F.O.C. Darley, Emigrants Crossing the Plains, 1874, hand-colored engraving, 13 x 17, private collection. Photo: E.G. Schempf.
With an imperative to “kill the Indian in him and save the man,” Captain Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Native American Boarding School, offered a succinct insight into the culmination of Manifest Destiny. With the West “pacified,” Indigenous lands plundered and commodified, and resistant tribes massacred into submission, the final task was to perform the noble work of forcibly assimilating young Native Americans into the culture of their oppressors — under the choreographed guise of benevolent paternalism.
“Imprinting the West,” currently on view at the West Wyandotte Public Library in Kansas City, Kan., is a unique snapshot into the mentality that made one of America’s most brazen genocides such a celebrated success.
Curated by Dr. Randall Griffey of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and supported by the Mid-America Arts Alliance, the traveling exhibition offers a glimpse of how, beneath a veneer of intellectualism, the United States interpreted the existence of its Indigenous population. The 48 lithographs and engravings in the show reveal a native people seen as objects to be simultaneously pitied and admired; a source of anthropological curiosity; and as the inevitable losers in the conflict between savagery and civilization.
What makes the collection of works remarkable is that the majority of them date from the nineteenth century, when Manifest Destiny enjoyed its heyday as American gospel. As removed as that zeitgeist of expansion and subjugation might seem today, “Imprinting the West” provides a look back in time at the media ordinary citizens consumed to inform their views of Native Americans.
Many of the pieces in the exhibition were created specifically for an educated consumer market in the cosmopolitan cities of the East Coast and the Midwest. Others were destined for publication in Harper’s Weekly, one of the preeminent political periodicals of the era.
For example, the wood engraving with watercolor “An Indian Foray in the West” (1858), by F.O.C. Darley, depicts a team of Indigenous warriors snatching a terrified white woman from her homestead and absconding with her on horseback. Published in the May 1 edition of Harper’s Weekly that year, the illustration leaned into well-established propaganda about Native Americans abducting female settlers for nefarious, and implicitly sexual, purposes. Even the use of the word “foray” in the title of the pieces suggests this kidnapping is but a routine excursion.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, viewers can bear witness to another wood engraving, “The Indian War – Indians Attacking a Wagon Train,” printed in an 1868 edition of Harper’s Weekly. Just as the title promises, the watercolor-infused piece leaves little to the imagination and features a horde of ferocious-looking American Indians charging on horseback against a contingent of outnumbered U.S. Cavalry troops. Despite being equipped with firearms, it is unclear whether the soldiers will be successful in protecting the convoy of settlers whom they are escorting. The image betrays no clue as to its exact location, thus furthering the narrative that such violent encounters, always initiated by the Native Americans, were a ubiquitous occurrence plaguing peaceful pioneers as they answered the call westward.
Historically oriented viewers may notice similarities between the more violent entries in “Imprinting the West” and the lurid illustrations that accompanied American yellow journalism in the lead up to the Spanish American War. In both cases, the images served as ersatz photography, given the limitations of technology at the time. And more importantly, they stoked outrage (and subscriptions) among readers of printed news media.
Not every element of “Imprinting the West” showcases sensationalist violence. And although some of the pieces treat their subjects with a degree of humanity, the context of Manifest Destiny remains unmistakable.
In the hand-colored lithograph “Brewett, A Celebrated Miami Chief” (1835), James Otto Lewis portrays an Indigenous leader clad in a handsome cerulean tunic and adorned with conspicuous silver jewelry. The subject’s countenance appears thoughtful and unassuming. Yet in spite of the chief looking like a peer of Anglo-American statesmen, the caption of the image that was supplied to “The Aboriginal Port Folio” (1835), in which the illustration was published, tells a different story. The text takes on a boastful, almost bewildered tone as it marvels at how much land the Pottawattomie tribes were “ceding to the government of the United States . . . for comparatively a small consideration.”
The setting of a public library for “Imprinting the West” adds a note of dignity to the exhibition and may even assist viewers in approaching the artworks as a historical record of how the American public understood Manifest Destiny. Anyone seeking a few moments of thoughtful reflection during Indigenous People’s Month will find ample opportunity here.
“Imprinting the West” continues at the West Wyandotte Public Library, Art, 1737 N. 82nd St., Kansas City, Kan., through Oct. 20. Hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 1 p.m.to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, 913.295.8250 ext. 1 or kckpl.librarymarket.com/imprintingwest.