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The Picture

This print is a perfect illustration of Manifest Destiny, the odious concept which the new Americans used to justify taking the land previously utilised by the native Americans. Manifest Destiny considered the use to which the new Americans put the land to be intrinsically better and more justified as they were “taming” a savage wilderness, rather than living with it, as the natives had done. The picture underlines the importance of the railroad in leading civilization into the interior, putting down its unnaturally straight lines to begin to give the area, formerly known as “The Great American Desert” a structure and form easily recognizable to the new Americans who were untrained in recognizing patterns in natural formations. In the foreground this is also the case in the building of a settlement, and the people are busy, purposeful, law abiding white citizens.The title of the lithograph underlines the imperial aspirations of the new Americans, the rairoad was instrumental in uniting the eastern and western states, enabling the Great Plains to be populated by new Americans at the expense of the native peoples.

"Currier & Ives" was the name used by a New York printmaking firm from 1857 until 1907, although the business had been in operation since 1834under different names.

Neither Nathaniel Currier nor James Ives was an artist. Currier was a printmaker and businessman, Ives started as the firm's bookkeeper in 1852 and five years later became Currier's partner. Although all Currier & Ives prints were published by the partners, they were drawn and lithographed by other persons.

As in this case most Currier & Ives prints are hand coloured lithographs, but Currier & Ives did issue some of uncoloured prints. The prints were intended for a mass market, so they were not expensive. The smaller prints sold for about 20 cents each and the larger ones for between $1 and $3. The smaller and less expensive prints were usually coloured by a group of young women, each applying a different colour, and images with large runs were often coloured using stencils. The larger and more expensive prints generally were coloured individually by skilled artisans.

The Currier & Ives firm was in the business of producing lithographed prints intended to be sold to the general public for framing and display in the home or at work. Calling themselves "Printmakers to the People," they provided for the American public a pictorial history of their country's growth from an agricultural society to an industrialized one. For nearly three quarters of a century they produced "Coloured Engravings for the People" and so provided a visual history of America which was accessible and intelligible to the new Americans, and as such can help us to understand attitudes of the time.

Overview: Extended Version


Making Sense of the Plains Wars
North and South: an Overview

"The white man made us many promises, but
they never kept but one. They promised
to take our land, and they took it."
Red Cloud, Oglala

Across the continent  Westward the Course of Empire takes its Way, Currier and Ives 1868

Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire takes its Way,
Currier and Ives 1868

The American West: An Overview

By the end of the nineteenth century the United States, chief imperial world power today, had grown right across the continent of America whereas at the beginning of the century it neither owned, valued nor even knew about the vast tract of land across the centre. The Great Plains, as it came to be known, has been referred to on the map as "The Great American Desert". As the new Americans pushed the frontier further and further westward myths were created as they established their culture at the expense of that of the indigenous people. What makes this period so remarkable is the speed at which this occurred: in 1840 the frontier was roughly at the Mississippi-Missouri, still only about one third of the way across the continent. Just two generations later, by 1890, the indigenous people had been supplanted and the new Americans’ self proclaimed "Manifest Destiny" had been realised. Apart from one or two later additions today's map of the United States was firmly in place.

Within the Great Plains all the peoples were not affected in the same way. First the Oregon Trail and later the transcontinental railroad drove a wedge across the Plains, splitting this environment and those who depended upon it into two. The native inhabitants of the plains were not directly linked throughout this time period, for the indigenous peoples acted independently of each other and some even allied themselves with the new Americans against other Native Americans. So, to understand the events of the Plains whereby the indigenous peoples and the life giving bison were supplanted and replaced by " speckled cattle and the festive cowboy" (General Philip Sheridan) and homesteaders attracted by the offer of “free” land on which to subsist; we need to clearly distinguish between those peoples who inhabited the most desirous area for settlement in the central and southern parts of the plains ( Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho) and those who lived to the north.

Overview: Extended Version

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© Chris Smallbone September2005