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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Masculine Heroes Masculine Heroes – Activities

Overview Questions

  • How did racial tensions complicate and challenge the expansionist goals articulated in many American texts of the nineteenth century?
  • How did gender impact immigrants’ experiences and opportunities in the American West?
  • How do texts by African American, Native American, and Latino writers expand and transform concepts of American citizenship, identity, and masculinity?
  • What are the distinguishing characteristics of the epic? How do writers in Unit 5 draw on and transform the tradition of the epic?
  • What characterizes the historical novel? What historical periods or events did nineteenth-century historical novelists see as appropriate subjects for their books? Why were historical novels so popular among nineteenth-century American readers?
  • What genres count as literature? How do letters, memoirs, and songs challenge the traditional borders of “the literary”?
  • What is a “frontier”? How have American ideas about the frontier changed over time?
  • What kinds of attitudes toward nature and the environment were prevalent in nineteenth-century American culture?
  • How did the concept of Manifest Destiny impact nineteenth-century American political policies and literary aesthetics?
  • What kinds of ideals and values do corridos advocate? How did corridos influence the development of Chicano literature?
  • What are the distinguishing characteristics of free verse? How did Whitman’s development of free verse influence subsequent American poetry?
  • What ideals of masculinity helped shape the nineteenth-century figure of the American hero?
  • How were symbols and language usually associated with Anglo-American “patriotism” borrowed, appropriated, and transformed by African American, Native American, and Latino writers and artists?
  • How have American attitudes toward landscape and the environment changed over time?
  • How were the figures of the bandit and the outlaw represented in popular texts of the mid- to late nineteenth century? What kinds of myths came to surround these figures?

Video Activities

How do place and time shape the authors’ works and our understanding of them?
Video Comprehension Questions: Why did thousands of people go to California in the 1840s and 1850s?
Context Questions: What was the difference between Ridge’s and Whitman’s views of the railroad and the people who worked on it? What role did the railroad play in American expansion?
Exploratory Questions: How did Cooper bring American history into his works? What events did he see as appropriate for his historical novels? How did his use of American history affect subsequent American literature?

What is an American? How does American literature create conceptions of the American experience and identity?
Video Comprehension Questions: What different groups inhabited the American West in the nineteenth century?
Context Questions: Why did Cooper use female body imagery to describe the American landscape? What role did women play in American expansion? How did this role conform to and deviate from nineteenth-century ideals of femininity and domesticity?
Exploratory Questions: How did Ridge critique U.S. policy in California in his novel The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta? How did his creation of a bandit hero affect American mythology and the development of later American literary heroes?

How are American myths created, challenged, and reimagined through this literature?
Video Comprehension Questions: What is “Manifest Destiny”? Who was excluded from the America that nineteenth-century proponents of Manifest Destiny envisioned?
Context Questions: What is the relationship between Joaquin Murieta, the outlaw hero, and Natty Bumppo, the woodsman who lives on the border between Native American and white culture? How do these characters challenge the societies they live in? How are they implicated in the very systems they oppose?
Exploratory Questions: How did Walt Whitman’s ideals of inclusiveness shape American literature and American poetry?

Creative Response

  1. Journal: Imagine that you live next door to Caroline Kirkland in the village of Pinckney, Michigan. Write a letter to a friend who is curious about your experience in Michigan. Include a description of how you feel about Kirkland and her family. Do you see her as an asset to the community? How do you feel about the descriptions of Pinckney that appear in the book she published?
  2. Journal: Imagine that you are a miner in Rich Bar, California. Write a letter to a friend in which you detail your day-to-day life in the mining camp. You might also include a description of Louise Clappe. How do you and the rest of the miners in the community view her?
  3. Poet’s Corner: Using the translations of the corridos in the archive as models, write your own corrido about a contemporary person whom you view as a hero. Whom did you choose as the subject of your corrido? How did you use rhythm and repetition in your corrido? What problems did you encounter in fitting your subject into the corrido form?
  4. Poet’s Corner: Find a short poem that you like that uses conventional forms of meter and rhyme. Drawing inspiration from Whitman’s poetry, translate the poem into free verse. How does the absence of rhyme and meter affect the poem? What problems did you encounter in translating the poem from one form to another?
  5. Artist’s Workshop: After looking at the Native American flag art in the archive, draw a design for a piece of clothing or other object on which you will put your own version of the American flag. Feel free to abstract or modify the patterns and designs of the flag. Explain the significance of the artifact you’ve designed and how your representation of the flag reflects your vision.
  6. Multimedia: Referring to himself as the embodiment of America in “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman proclaimed, “I contain multitudes.” What do you think he meant? What kinds of “multitudes” made up nineteenth-century American culture? Using the American Passages archive and slide-show software, create a multimedia presentation showing the diversity of American culture in the nineteenth century. Include captions that explain and interpret the images you choose.

Problem-Based Learning Projects

“How can I get my students to think?” is a question asked by many faculty, regardless of their disciplines. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method that challenges students to “learn to learn,” working cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems. These problems are used to engage students’ curiosity and initiate learning the subject matter. PBL prepares students to think critically and analytically, and to find and use appropriate learning resources.” — Barbara Duch, University of Delaware

  1. You are a lawyer hired by the Cherokee tribe to help them fight the Indian Removal Act, which they believe is unjust and should be overturned. You need to make your case convincing to the political authorities who can overturn the act. What courts or government agencies will you petition? How will you argue your position? What kind of evidence will you use? What kind of testimony will you solicit?
  2. You are a Mexican or Chinese miner forced off your claim by the Foreign Miners’ Tax, which you cannot afford to pay. Prepare a petition to the California legislature in which you argue for your right to continue mining even though you are not a citizen of the United States. Be sure to address the issue of how your presence–and the presence of other “foreign” immigrants–affects the economy, culture, and environment in California.
  3. You have been asked to design an amusement park with a “frontier” theme. While your goal is to make the park fun, engaging, and accessible to children and families, you are also concerned that your representation of the “frontier” be accurate. How will you interpret the idea of the frontier? What will you call your park? How will you portray the history of American expansion and westward migration? What activities and exhibits will you provide for visitors to the park?

America Unbridled: The Iron Horse and Manifest Destiny

[7363] Union Pacific Railroad, Map of the Union Pacific Rail Road and Its Connections (1868), courtesy of the University of Michigan and the Making of America Project.

The development of the railroad system transformed American culture, physically binding the country together and enabling people to travel long distances in short periods of time and in relative comfort. The railroad broke traditional geographic barriers that had restricted trade, commodity flow, and immigration, thus speeding the process of American expansion and producing unprecedented economic opportunities. In their early stages of development at the beginning of the nineteenth century, railroads were constructed mainly to link urban, metropolitan areas in the East. But with the ascension of the concept of Manifest Destiny over the course of the nineteenth century, Americans’ desire for a transcontinental railroad intensified. A moral justification for expansion, Manifest Destiny refers to the popular belief that American control of the land that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific was inevitable and divinely sanctioned. Because of this culturally arrogant conviction of the United States’s “right” to western lands, American policymakers had few scruples about displacing Native Americans, Mexicans, and other groups who already inhabited the land from the Great Plains to California.

The transcontinental railroad seemed symbolic of America’s destiny to stretch “from sea to shining sea,” so public interest in and support for the railroads increased over the century. The nation’s total mileage of track multiplied from 9,000 in 1850 to 30,000 in 1860. By 1870 there were 94,000 miles of railroad track in the United States, and by 1900 there were 199,000. While some of this construction filled out the urban eastern network, much of it went into the grand project of building the transcontinental lines that ran across the sparsely settled plains and through the rugged mountains and canyons of the West. Railways were also important to the development of National Parks. As Joshua Scott Johns points out in the online exhibit “All Aboard: The Role of the Railroads in Protecting, Promoting, and Selling Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks,” “From the earliest days of discovery to the crucial National Park Act of 1916, the process of park development was shaped by needs of the railroads–from acquiring investors to selling mass-market tourism, they modified their advertising strategies to win the patronage of new passengers with the promise of fulfilling their expectations of the West in ‘America’s playgrounds.'”

Although the railroads were the first “big business” enterprise in the United States and created enormous profits for the tycoons that ran them, the transcontinental project was largely fueled by government grants. Issuing both federal land and cash grants, the government subsidized the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroads’ work of laying track from Omaha to Sacramento. The dubious financial practices of the men who ran the railroads–they controlled every aspect of the rail system from real estate to construction and thus found it easy to engage in profiteering–earned them the pejorative title “robber barons.” Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton offers a searing critique of the robber barons’ monopolistic business practices in her novel The Squatter and the Don. Featuring the four men who headed the California railroad monopoly (known as the “Big Four”) as characters in her book, she indicts their immoral business manipulations and unfair control over the economic resources of the state. In the novel, the Big Four, in collusion with Congress, ensure the failure of a proposed rail line, interfere with the prosperity of San Diego, and create financial hardships for honest working people. As Ruiz de Burton so vividly demonstrates in her portrait of the fate of San Diego, exclusion from the rail line could spell doom for a town.

While the railroad could have an enormously stimulating effect on local economies, promoting growth through easy immigration and the efficient transport of commodities, it could also lead to the failure of certain economies and the destruction of certain ways of life. By expediting the immigration of European American settlers, the railroad hastened Native Americans’ expulsion from much of their traditional western land. The railroad famously led to the demise of the culture of the cowboys, making long-distance cattle herding obsolete because livestock could be transported more efficiently by rail car. Nat Love’s career as a cowboy came to an end with the growth of the rail system, a setback he responded to by simply taking a job as a porter on the railroad. The expansion of the railroad also enabled the destruction of natural resources: the ease with which lumber could be shipped led to the demise of the white pine in the Great Lakes region. While buffalo herds were already endangered by wasteful European American hunting practices long before the completion of the transcontinental railroads, the trains sealed their doom by allowing passengers to shoot defenseless animals from inside the cars. As the train approached a herd, passengers opened the windows, pointed their rifles, and fired at random. The animals they killed were usually left to rot where they fell.

Nor was the railroad without physical dangers for its human passengers and employees. In its early years, travel by rail was a somewhat risky enterprise, as fires and derailments were common. But the dangers of riding in a train could not begin to compare to the hazards of laying track and building the rail line. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific exploited inexpensive labor, hiring primarily African Americans and Irish and Chinese immigrants to do the difficult work of constructing the transcontinental line. The Chinese workers (referred to as “coolies”) who manned the Central Pacific crews, in particular, faced extremely dangerous working conditions as they graded and hauled the road through the rugged Sierra mountains. Many Chinese men died in the process of laying the transcontinental railroad. While the completion of the transcontinental line in May of 1869 was a much-celebrated national event–a golden spike was installed where the railroads met at Promontory, Utah–it is important to remember that this industrial feat came at the high price of many human lives.

Railroad companies also relied on exploitative labor practices to provide service to passengers within the cars. The porter positions on the Pullman Palace Car Company, for instance, were occupied almost exclusively by African American men who were not eligible for better-paying jobs as engineers or mechanics. Judging from his autobiography, Nat Love apparently found satisfaction in his career as a Pullman Porter, but perhaps he did not feel comfortable recording any resentment or disappointment he might have felt. Eventually, labor dissatisfaction came to a head in the railroad industry. In 1893, railroad employees banded together to form the American Railway Union. A large-scale strike known as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 crippled rail transit, and the Pullman employees went on strike in 1894. While none of these early attempts at labor organization resulted in significant reforms, they did lay the groundwork for later, more successful protests.

In the American imagination, railroads were symbols of optimism and democracy, creating economic opportunity and connecting the vast expanses of the country. And in important ways, the railroads really did function like this. People were able to travel through the country with new ease and speed and many Americans felt their country to be more unified as a result. In their development of efficient timetables, the railroads even created the Standard Time Zones that put citizens on the same schedules, a phenomenon that was originally known as “railroad time.” Whatever its potential as an agent of democracy and unity, however, the railroad also enabled monopolies, natural destruction, and human exploitation.



  1. Comprehension: What is the concept of Manifest Destiny?
  2. Comprehension: What was the transcontinental railroad? How was it constructed? Why was it so important to nineteenth-century Americans?
  3. Comprehension: Read the anti-railroad broadside featured in the archive. This piece of propaganda was part of a campaign to curtail railroad expansion in the urban areas of the East. What are the writer’s objections to the railroad? What kinds of dangers does the railroad pose to the community?
  4. Context: How does Walt Whitman describe the railroad in his poetry? Why might it have been an important symbol for him?
  5. Context: Consider why Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton featured the California railroad tycoons in her novel. Why did she use their real names? What risks did she take in doing so? What is the effect of the insertion of these “real people” into a piece of historical fiction?
  6. Context: What was Nat Love’s position on the Pullman line? Why do you think he included photographs of his experience working for the railroad in his autobiography? What do the photographs tell you about the nature of his work? What kind of satisfaction did he find in his job?
  7. Exploration: Why do you think escaping slaves adopted the symbolic term “railroad” to describe their support system? What did the Underground Railroad have in common with a real railroad? Why might this symbol have appealed to abolitionists and runaways?
  8. Exploration: Rail travel is no longer the primary mode most Americans use for long-distance travel. What kinds of transportation have replaced the railroad? Do they occupy a similar position in the popular imagination? Can you think of any industrial or technological developments of the twentieth century that have created the same kind of national excitement that the transcontinental railroad did in the nineteenth century?
  9. Exploration: In “The Virgin and the Dynamo” (The Education of Henry Adams), Henry Adams claims that “his historical neck [was] broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new” when he viewed the dynamo and steam engines at the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900. What was so revolutionary about turn-of-the-century technology that it would have this impact on Adams? What place did the railroads take in this technological revolution?

[1768] Anonymous, Poster circulated in Philadelphia in 1839 to discourage the coming of the railroad (1839),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Still Pictures Branch.
This poster cites public safety, local commerce, and even the city’s self-identity as potential casualties of a new railroad running through Philadelphia.

[2020] Anonymous, President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite National Park (1903),
courtesy of the National Park Service.
Concerns about preserving wilderness increased as the frontier disappeared. John Muir and President Roosevelt helped ensure the success of early conservation efforts. Railroads played a crucial role in establishing and maintaining national parks.

[3712] Anonymous, Chinese Man Carrying Buckets (“Utah”) (c. 1890),
courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection.
Chinese laborers were an indispensable part of the effort to build the western segment of the transcontinental railroad. Bret Harte’s “The Heathen Chinee” can be contrasted with Chinese immigrants’ poems written on the walls of Angel Island, the Ellis Island of the West Coast.

[7358] Anonymous, Joining the Tracks for the First Transcontinental Railroad, Promontory, Utah Territory, 1869,
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Still Pictures Branch.
The ceremonial completion of the transcontinental railroad was signaled by the driving of a golden spike inscribed with the words “May God continue the unity of our Country as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world.”

[7359] Fanny F. Palmer, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1868),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-3757].
The railroad and telegraph divide civilization and wilderness in this 1868 lithograph. The tension between the crowded settlement and the open landscape hints at both the expansion of America and the abundance of unsettled land.

[7363] Union Pacific Railroad, Map of the Union Pacific Rail Road and Its Connections (1868),
courtesy of the University of Michigan and the Making of America project.
This map shows the route of the transcontinental railroad from the Atlantic to the Pacific; it was completed in 1869 after just seven years of construction. Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroad companies worked from Sacramento, California, and Omaha, Nebraska, respectively, to meet at the midpoint of Promontory, Utah.

Competing Claims: The California Gold Rush

[1303] Francis Samuel Marryat, The Winter of 1849 (1855), courtesy of Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

On January 24, 1848, gold was discovered in California at Sutter’s Mill in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The find sparked a national and international craze as people from all over the world were seized by “gold fever” and headed to California to “strike it rich.” Known as “Forty-niners” or “Argonauts” after the adventurers in Greek mythology who hunted the Golden Fleece, the immigrants contributed to an unprecedented population explosion in the American West. Over the course of a few months San Francisco was transformed from a village of 459 people to a city with more than 20,000 residents. The Gold Rush immigrants were overwhelmingly male, but beyond their sex they did not have much in common: the mines drew white Americans from the East Coast and the South, African Americans (both slaves and freemen), Europeans, South Americans, Australians, and Mexicans. In California, these diverse groups encountered the Hispanic and Native American populations that already inhabited the area. The many nations, colors, classes, and creeds represented in the gold fields made nineteenth-century California a place where access to resources, distributions of power, and notions of social order were debated and contested. Adding to the instability, few of the Gold Rush immigrants were interested in permanently settling in California; instead, they intended to amass a fortune quickly and then return home.

In reality, few people found the riches that the legends, stories, and promotional brochures promised. To the miners’ disappointment, the streets of California were not paved in gold. Mining was dirty, frustrating, tiring work. Individual “placer” miners used picks to chip gold from rock deposits and pans and “sluice boxes” to sift gold from the dirt and gravel of riverbeds. Most miners lived in primitive, makeshift camps where diseases such as cholera and scurvy were rampant and mob violence was common. Many men found that their mining work produced only what Louise Clappe, in her descriptions of life in the mining camps, called “wages”–enough to live on from day to day but not enough to save. Commodities in the boomtowns were extremely expensive since high demand and scarce resources allowed merchants to charge steep “gold rush prices.” Gambling halls, saloons, and brothels set up shop around the mining camps, selling alcohol and entertainment to the miners in their leisure time. A cycle of boom and bust ensured that many miners left California as poor as they had been when they arrived.

People who had the foresight to set up businesses outfitting the miners and supplying them with necessities made more stable fortunes. Companies in the East sold camp equipment, mining tools, and guidebooks to men planning to head to the gold fields. Merchants and entrepreneurs followed the miners to areas where strikes had been made and set up boarding houses, grocery stores, saloons, brothels, and other service businesses. Chinese immigrants, who often faced systematic discrimination and harassment in the mines, sometimes opened washhouses providing laundry services for miners. According to the Museum of the City of San Francisco, by 1876 there were 151,000 Chinese in the United States, of whom 116,000 were in the state of California. Their experiences did not go unrecorded: as literary critic Xiao-huang Yin recounts in Chinese American Literature since the 1850s, early Chinese immigrants recorded their experiences in numerous forms, ranging from newspaper stories, to autobiographical texts, to writings on the walls of Angel Island by detainees (Angel Island was a point of entry for many Asian American immigrants), to educational writings by students and scholars who came to America to complete their studies. These early testimonials provide an important counterpoint to other writings from the gold camps, writings that were often negative in their portrayals of Chinese immigrants. This alternative vision of life in early California becomes the setting for twentieth-century author Maxine Hong Kingston’s novel China Men (1980).

The rags-to-riches stories of Mexican women making fortunes selling tortillas and white women turning enormous profits selling biscuits also speak to the extraordinary business opportunities in the mining camps. Many of these businesses were short-lived–boomtowns tended to disappear almost as quickly as they sprang up–but some entrepreneurs turned sizeable profits and were able to follow the miners to the next strike.

Sometimes, the cultural and racial diversity of the gold fields led to harmonious and mutually beneficial interaction: miners successfully shared tents, food, domestic labor, and economic partnerships with people of other ethnicities and language groups. But tension, conflict, and hostility could also characterize intercultural encounters in the mining camps. Because few mining towns had established police forces or stable systems of justice, miners could often get away with using violence and intimidation to harass their competition and force rival “placers” from their claims. Eventually, official United States policy formalized discrimination toward non-American miners with the passage of the Foreign Miners’ Tax Laws of 1850 and 1852. Levying a steep licensing tax on all non-citizen miners, the Foreign Miners’ Tax was aimed first at French- and Spanish-speaking miners and eventually at Chinese immigrants to the gold fields. The tax laws were controversial, drawing protests from both the affected miners and the merchants and entrepreneurs who made a living by supplying those miners. John Rollin Ridge’s account of Joaquin Murieta chronicles the abuses and harassment suffered by Mexican miners–harassment that seemed particularly unjust since many Latinos had settled in the California territory long before Anglos arrived. Murieta is forced off his mining claim and his farm by unfair land laws and strong-arm tactics. After enduring a variety of other outrages, he is driven to a life of crime to avenge the injustices he and his fellow Mexicans have suffered. Ridge’s novel thus mounts a subversive critique of official American policy toward the many non-Anglo miners who lived in California in the nineteenth century.

Eventually, gold became scarcer, European Americans solidified their dominance in California, and corporate, industrialized mining replaced the labor of the individual “placer” miners. New strikes in Nevada, Colorado, the Dakotas, and Montana briefly revived “gold fever” at various points later in the nineteenth century, but the peak of the dynamic, diverse, vibrant culture that characterized the California Gold Rush communities had passed by the mid-1850s.


  1. Comprehension: What was a “placer” miner?
  2. Comprehension: What different groups came to California during the Gold Rush? What did they have in common? What kinds of tensions and conflicts arose between groups?
  3. Context: Compare Louise Clappe’s descriptions of life in Rich Bar with the photograph of Deadwood, South Dakota, and the illustration of a California mining camp in the winter of 1849 featured in the archive. How does Clappe react to the makeshift quality of mining town buildings and the coarseness of mining town society?
  4. Context: How does Louise Clappe’s gender structure her narrative of her experiences in Rich Bar? What roles and opportunities are available to women in the camp community? How does she describe her interactions with other women?
  5. Exploration: Many Americans’ notions of the Gold Rush come from theme park reenactments and popular culture references. What references to the Gold Rush have you encountered in popular culture? How is the Gold Rush portrayed? Why do you think the Gold Rush occupies such an important place in the American national imagination?
  6. Exploration: Can you think of other moments in American history that have spurred the same kind of immigration, development, and/or excitement that the Gold Rush inspired (such as the late-twentieth-century “” boom, for example)? How do these periods of tremendous economic opportunities challenge the status quo? How do they enable new social formations?

[1303] Francis Samuel Marryat, The Winter of 1849 (1855),
courtesy of Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
This illustration of residents trying to navigate San Francisco’s flooded streets shows how rapidly growing boom towns and cities on the West Coast suffered from poor planning and local weather conditions during periods of expansion.

[3721] Anonymous, Panning at the Junction of the Eldorado and Bonanza Creeks, Klondike (c. 1900),
courtesy of the Denver Public Library.
Although gold miners were primarily men, some women, like those pictured here, took part. Contrary to what most expected, mining was dirty, tiring work that led only a few to wealth.

[3725] Anonymous, Hanging of Gilbert and Rosengrants at Leadville (1881),
courtesy of the Denver Public Library.
Frontier justice was often swift and public. Here, residents of Leadville, Colorado, turn out in large numbers to watch the hanging of two men in 1881.

[5228] Anonymous, Montgomery Street, San Francisco, 1852 (n.d.),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-55762].
Rapid, primarily white immigration during the Gold Rush brought California to statehood in 1850, as a “free state” that forbade slavery. Yet, demand for land and forced labor caused a genocidal-scale population decline among California Indians.

[5240] Helen Hunt Jackson, Ramona manuscript page (c. 1883),
courtesy of Colorado College, Tutt Library Special Collections.
Helen Hunt Jackson wrote Ramona hoping to call attention to the mistreatment of California’s Indians, much as Harriet Beecher Stowe had to the plight of slaves with Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

[5841] Currier and Ives, Gold Mining in California (c. 1871),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-1755].
This Currier & Ives lithograph presents a romantic and sanitized portrayal of life in the gold fields. In actuality, the mining process exacted an incredible toll on both miners and the surrounding environment.

[7407] Anonymous, Portsmouth Square, San Francisco, California (c. 1851),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-7422].
In July 1846, just two months after the start of the U.S.-Mexican War, John B. Montgomery, captain of the U.S.S. Portsmouth, raised the American flag in San Francisco for the first time. Days later the U.S. army took all of Upper California, though the war raged on for two more years. It was the first and by far the easiest victory for the United States.

[8597] State of California, Chinese Immigration (1877),
courtesy of Vincent Voice Library, Michigan State University.
The California Chinese Exclusion Act of 1877 was the result of growing anti-Chinese sentiment and a shaky labor market. Chinese workers came to the region in large numbers during the 1850s, drawn by the prospect of work from the Gold Rush and railroads. Many white laborers resented the Chinese taking jobs in an overcrowded market.

Paradise of Bachelors: The Social World of Men in Nineteenth-Century America

[1092] William J. Carpenter, Life on the Plains (1915), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-99804].

Although both “bachelor” and “spinster” refer to unmarried individuals, the titles were far from equivalent in nineteenth-century American culture. While “old maids” were often perceived as socially undesirable, bachelors found social acceptance and even encouragement for their unmarried state. All-male social clubs flourished, with fraternities, professional clubs, service clubs, and “mystical orders” such as the Masons enjoying enormous growth in membership over the course of the nineteenth century. Often involving elaborate initiation ceremonies intended to create intimate bonds between members, these organizations took over some of the traditional functions of the family and provided sanctioned social outlets for men to interact with other men without the presence of women.

The work of westward expansion also created social formations in which men frequently lived without women and came to depend on other men for domestic comforts, economic assistance, and companionship. While Native American groups in the western United States continued to live in communities with roughly equal numbers of men and women, African American, Chinese, Latino, European, and Anglo-American immigrants for the most part lived and worked in communities with radically skewed sex ratios. The 1850 census in California, for example, revealed that more than 90 percent of the state’s population was male. Certain professions, such as cattle herding and mining, attracted a high proportion of unmarried or unattached men because the labor was strenuous, time-consuming, and often necessitated living in primitive and makeshift camps–a lifestyle that was perceived as inappropriate or even dangerous for women. Nat Love’s account of his life as a cowboy stresses the masculine values and codes of loyalty that bound cowboys together as a “brotherhood of men.” Sharing physical hardships, economic concerns, and domestic chores, the cowboys in Love’s narrative develop an intense camaraderie out of their interdependence.

Miners in the Gold Rush camps of California, too, found themselves surrounded by other single men hoping to “strike it rich.” As historian Susan Lee Johnson observes, the scarcity of women led to “drastically altered divisions of labor in which men took on tasks that womenfolk would have performed back home.” The most common type of household in the mining camps was a tent or cabin inhabited by two to five men who constituted an interdependent economic unit. They usually worked together at mining their claim, performed domestic chores for one another, and put their earnings in a common fund which was divided evenly among members of the household. Men who had never before cooked learned to prepare stew, bread, beans, and pies; and men who had never before done laundry learned to wash and mend clothes. Some men, disillusioned with the often futile search for gold, set up businesses performing chores normally associated with women, making a living by cooking food and doing laundry for the miners. These experiences with domesticity could exacerbate racial tensions–more than one miner commented negatively on the strange food and outlandish domestic practices of the different ethnic groups that he encountered in the camps–but the household intimacy inherent in camp life could also transcend racial difference. White men amicably shared tents, food, and economic responsibilities with Chinese, African American, and Latino miners. Critics have often been puzzled by the fact that Nat Love, who was African American, rarely mentions issues of race in his account of his life on the open range. But it seems clear that, in Love’s experience at least, race was often secondary or irrelevant in the face of the economic and social interdependence that united the cowboys.

Without the presence of women, the always unstable line dividing the homosocial from the homosexual–that is, dividing non-sexual male bonding activities from sexual contact between men–became even more blurred. As traditional notions of “normal” gender roles were challenged and unsettled, men could display both subtly and openly the erotic connections they felt for other men. When the miners at Angel Camp in southern California held dances, half of the men danced the part of women, wearing patches over the crotches of their pants to signal their “feminine” role. Men routinely shared beds in mining communities and on the range, and cowboys and miners settled into partnerships that other men recognized (and sometimes referred to) as “bachelor marriages.”

It is difficult to find unambiguous references to homosexual relationships in nineteenth-century American writings, partly because there was no vocabulary to express such relationships at the time (the term “homosexual” did not exist until the late nineteenth century). Walt Whitman, who had several intimate relationships with men, struggled with this absence of language in his poetic efforts to describe and record his passionate same-sex relationships. In his Calamus poems and the “Twenty-eight Bathers” section of Song of Myself, for example, Whitman produced moving, evocative portraits of male homosexual love. But he often felt compelled to “shade and hide [his] thoughts,” as he put it, because he was unable to speak as explicitly as he might have liked. Interestingly, Whitman’s descriptions of heterosexual encounters caused more public outrage than his “Calamus” poems did, perhaps because his homoerotic imagery was new and innovative, and thus unfamiliar to much of his audience. Still, the implications of Whitman’s poetry certainly reached some of his readers. Eve Sedgwick has noted that Whitman’s writings, Whitman’s image, and Whitman’s name came to function as a kind of code for men to communicate their homosexual identity and their homoerotic attractions to one another: “Photographs of Whitman, gifts of Whitman’s books, specimens of his handwriting, news of Whitman, admiring references to ‘Whitman’ which seem to have functioned as badges of homosexual recognition, were the currency of a new community that saw itself as created in Whitman’s image.” While certainly not all bachelors had homosexual experiences, the creation and legitimization of new social spheres made up of single men defined and enabled a variety of masculine identities and same-sex relationships.


  1. Comprehension: How did all-male social clubs and communities both replicate and challenge more traditional family structures?
  2. Comprehension: What kinds of domestic tasks did men perform on the range and in the mining camps? How did they usually divide up the labor?
  3. Comprehension: Examine the photographs and illustrations of mining camps featured in the archive. What different ethnic groups do you see represented? How did these groups interact within mining communities?
  4. Context: Walt Whitman had photographs taken of himself with several of his young male companions. Some of his friends were scandalized or upset by the pictures, calling them everything from “silly-idiotic” to “sickly.” Other friends and acquaintances of Whitman admired the photos and requested copies. Whitman never distributed these pictures widely, instead keeping them to himself or sharing them only with a limited circle of friends. But in Section VII of Live Oak, with Moss, Whitman wrote that he hoped some future reader would “Publish my name and hang up my picture as that of the tenderest lover, The friend, the lover’s portrait, of whom his friend, his lover, was fondest….” What does Whitman mean in this poetic request to have his portrait hung? By what kind of portrait do you think he would like to be remembered? Why do you think he might have felt compelled to have his picture taken with his male companions? What do Whitman’s friends’ reactions to the photographs tell you about the social lives of nineteenth-century men?
  5. Context: In her story “Cacoethes Scribendi” Catharine Maria Sedgwick (who herself remained unmarried all her life) describes a community populated almost solely by single women and widows. Does she have the same celebratory view of same-sex communities that writers like Whitman or Nat Love seemed to have? What kind of camaraderie binds the women together in her story? What divides them?
  6. Context: Examine Louise Clappe’s descriptions of life in the mining town of Rich Bar in her “Shirley Letters.” How does Clappe’s position as a woman in a mostly male community shape her letters? What is her sense of the male-male relationships that bind together the community? How does she describe the roles of other women in the town?
  7. Context: Look at Thomas Eakins’s painting Swimming Hole (1884), featured in the archive. Is this a homoerotic picture? How do you think nineteenth-century viewers would have responded to it?
  8. Exploration: In his poetic celebrations of homoerotic love Whitman sometimes felt compelled to “shade and hide” his meanings. Can you think of other American writers who sometimes seem to hint at homosexual relationships but do not describe them explicitly? Hemingway, Dickinson, or Melville (especially in the “Counterpane” chapter of Moby Dick) might be appropriate figures to think about in this regard. What kinds of imagery and language do these writers rely on to convey their meanings?
  9. Exploration: How did social reactions to unmarried men differ from social reactions to unmarried women in the nineteenth century? Did single women enjoy the same kinds of opportunities that single men did? How do you think cultural ideas about unmarried individuals (both men and women) have changed over time in America?
  10. Exploration: How does Melville play on the construction of “the bachelor” in his short story “The Paradise of Bachelors and The Tartarus of Maids”? How do the opportunities available to bachelors compare to those open to single women in the story?
  11. Exploration: Eve Sedgwick has argued that portraits and records of Whitman acted as a kind of code for men to convey homoerotic feelings to one another. Why do you think they chose Whitman to represent their identity? Can you think of any groups that use images or personalities in a similar way today? What kinds of material objects circulate as “code” today?

[1092] William J. Carpenter, Life on the Plains (1915),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-99804].
Navajo and cowboy playing cards. These cards show the type of interethnic male-male bonding that we see in James Fenimore Cooper’s novels. This type of interaction largely died out when white males started to bring their families to settle in the West.

[2027] Anonymous, Theodore Roosevelt, full-length portrait, standing alongside horse, facing left; wearing cowboy outfit (1910),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-91139].
With his infamous motto “Walk softly and carry a big stick,” President Theodore Roosevelt is remembered as a trustbuster, one who worked to strengthen U.S. foreign policy, and one who was committed to the conservation of frontier land.

[2061] Asher B. Durand, Kindred Spirits (1849),
courtesy of the New York Public Library.
Durand’s painting depicts Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole, left, and poet William Cullen Bryant in the Kaaterskill Clove. Both Cole and Bryant used the interaction between humans and nature as the primary theme for their work.

[3717] Charles D. Kirkland, Cow Boy (c. 1880),
courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection.
As the nation’s focus shifted to the West, the cowboy replaced the frontiersman of the eastern woodlands as the popular icon of American independence and self-sufficiency.

[3889] Thomas Eakins, The Swimming Hole (1884),
courtesy of Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.
The homosocial nature of nineteenth-century male relations is reflected in this painting, which shows a group of students swimming while their headmaster (Eakins) swims nearby.

[6242] Phillips and Taylor, Walt Whitman, half-length portrait, seated, facing left, wearing hat and sweater, holding butterfly (1873),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-77082].
Eve Sedgwick has noted that even before the term “homosexual” was invented, Walt Whitman’s writings, image, and name functioned as a code for men to communicate their homosexual identity to one another.

Star Spangled Moccasins: The American Flag in Native American Culture

[7414] William Henry Taylor, Juanita, Wife of Navajo Chief Manuelito (c. 1873), courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives.

In a circa 1874 drawing, the Oglala warrior Sitting Bull depicted a Native American warrior proudly flying the stars and stripes of an American flag as he rides into battle. In many ways, this is a puzzling, even paradoxical, image. Why would the Oglala–who resisted U.S. encroachment on their lands–engage in a seemingly zealous show of American patriotism? Why would they embrace the flag of a country that they had historically perceived as hostile and oppressive? In fact, at the end of the nineteenth century, many Native Americans from many different tribes used flag imagery as a design element in their art, clothing, and crafts. While some of these objects were produced for sale or exchange with European Americans (the tourist trade was a growing component of many tribal economies), there is compelling evidence that many of these artifacts were used, worn, and treasured by Native Americans themselves. Not always literal or exact representations, Native American flag images often modify or abstract the pattern of the American flag, enlarging or shrinking the blue field, omitting stripes, or substituting other shapes for stars. But however the image is refashioned and transformed in Native American art, it is nonetheless recognizable as the American flag. These representations are a testament to the creativity and inventiveness of the Native American artisans who appropriated this symbol of European American power and dominance and adapted it to their own complex and diverse uses.

Many of the Great Plains tribes held the traditional belief that flags captured in battle were imbued with the power of the enemy, a belief probably reinforced by the fact that U.S. troops used the flag as a battle emblem when they attacked Native Americans. Upon capture, Native Americans believed that the flag transferred its power to its new owner, thus endowing him with the strength of his adversary. In this context, Sitting Bull’s drawing of the Oglala warrior carrying the American flag into combat can be interpreted as a testament to the warrior’s prowess and triumph in battle. Similarly, the Lakota tradition of decorating children’s clothing with American flags can be understood as a method for ensuring their protection and safety through the flag’s talismanic power. One of the few Lakota survivors of the massacre at Wounded Knee was a little girl who was found in the snow, wearing a bonnet beaded with American flag patterns.

Native Americans may also have adopted the flag on occasion as an expedient way to make their traditional practices seem less threatening to Reservation authorities. When U.S. authorities banned the Lakota summer Sun Dance ceremony because they saw it as pagan and subversive, the Lakota adapted parts of the ceremony into a sanctioned Fourth of July celebration. Because the traditional sacred colors of the Sun Dance are red and blue, the insertion of American flag imagery did not disrupt the spiritual significance of the ceremony. Native American art also frequently introduces traditional sacred symbols into the representation of the flag pattern itself. Substituting the usual five-pointed stars with four-armed Morning Stars and crosses, Native American artisans transformed the flag into a representation of their own religious and cultural traditions. The varied examples of flag imagery in Native American art point out the multivalence of this symbol. For some artists, the representation of the American flag may have been a means to signify assimilation with the dominant culture, while for others, redesigned images of the flag probably served as a means of proclaiming their cultural independence.


  1. Comprehension: Look at the artifacts produced by Native American artisans featured in the archive. How do these representations of the American flag modify its usual design?
  2. Context: Critics have noted that the Cherokee memorialists invoke some of the language and ideas of the American Declaration of Independence to argue their case to the U.S. Congress. How does their rhetorical strategy compare to the Native American artisans’ use of the American flag in the items featured in the archive? Should these deployments of important American symbols be understood as simply “patriotic”?
  3. Exploration: Think about moments when flags and flag imagery proliferate in American culture, such as on the Fourth of July, during a war, or in the wake of a tragedy like the attack on New York’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Why do Americans turn to the flag so often at these moments? Even though the display of the flag seems to be a symbol of national unity, how might the flag hold different meanings for different Americans at these times?

[1086] Lehman and Duval Lithrs., View of the Great Treaty Held at Prarie [sic] Du Chien, September 1825 (1835),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-510].
As the United States pushed west, conflict between native tribes increased due to territorial disputes. The treaty of 1825 sought to end intertribal fighting by establishing fixed tribal boundaries between the Great Lakes and the Missouri River.

[1087] Frank Bennett Fiske, Shooting the Last Arrow (n.d.),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, American Memory.
A group of Indians at a ceremony on a government reservation shoot the last arrow toward the sky to symbolize a new peace agreement and a new way of life.

[7411] Juanita, Curio loom with unfinished weavings (c. 1874),
courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, Museum of Natural History.
Juanita, the wife of chief Manuelito, came to Washington, DC, as part of a Navajo delegation seeking to resolve a land dispute in the Southwest. This small American flag rug, which she most likely wove herself, was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1875.

[7414] William Henry Taylor, Juanita, Wife of Navajo Chief Manuelito (c. 1873),
courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives.
This is the earliest known image of the American flag motif being used in Navajo rug weaving.

[7416] Anonymous, Tray, Apache, San Carlos, Arizona (n.d.),
courtesy of the New York State Historical Association, Thaw Collection.
Starting in the late 1800s, many Native Americans began incorporating the American flag as a decorative motif in their arts and crafts. An example can be seen in the crossed flags that are woven into the design of this Apache basket.

[7418] Anonymous, Boys’ moccasins, Lakota (n.d.),
courtesy of the New York State Historical Association, Thaw Collection.
Reservation period (post-1880) beadwork on these dress moccasins shows how the American flag motif was incorporated into Native American design.

Picturing America: The Hudson River School Painters

[7404] Asher B. Durand, Progress (The Advance of Civilization) (1853), courtesy of Gulf States Paper Corporation, Warner Collection.

In 1816 Governor Clinton of New York addressed the American Academy of Fine Arts, urging artists to create new movements and styles that would reflect the superiority of American morals and the grandeur of American scenery:

For can there be a country in the world better calculated than ours to exercise and to exalt the imagination–to call into activity the creative powers of the mind, and to afford just views of the beautiful, the wonderful, and the sublime? Here Nature has conducted her operations on a magnificent scale: extensive and elevated mountains, … rivers of prodigious magnitude …, and boundless forests filled with wild beasts and savage men, and covered with the towering oak.

By the 1820s, artists had responded to his call. Thomas Cole caused a sensation in the New York art world with his large-scale paintings of the vast panoramas, rugged peaks, steep precipices, rushing waters, and dramatic light effects of the Hudson River Valley. Cole celebrated the primeval, unspoiled quality of the American wilderness, believing that it represented a perfect spiritual state and was a direct reflection of the divine work of the Creator. Cole’s powerful landscapes and innovative ideas soon influenced other artists, including Asher Durand, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Martin Johnson Heade. Originally known as simply “American” or “Native” painters, this group of artists is usually referred to as the Hudson River School today, in reference to their early focus on the landscape of the Hudson River Valley, which was the “frontier” of the late eighteenth century.

The Hudson River School artists were interested in highlighting the awesome, monumental quality of the American wilderness by juxtaposing it against the minuteness of the human body: many of their paintings feature tiny human figures who are dwarfed by the vastness of the landscapes that surround them. But rather than conveying a sense of alienation or human insignificance, these pictures instead celebrate an ideal of harmony between people and nature. Fundamentally optimistic in their view of American expansion and the promise of democracy, the Hudson River School artists presented images of human industry coexisting in and even complementing the beauty of nature. In Asher Durand’s Progress (1853), for example, a small city nestles within a stunning landscape, sending rail lines, telegraph poles, roads, and steamboats out into the wilderness. A group of Native Americans looks out over the scene in awe-struck admiration and happiness. This romanticized vision of industrialization was part of the Hudson River School’s aesthetic philosophy, which saw beauty in the contrast between primeval landscapes and pastoral scenes of towns and farms–an attitude in keeping with much of the prose and poetry of nineteenth-century America, from James Fenimore Cooper to Walt Whitman.

The Hudson River School was also noted for its commitment to an almost scientific attention to detail and clarity in the presentation of natural landscapes. Artists usually did their preliminary sketching out of doors, in the midst of the dramatic scenery that inspired them, then returned to their studios to paint the final canvas. While they were intent on faithfully reproducing the natural effects they observed, the Hudson River artists were not afraid to literally move mountains when it suited their sense of aesthetics. “Composing” landscapes by combining elements from different geographical locations, exaggerating heights and expanses, and playing with lighting, these artists created dramatic panoramas that they believed were faithful to the spirit, if not the reality, of the American landscape. After reading Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Cole even painted fictional scenes from the novel because it accorded so closely with his sense of America’s identity and character. In their quest for new and spectacular effects, the Hudson River artists had journeyed far beyond the Hudson River by the mid-nineteenth century, traveling to Niagara Falls, the Rocky Mountains, California, and even South America to record the expanse and grandeur of the continent.


  1. Comprehension: How do the Hudson River artists usually depict human figures? What is the significance of the figures’ size in relation to the vast landscapes?
  2. Comprehension: How does Asher B. Durand portray Native Americans in his 1853 painting Progress? What assumptions underwrite his treatment of their response to “progress”? Why are they situated on a precipice overlooking the town?
  3. Context: Read some of Cooper’s descriptions of the view from the overlook he calls “Mt. Vision” in The Pioneers. How do these literary descriptions of the upstate New York landscape compare with the Hudson River School paintings? Why do you think Hudson River School paintings are frequently chosen as the cover illustrations for editions of Cooper’s novels?
  4. Context: How do Whitman’s celebrations of the diversity–the “multitudes”–that make up the American body politic compare with the Hudson River School aesthetic? Which of Whitman’s descriptions of American landscapes and cityscapes might fit within the ideals of the Hudson River School? What parts of America does Whitman celebrate that would probably fall outside of the scope of the Hudson River aesthetic?
  5. Exploration: Many Hudson River School paintings present an idealized vision of harmony between humans and nature, between industrialization and the wilderness. Do you think Americans still subscribe to this optimistic view of the relationship between people and nature? How has the environmentalist movement complicated our understanding of “progress”?
  6. Exploration: Art historians have pointed out that the Hudson River School painters developed a very “masculine” aesthetic. By picturing rugged, remote terrain, these artists interpolate the viewer as an active and intrepid explorer of the wilderness. How might the Hudson River artists compare to the figure of the explorer/hero in the literature of exploration?

[1181] Albert Bierstadt, Valley of the Yosemite (1864),
courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; gift of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815-1865.
The romantic grandeur and luminism of Albert Bierstadt’s western landscapes reflect Hudson River School influences. Realist writers like Bret Harte sought to imbue the same landscapes with the gritty realities of frontier life.

[1616] Albert Bierstadt, Thunderstorm in the Rocky Mountains (1859),
courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
American painter Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) created some of the most famous landscapes in American painting, presenting the West as a pristine and idyllic wilderness.

[1695] Albert Bierstadt, Sunrise in the Sierras (c.1872),
courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Bierstadt’s peaceful and idyllic landscapes belied the indelible mark that railroads, ranches, mines, and settlements were leaving on the West.

[2061] Asher B. Durand, Kindred Spirits (1849),
courtesy of the New York Public Library.
Durand’s painting depicts Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole, left, and poet William Cullen Bryant in the Kaaterskill Clove. Both Cole and Bryant used the interaction between humans and nature as the primary theme for their work.

[2068] Albert Bierstadt, Emigrants Crossing the Plains (1867),
courtesy of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City.
The romantic and spiritual tones of this painting by Bierstadt mirror the concept of Manifest Destiny, which held that American expansion across the continent was both inevitable and divinely sanctioned.

[3694] Thomas Cole, The Falls of the Kaaterskill (1826),
courtesy of Warner Collection of the Gulf States Paper Corporation.
Thomas Cole (1801-1848) was one of the first American landscape artists and a founder of the Hudson River School of painting. Romantic depictions of wilderness became popular as the United States continued its westward expansion.

[5931] Worthington Whittredge, The Old Hunting Grounds (1864),
courtesy of Reynolda House, Museum of American Art.
The decaying Indian canoe among birch trees symbolizes the sentimental death of Native American culture found in James Fenimore Cooper’s work and other frontier literature. After ten years of artistic training in Europe, Worthington Whittredge returned to America in 1859, impressed with the vast wilderness that still existed in his homeland.

[7404] Asher B. Durand, Progress (The Advance of Civilization) (1853),
courtesy of Gulf States Paper Corporation, Warner Collection.
The Native Americans in the lower left-hand corner of this painting observe the steady approach of American progress and settlement. Depictions of westward expansion such as this one helped publicize and legitimize what was seen as American progress, an ideology that began to be questioned only in the twentieth century.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


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