American Studies Home Site Map Gallery of Prints Writing Across the Curriculum Currier & Ives Introduction Currier & Ives Opening

The Great West

Wagons head west; a real wagon crosses the prairie.
Across the Continent: 'Westward the Course of Empire' Takes Its Way" (1868). Move cursor over the image to see a real vision of the west.

A train chugs through the Rockies.
"The Great West" (1870).
Click to enlarge.

A broad expanse of open green acreage, a train carting immigrants 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 including Native Americans, was less than five persons per square mile. (24) 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 mile. (25) 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 multiplying millions." (29)

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 transformed.

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.

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American Studies Home Site Map Gallery of Prints Writing Across the Curriculum Currier & Ives Introduction Currier & Ives Opening

Site created by Marcy McDonald, American Studies, UVA. Last modified: July 30, 2005. E-mail: asgrp@virginia.edu

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