Drawn from the collections of the Denver Public Library, History of the American West, 1860-1920, is a collection of over 30,000 photographs that document the history of the American West. Included are photographs depicting the growth of mining and the activities of the Native Americans living in the area. Other photographs share the unique look of various towns and the western landscape. Images of the 10th Mountain Division, a division of ski troops based in Colorado during World War II, are also included in this collection.
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.
- Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
- Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930
Related Collections and Exhibits
- American Environmental Photographs, 1891-1936
- American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940
- Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920
- Detroit Publishing Company
Specific guidance for searching this collection
For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.
History of the American West provides users with an opportunity to study western agriculture, mining, and the railroad, as well as their impact on the settlement of the West and the development of U.S. culture. The collection also contains numerous photographs pertaining to Native Americans of the West, and to the wars fought between Native Americans and the U.S. military. Labor unions of the early twentieth century as well as the two World Wars are also represented.
In 1790, the total population of the United States was nearly four million people and farmers made up about 90% of the labor force. A belief in the inherent virtue of rural life and farm labor was a prevalent concept in the new nation. Thomas Jefferson championed the agrarian ideal, stating in his Notes on Virginia in the 1780s that “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God... Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example.”
- What do you think of Jefferson’s notion of the agrarian ideal? Do you find it realistic? Why or why not?
- Why do you think so many early Americans worked as farmers?
By 1850, the total population of the U.S. had grown to more than 23 million people, and farmers made up about 64% of the labor force. The farming culture of the original colonies had pushed its way westward to the Great Plains, while Spanish colonists had introduced agriculture into the Southwest as early as the sixteenth century.
The American West provided ample land for raising crops and livestock, but settlers found that the arid climate of this region required new, large-scale farming methods. Subject Index headings beginning with the words Agricultural and Agriculture provide images that show the diversity of crops and livestock raised in the West, including vegetables, wheat, fruits, cattle, and ostriches.
The demands of western farming fueled the swift growth of the farm equipment industry, which, in turn, brought more land under cultivation. Between 1870 and 1900, more land came under cultivation than in the previous 250 years, and the era of the American frontier came to a close. Search on farm, ranch, and irrigation for examples of farming techniques and technology.
- Why was irrigation vital for agricultural production throughout much of the West?
- What is meant by “dry farming”?
- Why did the Navajo use “dry farming” techniques rather than irrigation?
- What impact does agriculture have on the land?
- How do farmers and ranchers make sure that they don’t overuse their land?
- What was the relationship between agriculture and settlement in the United States?
The late 1870s and 80s also saw a boom in the cattle industry, as the gold rush, the railroad, military forts, and Native American reservations all created a demand for beef. Ranchers grazed their cattle on western prairies and hired cowboys to help manage and drive their herds. As the cattle industry grew, many farmers put up fences to keep cattle out of their fields, sometimes resulting in "range wars" over land use.
- Why would some westerners have resented farmers putting up fences?
- In what ways did the gold rush and the railroad affect western agriculture?
- Did western agriculture affect mining and the railroad? If so, how?
- How would you expect western agriculture to have affected the eastern United States?
The Subject Index headings beginning with Cowboys and a search on cowboys yield numerous photographs, including images of cowboys performing in rodeos and in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Search on cattle for pictures of branding, herding, round-ups, and grazing on the range.
- What do you think it would have been like to be a cowboy? What was the work like? What was a cowboy’s life like?
- How are cowboys portrayed in movies? Are these portrayals realistic?
- Why do you think people went to see cowboys in rodeos and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show? Why do people go today?
- Why do you think the cowboy became such a popular symbol of the West? What else do you think cowboys might symbolize and why?
Because of the dry climate, western farmers needed to work a great deal of land to make a profit. In 1909, the United States Congress passed the Enlarged Homestead Act, which allowed settlers in the most arid states to claim larger amounts of land. The first two decades of the twentieth century became a golden age of agriculture in which the average gross income of U.S. farms more than doubled and the value of these farms more than tripled.
- How did western agriculture change over time?
- How did the growth of western agriculture impact U.S. culture?
- In 1990, the total U.S. population was more than 246 million and only 2.6% of the labor force were farmers. What factors caused this dramatic change at the end of the twentieth century?
- What attitudes towards agriculture are reflected in the presence of farms and agricultural schools in prisons?
- How do contemporary attitudes towards agriculture compare to those of Jefferson and other early Americans? How are these attitudes manifested?
On January 24, 1848, James Marshall found gold while building a mill on John Sutter’s ranch in northern California. The following year, Americans rushed to the Golden State to make their fortunes, increasing California’s population by 86,000 in just two years. A decade later, a discovery by the Russell party started Colorado’s Pike’s Peak gold rush.
Mining became one of the principal ventures in the American West and attracted individual prospectors and mining companies to all the western states. Some prospectors panned for gold, while others dug for silver. Western companies also mined quartz, copper, zinc, borax, and coal. Search on mining and on the names of minerals for photographs depicting the structures, workers, tools, machines, and processes associated with each type of mining.
- Why do you think the discovery of gold drew so many people to the West so quickly?
- What are the similarities and differences between the ways in which different minerals were mined?
- Why was each type of mineral valued? How were the different minerals used?
Most individuals, unable to afford large investments in new technology, soon abandoned their claims. Crude wooden sluices gave way to large-scale hydraulic mining, which used powerful water jets to break the earth. Companies that could afford a large capital investment gained control of most mines in the West, although individual miners, such as Philip O’Rourke, who laid claim to a quartz mine in Idaho, still clung to the hope of striking it rich.
- Why would individuals without a great deal of money quit mining?
- How do you think mining changed as companies took it over?
- How do you think attitudes towards mining might have changed with this transition?
- How did mining affect the natural environment?
- What kinds of attitudes would you expect miners to have had towards the environment?
- What does the growth of mining in the U.S. suggest about a national attitude towards the environment?
Many people made fortunes of their own off of the prospectors. These people opened businesses that provided miners with food, clothing and other necessities. In this way, mining settlements developed into towns and cities, one of the largest being San Francisco. Search on mining town for examples.
As mining production declined and profits fell, mines were abandoned, producing numerous ghost towns, such as Ashcroft, Colorado. Search on ghost town for other abandoned western towns.
- Who came to the West to mine and why? Where did they come from?
- What was it like to be a miner? What were the dangers, difficulties, and benefits of being a miner? How successful were most miners?
- What do you think mining towns were like? What would the inhabitants’ interests, attitudes, resources, and opportunities have been like? How would these factors have affected life in the towns?
- Do you think that mining and mining towns in the West were different from those of the East? How?
- How did mining affect the settlement of the West and its culture? How might they have been different if mining had never taken place, or if it had taken place on a smaller scale?
The first westward-bound railroad in the United States was built between Baltimore and the Ohio River in Virginia in 1827. It was powered by a large sail, and by horses walking on a treadmill. By 1829, these early power sources had been replaced by the steam engine. Improvements to the locomotive continued throughout the century, making it an ever more popular method of transportation, capable of hauling more weight at faster speeds.
As railway lines extended west, towns grew up along them, while existing towns vied for the privilege of being included on new routes. The summary information for a photograph of a train station in Las Vegas, New Mexico remarks that the arrival of the railroad in 1879 "dramatically transformed the character of the town, reportedly bringing the likes of Doc Holliday, Jesse James and Hoodoo Brown to the area." Search on Jesse James, derail, railroad station, and train depot for other images that illustrate the impact of the railroad in western towns.
- Why do you think people were anxious for railroads to be routed through their towns?
- What kinds of reactions do you think people might have had upon seeing a train for the first time?
- What were the pros and cons of the coming of the railroad? How did it affect daily life?
- What kinds of people and events are documented in photographs of train stations? What does the architecture of these stations suggest about their significance?
- What symbolic significance might railroad depots have had in a specific town, or in the West in general?
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act, authorizing two companies to construct the first transcontinental railroad, known as the Central Pacific Railroad. Paid per mile of completed track, the Central Pacific Railroad Company in California and the Union Pacific Railroad Company in Iowa raced eastward and westward from their respective starting points to meet at an unspecified location.
- What was the significance of building a transcontinental railroad?
- Do you think that the railroad might have had a different significance in the western and eastern parts of the U.S.? Why or why not?
From 1863 to 1869, 4000 Central Pacific Railroad laborers, 80% of whom were Chinese Americans, laid tracks from Sacramento, California to Promontory Summit, Utah, where they met up with the Union Pacific crews. They blasted tunnels and chipped away at granite, hanging in baskets suspended on ropes in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Search on railroad, railroad crew, railroad workers, and railroad construction for photographs of western railroads and the men who built them.
- What were the challenges of building western railroads?
- Who did railroad construction work? What tasks were involved in this work?
- What kinds of machines and tools were used in railroad construction?
- What do you think it would have been like to work on the railroad? What were working conditions like? What was a railroad construction worker's life like?
The founders of the Central Pacific Railroad Company were four Sacramento businessmen who had come west with the gold rush. Known as the “Big Four,” they were revered and despised for the money and power that the railroad brought them. Search on railroad and railroad company to learn more about railroad companies.
- What were railroad companies like? What might it have been like to work for one of them? Do you think that these employees were the same people who physically built the railroads?
- How do you think the railroad business compared to other western enterprises, such as mining and agriculture?
- How was the railroad business related to such enterprises?
- What kind of image did railroad companies try to project? How?
- How did railroad companies market their services?
- Why do you think that men like the “Big Four” became so rich and powerful?
The railroad became a powerful symbol in many works of American literature, such as Frank Norris’ novel The Octopus. Given the history of the railroad, what would you expect it to have symbolized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?
Native American Cultures
Many photographs in the collection depict the lives of Native Americans from more than forty tribes west of the Mississippi River. The largest and most powerful western tribe was the Sioux, also known as the Dakota. The Santee Sioux lived in the woodlands of Minnesota, while the Teton Sioux, comprised of several different bands, lived further to the west, in the Great Plains. Like other Plains people, they camped in teepees and owned many horses, which were useful for hunting.
The Cheyennes once lived with the Santee Sioux in Minnesota, but eventually moved west and acquired horses. The Cheyennes were comprised of two bands. The Northern Cheyennes lived with the Teton Sioux in the Powder River and Bighorn country of Montana and Wyoming. The Southern Cheyennes lived below the Platte River in villages on the Colorado and Kansas plains. The Arapahos were also comprised of northern and southern bands, which were closely associated and lived in the same areas with the Cheyenne bands.
The Kiowas once lived in the Black Hills of South Dakota, but the Sioux, Cheyennes, and Arapahos pushed them south into the land of the Comanches below the buffalo ranges of Kansas and Nebraska. The Kiowas became allies of the Comanches, whose tribe was divided into several small nomadic bands.
The Apaches and Navajos shared the Southwest, where their proximity to Mexico put them in contact with the Spanish. Like the Comanches, the Apaches were divided into many small bands, but they were able to fend off the Spanish through 250 years of guerrilla warfare. The Navajos, on the other hand, adopted some aspects of Spanish culture and learned to farm and raise livestock.
The Pueblos were living in the Southwest as early as the first century, A.D., long before the Apaches and Navajos arrived from the north. The Pueblos were hunter-gatherers who gradually became farmers as well. They built adobe villages into shallow caves and under overhanging cliffs. These Southwest tribes were often raided by the Utes, a tribe that lived to the north in the Rockies.s
Study photographs to examine and compare the cultures of different tribes. Portraits record different types of clothing, while other images record the kinds of dwellings used by different tribes. Search on the names of tribes or use the Subject Index headings such as Hopi Indians, Zuni Indians, and Pawnee Indians. Select images by region or topic through Subject Index headings such as Indians of North America--Great Plains, Indians of North America--New Mexico, and Indians of North America--Structures—Oklahoma.
- Do different members of a tribe dress differently? How do the men, women, children, chiefs, warriors, and medicine men each dress? If there are differences, what do they suggest?
- If tribes are closely related, such as the Cheyennes and Arapahos, is this reflected in their clothing and shelter?
- How does climate affect the types of clothing and shelter used by different peoples?
- What other aspects of a people's culture are affected by climate and geography?
- What other objects manifest a people's culture?
- How would relocation of Native Americans to reservations in different parts of the country have affected their traditional lifestyles and cultures?
The Navajo and Apache Wars
During the nineteenth century, the U.S. military went to war against many western tribes. These wars depleted the Native Americans' numbers, divided their leadership, and drove them onto reservations, often located far from their homelands and in inhospitable climates. Images related to these wars are available by searching on the names of pertinent people, tribes, and places and through the Subject Index headings beginning Indians of North America--War.
As was often the case, the U.S. military fought the Navajos and Apaches largely for their lands. The Civil War brought many soldiers to the Southwest, including General James Carleton, who decided to remove the Navajos and Apaches to reservations so that the lands of the Rio Grande Valley could be used for settlement and mining. Carleton enlisted the one-time friend of the Navajos, Kit Carson, to force them from their homelands through starvation.
Carson burned the Navajos’ farms, stole their livestock, and finally destroyed the villages in their last stronghold, Canyon de Chelly. Without food or shelter to sustain them through the winter, over 3,000 Navajos surrendered and made what is called “the long walk of the Navajos” to the reservation at Fort Sumner. Hundreds of Navajos died along the way and after arriving at the fort. A few bands of Navajos held out, living in the mountains. But one by one, these bands and their leaders — Barboncito, Armijo, and finally Manuelito — were captured or surrendered and taken to the reservation.
Before his campaign against the Navajos, Carleton began forcing the various bands of Apaches onto the reservation at Fort Sumner. Apache leaders like Mangas Colorado and Cochise, of the Chiricahua band, and Victorio of the Mescalero band, led raids to drive European Americans from their land and resisted the military's attempts, by force and persuasion, to relocate their people to a reservation.
Soldiers and civilians, especially from Tuscon, constantly pursued the Apaches through the 1860s and 70s. After two decades of guerrilla warfare, Cochise chose to make peace and agreed to relocate to a reservation in the Chiricahua Mountains. Not long afterward, Cochise died. When the U.S. government came to move the Chiricahuas to the San Carlos reservation, half of them complied. The other half, led by a man named Geronimo, escaped to Mexico.
In the spring of 1877, the U.S. captured Geronimo and brought him to the San Carlos reservation. He stayed there until September 1881, when a gathering of soldiers around the reservation caused him to fear that he would be imprisoned for his past deeds. He fled to Mexico, taking 700 Apaches with him. In April of the following year, Geronimo returned to San Carlos with horses and guns and liberated the rest of the Apaches, leading many of them back to Mexico.
In the spring of 1883, General George Crook was put in charge of the Arizona and New Mexico reservations. With 200 Apaches, he journeyed to Mexico, found Geronimo’s camp, and persuaded him and his people to return to the San Carlos reservation. Crook instituted several reforms on the reservation, but local newspapers criticized him for being too lenient and demonized Geronimo. On May 17, 1885, Geronimo, drunk and intimidated by demands for his death printed in the papers, escaped once again to Mexico.
Again, Crook went after Geronimo, but this time the negotiations fell through. The War Department reprimanded Crook for the failure and he resigned. He was replaced by Brigadier General Nelson Miles who sent 5,000 soldiers, 500 Apache scouts, and thousands of civilian militia after Geronimo and twenty-four warriors. Geronimo was quickly found and persuaded to surrender. He and many other Apaches were sent to Fort Marion in Florida, where many died because of the climate. Many Apache children were taken to the Carlisle school in Pennsylvania, where fifty of them died.
The Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Wars
In August, 1865, the U.S. military marched soldiers into the Powder River country of the Teton Sioux and their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies. The troops built roads and forts and began hunting Native Americans. The Sioux and their allies had seen the military take the Southern Cheyennes’ Colorado lands from them through unprovoked attacks on their villages at Sand Creek and the Washita River. But the Sioux were the most powerful tribe in the West and were determined to defend their lands.
The Sioux and their allies, led by Red Cloud, a chief of the Oglala Sioux, attacked soldiers on the march and in their forts. On December 21, 1866, Crazy Horse, also an Oglala Sioux, created a decoy that led the soldiers of Fort C.F. Smith into an ambush by 2,000 of Red Cloud’s warriors. Every soldier was killed. Through his military defense and persistent refusal to sign a treaty until the forts were removed, Red Cloud forced the U.S. military out of the Powder River country in the summer of 1868.
By 1874, however, gold-hungry miners were making inroads into the Sioux’s Black Hills, and the military followed. This time, Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Sioux and Crazy Horse of the Oglalas led a resistance. The Sioux and their allies refused to give up their lands in a treaty, so the military ordered all Native Americans in the area to come to the agency or be killed. Many did not comply, and on March 17, 1876, General Crook attacked Two Moon’s Northern Cheyenne and Oglala village and then went after Crazy Horse’s and Sitting Bull’s people. The Sioux were alerted, and on June 17, Crazy Horse and his warriors attacked Crook’s camp on the Rosebud River. General George Custer’s 7th cavalry retaliated, attacking the Sioux camp on the Little Bighorn River on June 25. But the Sioux were aware of Custer’s approach and defended their camp, killing Custer and all of his men.
Despite the victory at the Little Bighorn, the U.S. intimidated Red Cloud and others into signing a treaty giving up the Black Hills and Powder River country. At the same time, the military continued to hunt the resistant Sioux and their allies, attacking American Horse’s village, as well as Dull Knife’s. By 1877, Sitting Bull was tired of running and took his people to Canada, while Crazy Horse and his people, also tired, hungry, and out of ammunition, finally surrendered at Fort Robinson. On September 5, 1877, Crazy Horse was killed when reservation police tried to imprison him after a misunderstanding had caused him to flee the reservation.
That fall, the Sioux were moved to a large reservation in the Dakota Territory, but the government pressured them to sign a treaty giving up much of their land. Sitting Bull had returned from Canada and held together the Sioux resistance for a few years. But in the summer of 1889, the reservation agent, James McLaughlin, was able to secure the Sioux’s signatures by keeping the final treaty council a secret from Sitting Bull. The treaty broke up their 35,000 acres into six small reservations.
In October 1890, Kicking Bear and Short Bull brought the Sioux one last hope of resistance. They taught them the Ghost Dance, something they had learned from a Paiute medicine man. He told them that in the spring, the earth would be covered with a new layer of soil that would bury the white men while the Native Americans who did the Ghost Dance would be suspended in the air. The grass and the buffalo would return, along with the ghosts of their dead ancestors. The Ghost Dance movement spread across western reservations. The U.S. government considered it a threat and sent out its military.
On the Sioux reservations, McLaughlin had Kicking Bear arrested, while Sitting Bull’s arrest on December 15, 1890, resulted in a struggle between reservation police and Ghost Dancers in which Sitting Bull was killed. Two weeks later, the military intercepted Big Foot’s band of Ghost Dancers. They were Minneconjou Sioux, mostly women who had lost husbands and other male relatives in the wars with the U.S. military. When Colonel Forsyth tried to disarm the last Minneconjou of his rifle, a shot broke out and the surrounding soldiers opened fire. Hotchkiss guns shredded the camp on Wounded Knee Creek, killing, according to one estimate, 300 of 350 men, women, and children.
In addition to searching on the names of people and places described above, also search on Sioux war and Sioux campaign. Images pertaining to the wars against the Kiowas, Comanches, Utes, Poncas, Modocs, and Nez Perces are also available by searching on these tribes’ names. For in-depth information on the Nez Perce war, see the American Memory collection, American Indians of the Pacific Northwest.
Labor Strikes and Violence
Western miners worked ten- or twelve-hour shifts in mines and mills where premature dynamite blasts, fatal gas, underground fires, avalanches, falls, and cave-ins were constant threats. In the early twentieth century, western miners battled with management over working conditions, wages, and the right to unionize.
In Telluride, Cripple Creek, and Victor, Colorado these workers organized as the Western Miners Federation and went on strike, demanding shorter workdays, among other things. To keep their operations running and to undermine the strikers, management brought in other workers from neighboring communities, called strikebreakers. In Telluride, a gun battle broke out between strikers and strikebreakers on July 3, 1901, killing three men, including the mine superintendent, Charles M. Baker. The following year, the manager of the Telluride union was assassinated in his living room.
On June 6, 1904, in the Cripple Creek area, fourteen men were killed and others were wounded by a bomb placed under the train platform at the Independence railroad station. While evidence indicates that the bombing may have been the work of the Federation, controversy remains over who was actually responsible. Later that day, C. C. Hamlin of the Mine Owner's Association spoke to a crowd in Victor, decrying the violence at the Independence station and suggesting that Federation members should be killed. The speech incited a riot and the governor sent in the National Guard.
After nearly two years, the Colorado legislature passed a law providing an eight-hour day for some workers, and the strike ended with only a small percentage of workers actually gaining a shorter workday. Search on Cripple Creek strike, Victor strike, and WFM for pertinent images.
- Why do you think there was so much tension between strikers and strikebreakers?
- Why do you think that strikebreakers were willing to work for companies that other workers were protesting?
An even larger and more violent strike took place in Ludlow, Colorado in 1914. Coal miners working for the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company demanded improved safety, a higher wage, better living conditions, and union recognition. When the Rockefeller-owned company refused to agree to their demands, miners walked off the job.
These strikers and their families established a tent colony near the mine, and on April 20, the governor called in the National Guard to disperse them. When the strikers refused to leave, soldiers opened fire on the colony. A number of women and children were killed, some in underground pits where they had sought refuge. Search on Ludlow tent colony for related images.
The Ludlow Massacre aroused public protest throughout the nation. Mother Mary Jones, a noted union organizer, was arrested when she arrived in Ludlow. Women organized a protest and marched through the streets demanding her release. Marchers were dispersed by members of the Colorado National Guard on horseback. As the tensions and protests continued, President Woodrow Wilson ordered federal troops to Ludlow to maintain order.
- What caused tensions between the workers and the management of the gold and coal mines of Colorado in the early twentieth century?
- How did management respond to union organization? Why?
- What role did the Colorado National Guard play in the strikes at Cripple Creek and Ludlow? Was the state militia sent to maintain order or break strikes?
- Why do you think that these Colorado strikes resulted in so much violence?
- How did the Ludlow Massacre compare to the Haymarket Massacre of 1886 or the Homestead Massacre of 1892?
The World Wars
When the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany in 1917, troops mobilized across the country. Fort Logan was a major assembly point for soldiers from the western United States embarking for European duty during World War I. Search on Fort Logan for pictures of the Colorado training facility.
Not far from Fort Logan, the Loretto Heights academy was used as a women’s training center during World War I. Although women were not trained for combat, a search on Loretto Heights illustrates the ways in which women were prepared for service, including first aid training and the use of the telegraph and signal flags.
The advent of World War I stimulated the fledgling U.S. aircraft industry. The U.S. selected a British model, called the De Havilland DH-4, for the majority of its World War I airplane production. At its peak, the industry manufactured 12,000 or more airplanes per year, but the U.S. contributed only a small portion of the aircraft used in the war. Most U.S. pilots in Europe flew French models. A search on airplane provides several photographs of World War I aircraft including early French, German, and American planes.
There are also several photographs of Charles A. Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis. In 1927, Lindbergh made the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. This 31-and-a-half-hour trip of more than 3,600 miles made him famous throughout the U.S. and Europe. Lindbergh helped design the plane, which was financed by nine St. Louis businessmen.
- How important was the airplane in World War I? How was it used?
- How did World War I affect the U.S. aircraft industry?
- Why did Lindbergh become a folk hero in both the United States and Europe in the 1920s?
- What role did Lindbergh play in promoting an interest in commercial aviation?
In World War II, Colorado provided an ideal site for training soldiers in mountain and winter warfare. The 14,000 men of the 10th Mountain Division learned mountaineering, skiing, and rock climbing in Colorado’s Eagle Park Valley area. The division fought for five months in the mountains of northern Italy. Search on Italy for hundreds of photographs depicting battle scenes, the devastation of war, the capture of German soldiers, and the weariness of troops advancing over mountainous terrain. Learn more about these specially trained soldiers and their combat in the special presentation, "The 10th Mountain Division."
- When and why were U.S. troops employed in Italy? What was their mission?
- What kinds of responses would you expect 10th Mountain Division soldiers to have had to their experiences in World War II?
- Did the return of these troops to the U.S. after the war have any effect on American life?
The time span represented in History of the American West provides users with an opportunity to examine visual evidence of change over time. Illustrations of conflicts between Native Americans and the U.S. military can be analyzed to examine how the press reported these wars, while photographs of the Carlisle Indian School provide a starting point for a research project. Numerous photographs depict Buffalo Bill's Wild West Shows and afford a close look at that historical entertainment, while a few pictures of Klu Klux Klan activity in Denver can serve as the touchstone for a discussion of free speech and hate crimes.
Chronological Thinking: Urban Development
The Subject Index lists photographs of Denver, Colorado chronologically, providing an opportunity to examine change over time.
- What kind of town do you think Denver was when it was founded? Who lived there? What kinds of facilities, organizations, and services were first established in Denver?
- What characteristics do you think are necessary for a settlement to qualify as a town?
- Why might Denver have developed when and where it did?
- How did Denver change over time? What new features were added to the city? How did the city's appearance change? How did Denver's residents and their activities change? What might account for such changes?
- How did transportation change over time? How did this affect the city?
- What things stayed the same in Denver and why might that have been?
- How might you expect the development of other cities, such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco to have been similar to or different from Denver's history?
- What factors determine how or if a city grows?
Historical Comprehension: Buffalo Bill's Wild West Shows
Buffalo Bill was born William Cody in 1846 in Iowa, on the frontier between European American settlement and Native American homelands. As settlement pushed west, Cody participated in the most iconic aspects of the movement. In his youth, he rode with wagon trains, cattle drives, and the Pony Express. Later, he served as a scout in the Civil War in Kansas and in Plains Wars with Custer's Fifth Cavalry. He earned his nickname hunting buffalo to feed the Kansas Pacific Railroad workers.
In 1869, a New York magazine writer, Ned Buntline, went to Nebraska in search of a model for a protagonist for stories of the West. He zeroed in on Cody and later that year introduced his hero to the readers of the New York Weekly in "Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men." Over 500 Buffalo Bill dime novels followed.
The success of the Buffalo Bill stories led Cody to develop a stage version of the hero's exploits in the 1870s. Cody was working on the production in New York in 1876 when Custer was defeated at Little Big Horn. On the night of his last show, Cody swore to return to the West and avenge Custer's death. A month later, Cody rode with Custer's Fifth Cavalry at Warbonnet Creek, Nebraska where he killed the Cheyenne Leader, Yellow Hand, and took his scalp in revenge.
The legend of Buffalo Bill grew and Cody expanded his production, which culminated in the popular Wild West shows that debuted in 1883. The shows depicted the dramas of frontier life in Native American horse races, buffalo hunts, and battle scenes, such as Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn and the fight at Warbonnet Creek. It also included a review of the world's best gunmen.
Cody employed a large crew and cast of cowboys, Native Americans, and performers to present what was billed as an authentic and historical portrayal of the West. A search on Buffalo Bill or Wild West shows provides nearly a thousand images of this popular entertainment. One image, from a program for the show, promises potential audience members that they will see:
"A Living Picture of Life on the Frontier . . . Indians, Cowboys, and Mexicans, as they lived . . . an Indian Village, transplanted from the Plains . . . Indian Warfare depicted in true collors [sic]. . . a Buffalo Hunt in all its realistic details."
- How does the program try to appeal to potential audience members? How does the program depict the show and what it has to offer?
- According to photographs, what was the subject matter of Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows? What kinds of people appeared in the shows? What activities and events were depicted?
- Why do you think that these subjects were selected?
- Who was hired to perform in the Wild West shows?
- How do Native Americans seem to have been depicted in these shows? What reasons might Native Americans such as Sitting Bull have had to join Cody's cast?
- Why do you think that Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows were so popular in the U.S. and in Europe?
- Do you think that these theatrical performances accurately represented important historical events? How authentic do you think the shows actually were and why?
- To what extent did the Wild West shows' depictions of historical events influence popular perceptions of western history?
Historical Analysis and Interpretation
The press played a major role in some of the wars against Native Americans. In Colorado, the Utes' reservation agent, Nathan C. Meeker, William Vickers, a Denver editor and politician, and even Governor Frederick Pitkin published articles in the Greeley Tribune and Denver Tribune testifying that the Utes were uncivilized, and falsely accusing them of setting fires and creating other problems. Reports like these aroused public fear, anger, and hatred, and soon citizens were calling for the removal of the Utes to a reservation.
As political pressure mounted, the accusations against the Utes provided an excuse to bring the military to the reservation. When troops approached, a battle ensued, and Agent Meeker and other men at the reservation agency were killed by Utes. Afterward, Pitkin told the papers the battle was an unprovoked attack by the Utes, and called upon the citizens of Colorado to "wipe out the red devils." As civilian militias mobilized across the state, the Utes were marched 350 miles to a reservation in Utah.
In Omaha, on the other hand, General George Crook enlisted the help of Thomas Henry Tibbles and his newspaper on behalf of the Ponca tribe. Crook was ordered to arrest Standing Bear and his band of Poncas at an Omaha reservation and return them to Indian Territory, where they had been sent just two years before. They had come to Omaha to bury Standing Bear’s son in the Poncas' traditional burial ground near the Niobrara River.
General Crook's opinion of Native Americans had changed since his battles with the Sioux and Cheyennes, and he delayed returning the band while he worked with Tibbles to help the Poncas. The reports in the newspaper inspired the churches of Omaha to petition for the Poncas' release. Soon a lawyer volunteered to arrange a civil rights case, in which Judge Elmer Dundy eventually ruled in favor of Standing Bear's right to freedom. The case was covered by reporters from as far as the east coast, and the U.S. granted Standing Bear and his band of Poncas some land on the Niobrara River.
- What role did the newspapers play in shaping the history of the Utes and the Poncas? How and why do newspapers affect public opinion on important events?
A search on Harper's Weekly retrieves many illustrations of Indian Wars and provides an opportunity to examine how one periodical reported these wars. A search on Custer or battle Little Bighorn provides an opportunity to analyze representations of perhaps the most famous battle of the Indian Wars.
- What connotations do words like massacre, battle, fight, and campaignhave? Are these words used appropriately in these illustrations' captions?
- What point of view is represented in the illustrations' captions?
- What point of view is represented in the illustrations themselves? Through whose eyes are we seeing?
- How are Native Americans portrayed in these illustrations? What are they doing? What are their facial expressions? What kind of style is used in drawing them?
- How accurately do the illustrations depict the causes of war?
- How accurately do the illustrations represent the events they depict? What aspects of these events are illustrated? What aspects are left out? What point of view or access to information might these choices reflect?
- What do you think the illustrator's goals might have been? Who was the illustrator's audience?
- What impact would you expect Harper's Weekly's coverage of conflicts with Native Americans to have had upon the public and why?
- Why do you think that the Battle at Little Bighorn came to be known so popularly as Custer's Last Stand? What does this name suggest about Americans' point of view towards the battle and its significance?
Additional research, accessing articles from Harper's
Weekly's coverage of the wars against Native Americans, will help confirm or deny your analysis. Do the articles provide an accurate or biased account of these wars? How do the illustrations relate to the articles on the Indian Wars? How does the coverage of the wars compare to the coverage of other news?
Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: Free Speech and Hate Crimes
On April 7, 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling that upheld a Virginia law banning cross burning. The legality of the Virginia law had been challenged based on the idea that it interfered with Americans' right to free speech — in this case, the freedom to make a statement by burning a cross.
Though the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right to free speech, this right is not absolute. For example, the Supreme Court has ruled that speech that presents a clear and present danger, such as inciting chaos by screaming "Fire!" in a crowded theater, is not worthy of protection as speech.
In trying free-speech cases, judges weigh the value and impact of a specific speech act against the need to protect free speech. In April, 2003, when the Supreme Court considered Virginia v. Black, they concluded, five to four, that the history of cross burning gave that symbolic act a particularly racist and hateful meaning that is not worthy of First Amendment protection. During the trial, Justice Clarence Thomas said that the cross was "unlike any symbol in our society," equating it with what he called a century-long "reign of terror" by the Ku Klux Klan.
Although the Ku Klux Klan developed in the post-Civil War South, the organization was not limited to the southern states, nor did it cease to exist after Reconstruction. Search on Ku Klux Klan and cross burning for images of Klan activity in Denver during the 1920s. Burning crosses were often placed in the yards of African Americans and civil rights sympathizers to intimidate them, and were often the prelude to lynchings and other violence.
- According to the pictures, what was the status of the Ku Klux Klan in Denver in the 1920s?
- What would this status have contributed to the impact of the Klan's use of a burning cross?
- Do you agree with Justice Thomas that a burning cross is a unique symbol in American society because of its history?
- Is burning a cross different from displaying a Confederate flag or burning an American flag? What are the historical meanings and effects of these acts? Should they be banned or protected by the First Amendment?
- Is it appropriate to say that a symbol can be equated with any one meaning? If so, under what conditions?
- What principle does the Supreme Court's ruling in Virginia v. Black establish? What was the rationale for banning cross burning?
- Does the ruling open the way for other types of speech to be banned just because some people find them abhorrent?
- Does the April 7th ruling already impede free speech by causing people to fear that they might be punished for voicing unpopular opinions? Is this a reasonable response to the ruling? Why or why not?
- How do we draw the line between speech that we may find abhorrent and speech that is so abhorrent that it should not be considered worthy of First Amendment protection? Who should make such judgements? Should such judgements even be undertaken? Why or why not?
Historical Research Capabilities
After most Native Americans had been forced onto reservations, the U.S. government began to adopt a predominantly reformist attitude towards its charges. The U.S. Congress adopted the idea that the right reforms could make Native Americans behave more like European American citizens, and established Indian schools for this purpose. One of the first schools was the Carlisle Indian School, founded in Pennsylvania in 1879. Its founder, Captain Richard Henry Pratt, made the goal of his school to "kill the Indian and save the man."
The Carlisle "experiment" prompted the establishment of other federal schools patterned after Carlisle. Religious communities also established schools outside the federal system. The basic purpose of these Indian boarding schools was the assimilation of young men and women by replacing Native American values with manners, dress, and speech that would be more acceptable to European Americans.
Search on Carlisle for several images, including a photograph of Chiricahua Apache children arriving at the Carlisle School from their reservation in Florida on November 4, 1886. The same eleven youths are pictured in a studio portrait taken four months later. Other images include a photograph of Carlisle's graduating class of 1894 and the cover illustration of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, which depicts a Native-American girl from Carlisle returning to her reservation.
- Using the summary information provided with the two photographs of Apache children at Carlisle, can you identify students by name in the before-and-after photographs?
- What can you determine from these photographs about the goals and objectives of Indian schools?
- How successful do you think they were in assimilating Native Americans?
- What can you infer from the expressions on the faces of individual students in the photographs?
- How do you think the general public in the 1880s might have interpreted the message of the cover illustration of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper? How might the illustration be interpreted today?
Learn more about the practices of Indian Schools in the American Memory collection, American Indians of the Pacific Northwest. It includes a special presentation on the topic as well as numerous photographs and other items.
Letter Writing and Historical Comprehension
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, photographs were often converted into picture postcards. A search on postcard provides over 500 examples, many of which relate to the major U.S. History topics represented in the collection, such as agriculture, mining, labor unions, and Native Americans.
Select a postcard on a historical topic and assume the persona of an individual sending the postcard to a friend or family member. Compose a short message explaining the subject. Use what you’ve learned about the subject, the image’s bibliographic information, and any additional research you may want to conduct. Think about who is represented in the postcard, what they’re doing, where, when, and why. Search on phrases such as Buffalo Bill postcard or gold mine postcard to narrow your selection of images.
Newspaper Reporting and Historical Comprehension
Photographs of service men during World War II depict the soldiers in a variety of situations and activities. Search on Italy for scenes of soldiers reading and writing letters, laundering clothes at a public laundry, and serving food to Italian soldiers, as well as fighting in combat.
Assume the role of an American. Use the photographs to write war correspondent stories that tell Americans at home about the war and the experience of American soldiers in Italy. The stories might include interviews with some of the soldiers pictured in the photographs. Alternatively, assume the role of a soldier and write a letter home describing your experience.
- Where do the soldiers come from? What kind of training have they had?
- What have they been doing since their arrival in Italy?
- What are they doing at the moment?
- What do they think their orders might be in the near future?
- How are their immediate objectives related to the war as a whole?
- How do the soldiers like Italy? How have Italian citizens received them?
- Do the soldiers feel as though their training prepared them well?
- What do the soldiers want their loved ones to know?
Short Story Writing
Odd or unusual photographs from the collection can provide fun starting points for short stories. Select one or more of the following images or browse the Subject Index for one of your own choosing.
Write a short story that includes one or more of the scenes depicted in the photographs. Be sure to include information about the image's historical context.
Nature Photography and Image Analysis
Since the invention of the camera, photographers from Timothy O’Sullivan to Ansel Adams have focused on nature. Nearly 1,000 nature photographs are represented in the collection’s images of U.S. national parks, found by searching on national park. While nature photographers all depict some aspect of the natural world in their images, each one makes unique choices about what to photograph and how.
Some photographers might be interested in the natural object itself, its scientific classification, its patterns of growth, its location. Others might be more interested in the visual qualities of the scene. Others might be interested in the way the scene makes them feel. By thinking about what’s in a nature photograph besides nature, you can get a better understanding of all the different elements of the image and the choices that the artist made in creating it.
- There are many photographs of nature in this collection. Which ones catch your attention and why? How do they make you feel? What words would you use to describe them?
- How would you describe the composition of the photograph? What are the major shapes and lines, and how are they arranged? Are they pleasing to the eye? Do they make you feel a certain way?
- Is there strong contrast between black and white, or is the photograph mostly all white, black, or gray? How does the photograph's contrast or lack of contrast contribute to its impact?
- Are there a lot of textures in the photograph? Are there a lot of lines? Colors? How do these elements contribute to the photograph's impact or to your enjoyment of it?
- What is the relationship between images and feeling? What are the ways in which images can affect our emotions?
The collection's many images of U.S. national parks can also be used to create a pictorial travel brochure. Search on national park and browse the photographs to get a feel for the different parks. Or search on the names of specific parks, such as Garden of the Gods, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Mesa Verde, in Colorado; Bryce Canyon in Utah; and Arizona's Grand Canyon. Select photographs and write descriptions that will promote the parks and help readers decide where they may want to go. Create a layout that is clear and attractive. Include some information on the park's history in your description.