During the mid to late-1800s, the US West was expanding from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific under the phrase Manifest Destiny; a phrase coined by politicians stating how it was God’s will to have America expand from one ocean to the next. After the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark Expedition, the need for those to settle the wild lands was great. It wasn’t until the discovery of Gold when a surge of settlers and immigrants came forth to the West in hopes of new opportunity and fortune. In 1872, the painting “American Progress” by Jonathan Gast became a popular form of propaganda. This was due to how the painting encouraged settlers to move west and cultivate the lands through the embodiment of the US as an angelic form giving light and protection to the settlers moving onward as the Indians are left in the dark (Smallbone). In the end, only those who were to settle in the west would benefit from the advancement of society brought on by Manifest Destiny.
The almost religious depiction of the angel in Gast’s painting is seen sweeping majestically across the land carrying a book of some superior culture under her arm. Her book, presented in the light around the angel, symbolizes learning and enlightenment as it is being dispensed through telegraph wires behind her. As a result, Gast’s feminine form is bringing refinement to previously uncivilized areas, such as the ideals Christianity, owning land and slaves, and having a formal written language. According to John L. O’Sullivan’s Manifest Destiny, the United States “are the nation of progress, of individual freedom, of universal enfranchisement.” The angel, therefore, is the symbol of progress for the settlers entering the darker world of the western US as she guides the travellers in their covered wagons and provides light to those planting crops for their families. With the US being a nation of progress as O’Sullivan proclaims, the nation is “destined” to accomplish advancement of civilization for “the moral dignity and salvation of man” and “the immutable truth and beneficence of God.” (O’Sullivan) Such declarations feed into the myth of the US West being part of the nation as God’s will justified it. In reality, settlers had conquered the lands, nature, and the Indians who had lived there, using the word of God to justify their actions. Yet, there were individuals who did not express as much passionate about the concept of Manifest Destiny as many of their counterparts did. In relation, there wasn’t much documentation from their perspectives as the latter.
The need of civilizing uncharted lands brought other ideals in addition to farming, ownership, and Christianity; it brought upon the need of a domestic home life. This is especially poignant considering the figure bringing light and advancement for the settlers is a woman. Made especially evident during the California Gold Rush, men were in need of women as caretakers and homemakers. Yet, Gast’s painting is lacking in female figures other than angel, contributing to how the US West was considered to be a man’s world. The painting mainly consists of male setters travelling in covered wagons or carriages and farming the land in addition to male Indians on horseback with bare chests parallel to the wild buffalo. In reality, the most common groups travelling to the US West were middle-class families searching for a better life under the pretense of Manifest Destiny. Letters from William, Sarah, and George Swain to their mother describe now “lonesome” they feel in their journey to the West while accounting how sick one of the siblings became sick. A continuous theme within the letters is how the children hold their mother “tenderly” their hearts (Deverell and Hyde 256-260). Despite men being the majority of those who came to the West in hopes of riches and a prosperous life, it was the women were the ones in which a stable domestic home life was made possible. Just like the angel in the Gass painting, it was women who would be the ones in guiding the men into a home and family life, thereby civilizing the men in what was seen as a savage man’s world. As discussed in class, the need for women was great. In contrast, what wasn’t discussed was a woman’s need for man.
With the concept of civilizing a previously uncharted lands, comes the need to tame nature. Settlers plant crops, cut down trees to build homes, erect monuments, and mine the natural land in search of riches and other resources. In addition to the angelic figure carrying a book under her arm, she is carrying cables for a telegraph. Previously, means of communication was carried out through the short-lived Pony Express, which only lasted for eighteen months (Smallbone). Though the US West had previously been the territory for Native Americans, the arrival of the white men brought upon the ways of life accustomed to them from when they were living in the east; a stable home life of owning property and farming, earning a living, and innovating society. Examples of this include the telegraph replacing the Pony Express and the trains making the horse drawn carriage less commonplace. Each of the items mentioned are found in Gast’s American Progress. The advancements in the US would come with the help from Chinese, Native American, and African-American labor; in return, the labor force would be subjected into acting white without the benefits of obtaining the security and privilege the whites would have. Yet, there was little mentioning of whatever any of those who worked as a laborer were able to find any means of success and stability other than a belief relay of Chinese laborers being able to own and operate laundry services for the miners (Johnson 108, 114-115).
The myth of the US West being for the white settler to claim as part of God’s will was met with the reality of the land once belonging to the Indians being taken away often by force, tamed, and settled. The progress of Americans settling the US West with great success was at the hands of immigrant labor force (Johnson 114). Sadly, Gast’s painting does not portray those who aided the settlers and miners with their journey to the west. Indians are in the painting, but are depicted in the dark, stuck in part to their “savage” and “uncivilized” way of life. Gast’s painting symbolizes how the notion of Manifest Destiny was to benefit the white settlers and their families with promise of rich resources and new lands to conquer, but did not address the livelihoods of the Native peoples who once lived there. The harsh reality was that Gast served to have the way of the settlers improve without taking into concern of the lives of Indians, migrant workers, and the Mexicans.
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