John Gast’s American Progress was painted in 1872. It depicts the westward expansion of the United States. In the painting, settlers and then-novel technology, such as covered wagons, railroads, and horse-drawn carriages move westward, guided by an angel. The angel, a symbolic representation of American ideals and the Manifest Destiny philosophy, carries light towards the western frontier. In the painting the western frontier is represented as dark. It lacks the technology seen in the east, as in lieu of railroads and carriages, there are wild buffalo. Additionally, the painting has a stereotypical depiction of Native Americans.
American Progress will be an excellent addition to a history lesson on Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion. Students can study the painting and discuss how it reflects popular opinion of the time period. Additionally, they can discuss why the painting may have been designed the way it was (such as the light/dark contrast) and what effects those decisions may have had on viewers.
Integrating materials like American Progress has two benefits. Firstly, it exposes students to different mediums in the study of history. Incorporating artistic work allows students to explore a topic beyond the pages of a textbook. Secondly, it is an excellent way to demonstrate that studying a primary source can be fun and interesting.
American Progress (1872) John Gast
American Progress (1872) is a patriotic painting by John Gast portraying the beauty of our country’s expansion. Yet, was America’s expansion this destined, peaceful movement of the country spreading west? In the painting, Gast shows that it was the America’s destiny to expand, spread technology, and civilize the untamed west. Manifest Destiny was the idea that Americans were destined to rule the continent but it is totally incorrect because it allowed the Americans to take and destroy the land, the animals and native people. John Gast justified Manifest Destiny by using symbolism and imagery to show the west as uncivilized, wild and unruly which America must naturally colonize and dominate. In addition to this, the idea that westward expansion was peaceful is very incomplete and one-sided because, unlike the painting, the reality of America’s westward expansion was often violent as the United States believed that America was destined to expand.
John Gast’s perspective on Manifest Destiny is that the west was given to the Americans to settle. In actuality, the west belonged to the Native Americans who had lived there for thousands of years until the settlers came and took the land and put Native Americans on reservations. Gast portrays Manifest Destiny using the symbol of ‘Lady Liberty’ as an angelic looking woman floating above the landscape and guiding the American people west. She is an unstoppable force just like America’s destiny to expand. John Gast is a very patriotic man, yet his views are incorrect. Manifest Destiny was a way to justify the settling of Native American land and the destruction of the natural habitat. Is it hard to imagine the opposite Native American view after seeing the white people take their land, kill the bison, the natives’ main source of food, and then confine them on reservations? Manifest Destiny is a wrong and incorrect view of westward expansion, because it justified the conquering of the west and the destruction of a way of life.
A second major idea of John Gast’s perspective is the contrast between the east as a light place and the west as dark. What he is depicting is that the east is enlightened, a civilized place that has technology and is a very well educated. The darkness of the west is saying that it is a wild and uncivilized place, needing modern advancements. Native Americans, because they are on the left side of the painting are shown as a wild uncivilized inferior group running away from the superior white people. All of this led to the reasoning that is was okay for Americans to take their land, and force them to learn English. This view is also incorrect, for the Native Americans were civilized people that had very different cultures. That does not mean that the Americans were superior, and it should have meant that they should have respect for each other and their ways. Unfortunately this did not happen, as the Americans used the idea to justify their conquering of the west.
A final idea of John Gast's painting is that American expansion was a peaceful movement. In his painting there are hardly any weapons, only a hunter holding a gun, and a Native American, while raising his tomahawk, is running away. Since there are no weapons in the painting it subconsciously gives a peaceful feel to westward expansion just as Lady Liberty glides over the landscape in a non-threatening way. All of that detail shows Gast’s view that the expansion was a peaceful movement that was meant to happen. In reality, America’s westward expansion was full of bloody wars, fighting, killing, and massacres as the Native Americans resisted the attempt to take their land. There was lots of violence, but Gast did not put it into his painting because it would counter his patriotic and positive view of the westward expansion.
American Progress justified the conquering of the west. In his painting, John Gast’s ideas of Manifest Destiny, the contrast between the civilized east and ‘uncivilized’ west, and his belief that it was a peaceful expansion gave the impression that settling the west was the right thing to do. Even though some of this was true, historical evidence points to a different understanding of America’s westward expansion as it involved destroying the bison herds, breaking treaties and violent clashes. This painting, though, probably convinced many Americans to ‘Go West’ to the frontier believing that it was a great and noble undertaking. So did this perspective lead to the Massacre at Wounded Knee?
Source: Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
John Gast, a Brooklyn based painter and lithographer, painted this picture in 1872 on commission for George Crofutt, the publisher of a popular series of western travel guides. Few Americans saw the actual painting, but many encountered it in reproduction. Crofutt included an engraving of it in his guidebooks and produced a large chromolithographic version for his subscribers. The painting is so rich in detail that my students—encountering it as a slide projected on a screen—usually imagine it to be a large canvas. But in fact it is tiny, just 12 3/4 x 16 3/4 inches in size.
I use this image early on in my western history classes for several reasons. First, even students with little experience in talking about visual images find it easy to talk about what they see here. Second, students quickly grasp that although the painting does not convey a realistic representation of actual events, it nonetheless expresses a powerful historical idea about the meaning of America’s westward expansion. This sparks a discussion about the ways in which ideas—whether grounded in material fact or not—can both reflect and shape human actions. Finally, after a discussion of the larger cultural ideas embodied in this image, we move to a discussion of Frederick Jackson Turner’s celebrated 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Students quickly perceive that while Turner had a way with words, his argument was not wholly original. He distilled ideas already present in American popular thought and many of them are present in this painting, painted some two decades earlier.
As students begin to describe what they see, they quickly realize that they’re looking at a kind of historical encyclopedia of transportation technologies. The simple Indian travois precedes the covered wagon and the pony express, the overland stage and the three railroad lines. The static painting thus conveys a vivid sense of the passage of time as well as of the inevitability of technological progress. The groups of human figures, read from left to right, convey much the same idea. Indians precede Euro-American prospectors, who in turn come before the farmers and settlers. The idea of progress coming from the East to the West, and the notion that the frontier would be developed by sequential waves of people (here and in Turner’s configuration, always men) was deeply rooted in American thought.
Then, of course, there is that “beautiful and charming female,” as Crofutt described her, whose diaphanous gown somehow remains attached to her body without the aid of velcro or safety pins. On her head she bears what Crofutt called “the Star of Empire.” And lest viewers still not understand her role in this vision of American destiny, he explains: “In her right hand she carries a book—common school—the emblem of education and the testimonial of our national enlightenment, while with the left hand she unfolds and stretches the slender wires of the telegraph, that are to flash intelligence throughout the land.” The Indians flee from progress, unable to adjust to the shifting tides of history. The painting hints at the past, lays out a fantastic version of an evolving present, and finally lays out a vision of the future. A static picture conveys a dynamic story.
The ideas embodied in this painting not only suggest the broad sources for Turner’s essay about the importance of the frontier in American life, they suggest that his essay reached an audience for whom these ideas were already familiar. Students often imagine the issues raised by visual images to be peripheral to the more central questions raised by literary sources. The Gast painting, however, allows one to demonstrate the ways in which painters, too, could engage large historical questions, cultural stereotypes and political ideas, by using a visual vocabulary that viewers found both familiar and persuasive.