American Progress by John Gast, 1872
"Only to the White Man was nature a 'wilderness' and only to him was the land 'infested'
with 'wild' animals and 'savage' people. To us it was tame. When the very animals of the forest
began fleeing from his approach,then it was that for us the 'Wild West' began".
Luther Standing Bear, Oglala

"... the right of our manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent
which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty
and federaltive development of self government entrusted to us. It is right
such as that of the tree to the space of air and the earth suitable for the
full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth." John L Sullivan, 1845

American Progress by John Gast, 1872

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American Progress by John Gast, 1872

While Manifest Destiny was the “ideological conceit” (The Crowded Prairie, Coyne p5) which justified expansionism, visual propaganda like this engraving by John Gast was used to promote the westward movement of the population to link eastern and western states, to inspire thousands of easterners to seek out a new life in the new lands. The Mississippi- Missouri is left behind in the quest for new land.

This picture helps us to understand how popular perception of the time was ready to accept that individuals were taking part in something which was on a higher plane. The pseudo religious embodiment of the United States of America in a feminine, angelic almost godlike form sweeps majestically across the land, carrying her superior culture, learning and enlightenment under her arm, dispensing telegraph wires in her wake to bring refinement to previously uncivilised areas. Civilisation penetrates as far as the telegraph.

Native Americans flee before her so as not to be overtaken, as do wild animals such a bison, bears and horses. The almost subliminal message is that they are all of the same ilk, the people are dehumanised into creatures which makes their displacement more palatable. Behind the onward march of civilisation the country has been enlightened, the sky is bright, and everything is organized and ordered. But the land towards the Rockies is engulfed in black clouds of ignorance and backwardness, and mayhem and disorder reigns.

Around her the USA is helped by key players, all ordinary Americans, groups of individuals contributing to the common good. They are shown in the chronological way in which they contributed. In the foreground miners led the way, while they were closely followed by wagon trains carrying emigrants across to Oregon and California. The Pony Express appears next in the background, despite the brevity of its operation. It lasted only 19 months between April 1860 and October 1861 until it was rendered unviable by the introduction of the telegraph. This reveals how a peripheral service took on a symbolic importance at a time when Manifest Destiny was an accepted truth. It provided evidence of the new Americans' power in their ability to readily link east and west, thereby overcoming and in a sense beginning to control the wilderness of the Great Plains in between.

Next, in the foreground, we see the homesteaders moving onto the plains, breaking the sod and their backs in bringing a hostile terrain under cultivation. Finally come the stagecoach, and its replacement and true unifier of east and west coasts: the railroad, its importance underlined by its inclusion in many instances running into the distance.Of course, contrary to reality, there is not a black person to be seen.

Here we have the whole glorious colonisation of the savage waste by civilisation shown in one contemporary picture. It speaks very clearly for itself.

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© Chris Smallbone March2006