Masur: America at its Centennial was envisioned in dramatically
different ways by those living through the times. Red Horse, a Sioux warrior,
painted at least 40 pictographs of Custer in the Little Big Horn. In his
telling, there is little that is heroic. Warriors go about the business of
destroying an invading army. And the brutalities are rendered simply as facts
In 1881, John Mulvaney offered a triumphal narrative of the same event. Custer
is dressed in uniform and with saber in hand. Though in actuality, he had
neither that day. He holds off the fateful moment of his death.
Walt Whitman viewed the painting as the epitome of what he called the "western
phase" of America. Nothing like it in Homer or Shakespeare, he said.
Not only troops wound West, but trains as well. On May 10, 1869, the Union
Pacific and the Central Pacific joined at Promontory, Utah and the first
trans-continental line was completed. Andrew Russell took a photograph of the
moment as men and machine unite in triumph and celebration.
But not everyone applauded industrial technology. In the summer of 1877,
workers went on strike against the leading railroad companies, which had
slashed wages. When the government called out troops, strikers attacked the
engines and tracks at the center of their grievance.
Whatever tensions existed, Americans tried repeatedly to depict the westward
movement as one of progress. John Gast portrayed Liberty as the star of
empire, leading technology and commerce into the darkness of the frontier.
Some images sought to confirm the divinely ordained destiny of the nation. A
popular print in the 1870s was William Henry Jackson's Mountain of the Holy Cross, a peak located near the Continental Divide.
But other photographers raised questions about the meaning of the landscape.
Timothy O'Sullivan took pictures of ancients ruins, of a human form shrouded in
steam rising from a chasm, and of blinding sand dunes with a carriage and
horses paused in time, the tracks and footprints soon to be erased.
America was old as well as new. Destructive as well as regenerative. And the
land had a secret history that was all its own.