye west, regardless of which way the train is facing.
Unlike European artistic compositions, which directed the eye
toward whatever was most aesthetically pleasing in the picture,
nearly all the pictures of the great migration direct the eye
leftward, or toward the West. This is true of both "high"
and "low" (popular) art (80).
In "Across the Continent," not only do telegraph
and rail lines, mountains, and the wagon trail all lead infinitely
westward, but "Currier and Ives also separate Western progress
and its rectilinear shapes from the organic, doomed Native American
world it would destroy" (85).
Whatever elements of the West were like the "West"
of American mythology came and went so fast that few Americans
experienced it before it had not only been tamed but was permanently
It was not the promised land. It was a desert that required
irrigation and fencing to turn it into farmland, Chinese and
Irish labor to cross it with railroads, the U. S. Cavalry and
reservations to make it "habitable," and nostalgia
to make it palatable.