Yankees in the West Now Open at the MHS

Explore how a generation of eastern tourists set out to claim their storyline in the expanding narrative of the American West.

Henry Adams - YellowstoneThe American West has long loomed large in the popular imagination. Depicted alternately as a harsh, untamed, and unpopulated wilderness; a land of opportunity; and the embodiment of America’s sense of entitlement through manifest destiny, realizing western promise was a dominant theme throughout the 19th century. Beginning mid-century, descriptions of the trans-Mississippi West flowed steadily east, capturing the Yankee eye and fueling still steadier streams of westward travel. Through a selection of letters, diaries, artifacts, photographs, and drawings, Yankees in the West explores how New Englanders experienced the trans-Mississippi west in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The exhibition is on display at the Society through April 6, 2018, Monday through Saturday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM.

Prior to the gold rush, fur was the main commodity driving colonial expansion in North America. After the Revolution, the need to compete with European commerce spurred exploration, first by sea along the Pacific coast and then, during the 19th century, inland through government-sponsored expeditions. These explorers—Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, John C. Frémont, and Frederick W. Lander—and the artists who traveled with them reified the language of awe that influenced future chroniclers of the West. The U.S. government established forts along the expanding frontiers, and small numbers of agrarian settlers soon followed. American missionaries moved in, intent on transforming Indian culture through Christianity. It was not until mid-century, however, that emigration to the trans-Mississippi West began in earnest. In 1846, Francis Parkman traveled for three weeks with a hunting party of Oglala Sioux warriors along the Oregon Trail. On display is one of the notebooks kept during that journey that were the basis of his adventures published as The Oregon Trail. An Oglala Sioux bow and arrow, a souvenir kept by Parkman, is one of the artifacts visitors can see.

In January 1848 James Marshall pulled gold from the American River at Sutter’s Mill in California. As news of the find spread, it galvanized an unprecedented number of Argonauts to travel by sea or overland and created cities out of the trading posts at San Francisco and Sacramento. More than 100,000 prospectors—mostly men—populated the goldfields by the end of 1849. Some tried their luck and returned home, carrying with them stories of grand—if frequently failed—adventure. Fractional gold pieces ($0.25 and $0.50 pieces) issued privately in San Francisco between 1852 and 1856 are displayed. Within two years, gold transformed California from a U.S.–occupied territory to the 31st state of the Union. As the boom years gave way to more industrialized mining beginning in the mid-1850s, women and families joined the emigration in greater numbers. Hundreds of thousands of settlers traveled west between 1849 and 1869, carving new lives from the natural resources of western lands and in the process irrevocably changing the landscape and the native and settler populations who predated them. Visitors can read a poem celebrating Thanksgiving in California in 1849 by Daniel W. Nason along with his description of mining for gold. 

Western Trips for Eastern People brochureThe explosion of images, descriptions, and personal accounts mediated the emigrant experience for all but the earliest western migrants. Hundreds of guidebooks were written to lead settlers to the Promised Land. By 1861 the transcontinental telegraph linked the coasts, allowing for a swifter transfer of information. Illustrated magazines like Harper’s Weekly and western writers like Bret Harte sensationalized the frontier experience for eastern audiences and conceptualized the West for Americans who increasingly embraced the nation’s manifest destiny to stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific. On display is Edward Hall’s The Great West published in 1866. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 ushered in a new era of travel as well-heeled tourists heeded the western call. Railroad guidebooks joined the mix, touting the “luxury of modern railway travel” from Council Bluffs to San Francisco on the Union Pacific and, later, from Chicago to Yellowstone and Oregon on the Northern Pacific. Two examples include an 1893 guide to Yellowstone National Park and a 1912 brochure Western Trips for Eastern People.

Just as earlier travelers and emigrants to the West recorded their experiences in letters, diaries, and guidebooks, later New England tourists kept their friends and family informed of their adventures through written accounts, works of art, and photographs. A selection of watercolors by Henry Adams painted during his trip to Yellowstone in 1894 along with letters about his western travels are on display. Men and women from Massachusetts reflect on their travels through the western landscape, by train and stage, on horseback and on foot, and finally by motor vehicle. Photos of a chauffer-driven Pierce-Arrow in which Nora Saltonstall and her friends travelled from California to Oregon illustrate her “auto-camping” trip through the West in 1919. The advent of auto-touring in the early decades of the 20th century marks the end of the exhibition as the rise of the automobile once again changed the frame through which tourists experienced the West.