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A New SignificanceRe-Envisioning the History of the American West$

Clyde A. Milner

Print publication date: 1997

Print ISBN-13: 9780195100471

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195100471.001.0001

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Cultural Filters: The Significance of Perception

Cultural Filters: The Significance of Perception

(p.175) 6 Cultural Filters: The Significance of Perception
A New Significance

Anne F. Hyde

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The geographic region of the American West has done much to shape the culture and character of the United States. Conversely, the culture and character of the United States has reshaped much of the western landscape. Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the West molded American culture because it was a frontier, a meeting ground between savagery and civilization. This chapter argues instead that the American West has shaping power because of its unique geography and not necessarily because it was or is a frontier. Its significance comes from the fact that in a certain part of the American continent, particularly the lands west of the one hundredth meridian, Anglo Americans came up against a series of landscapes that defied their notions about utility and beauty. The region's strange appearance, combined with national expectations about its uses, created a volatile mixture of geography and culture. These shifting perceptions reflected the ways in which American culture defined itself—and this is the significance of perception in the history of the American West.

Keywords:   Frederick Jackson Turner, American West, culture, geography, frontier, United States, power, history, Anglo Americans, utility

The geographic region of the American West has done much to shape the culture and character of the United States. Conversely, the culture and character of the United States has reshaped much of the western landscape. Frederick Jackson Turner told us as much in 1893. He argued that the West molded American culture because it was a frontier, a meeting ground between savagery and civilization. Because frontier, for Turner, did not mean a specific place, the geographic realities of the Far West played no important role in his thinking.

I argue instead that the West has shaping power because of its unique geography and not necessarily because it was or is a frontier. Its significance comes from the fact that in a certain part of the American continent, particularly the lands west of the one hundredth meridian, Anglo Americans came up against a series of landscapes that defied their notions about utility and beauty. The region's strange appearance, combined with national expectations about its uses, created a volatile mixture of geography and culture.

Distinctive and unfamiliar landscapes presented explorers, travelers, and settlers with perceptual challenges. What was the West? What did it look like? How could it be first understood, then lived upon, made profitable, or consumed? Meeting this challenge with new methods of interpretation forced Americans to make sense of their surroundings and, at times, distort the landscape. These shifting perceptions reflected the ways in which American culture defined itself—and this is the significance of perception in the history of the American West.

Other historians have made observations along these lines. Walter Prescott Webb devoted a career to the distinctive characteristics of the Great Plains, arguing that geography determined the culture that developed (p.176) there. Donald Worster, in his work on the use and misuse of land and water in the West, has shown us the folly of ignoring geographic realities. Henry Nash Smith and, more recently, Annette Kolodny have looked at the way in which the West, both the real West and the West that Americans imagined, affected American culture in the nineteenth century. William Goetzmann has surveyed the history of western exploration as a vehicle of empire building and argued that explorers were the point men of American culture, bringing it west as they carried images of the West east.1

Few historians have looked systematically at the history of perceiving the West. However, this history of perception is crucial in understanding how the region has been used. I see two basic problems in understanding Anglo-American perceptions of the region. First, what does perception mean? It denotes both firsthand observations of Americans who viewed the West for the first time in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the responses of readers or viewers to those firsthand accounts or images. What did both groups expect to see? How did their expectations color their perceptions of the Far West? Working like filters on a camera lens, cultural expectations, biases, and ideology affected what people saw and what they recorded for others. Second, we must remember that the perceptions of Anglo observers do not represent the entire spectrum of vision, though in the nineteenth century their views, however limited, had tremendous impact on the region.

This essay explores the role of culture in the history of perception in the American West. In particular, I want to look at the filters that altered and shaped this perception. Because of the enormous interest in the West and because of its distance from eastern population centers, the perceptions of early interpreters shaped American ideas about the West. How Americans gained their knowledge about the West resembled a game of telephone throughout most of the nineteenth century. Most Americans got their information about the West after it had been filtered through several observers and recorders. Certainly the views of Anglo Americans vary enormously. How did different peoples' or groups' perceptions shape the West, and how did the West shape these perceptions?2

Because I want to look at the role of perception as a cultural shaper, it is important to look at what might influence such perceptions. Modes of transportation provide a significant filter on what people see. The earliest American explorers viewed the West in terms very different from those used by tourists on Interstate 80 two centuries later. Another important filter is gender. When women and men looked at the landscape, they often saw very different things. Another sort of filter is the medium upon (p.177) which firsthand responses are recorded. Because most people saw the West through words and pictures made by others, the medium of exchange becomes important in understanding national conceptions about the region. Words, pictures, buildings, and more recently, films have all recorded perceptions. What happens in the translation between viewer and image? How does the medium change the perception?

Working underneath all of these filters is the crucial lens of cultural preparation or expectation. If the eye acts as a camera body, culture works as a lens providing focus. In large part, the history of Anglo-American perception in the West is one of willful misperception. To counter this view, one could examine the perceptions of nonwhite westerners. What did they see when they looked at the landscape? How did they filter their views? Because Native Americans and Hispanic colonizers had little interest in remodeling the landscape on a large scale, they seemed more likely to accept far western geography at face value. Culturally, the landscape seemed useful to them.3 White Americans, using their own culture, focused their cameras and saw a highly mutable West—a place that could be remade into anything they wanted as they twisted and adjusted that cultural focus.

Describing the West: Explorers and Their Words

The concept of cultural preparation and its impact on perceptions of the West is vital. A quick trip through the history of western exploration should demonstrate the significance of expectation. In general, people see what they are looking for. If you have been told that a place is beautiful, generally when you see it, the spot will appear beautiful. And in general, landscape that is familiar is pleasing.4 Navajo, Paiute, or Apache Indians, for example, would have been stunned to know that nineteenth-century white observers found the western deserts hideous and threatening. Because native peoples knew how to find water, food, and shelter, the desert seemed a comfortable place to them. Similarly, what white Americans expected and what was familiar had great impact on what they found in the Far West in the early nineteenth century.

Geographical knowledge of the American West did not begin with a blank slate. Myths and assumptions long preceded and shaped knowledge. A useful way to characterize nineteenth-century exploration is as a series of “reality checks” that had relatively little effect on a durable myth. For example, we often assume that Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark into a great void when they headed up the Missouri River in 1804 to inspect the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase.

(p.178) Jefferson, however, had devised the expedition based on several clear geographic assumptions. He believed, with the weight of science and history behind him, that a waterway existed connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Reality, in this case, came in the guise of reports from fur traders and fur company explorers and chipped away at this belief, reducing the waterway to a western-flowing river and an eastern-flowing river that were interrupted by an insignificant portage over a small mountain range. As Bernard DeVoto put it: “This basic conception, this irreducible minimum, left no room for the Rocky Mountains. Geographical thinking had been unable to imagine them.”5 Perhaps even more significant was Jefferson's assumption that the West, like most of the territory east of the Mississippi, would provide climate and land suitable for American farming. In his message to Congress justifying the expedition, Jefferson explained that “the Missouri, traversing a moderate climate,” would provide passage through a rich and fertile agricultural region.6 Jefferson's instructions to Lewis and Clark, exhorting them to pay careful attention to climate, soil, mineral production, and navigational possibilities of various rivers, reflect these assumptions.

Lewis and Clark's report describing the torturous 220-mile portage through the deep snows of Montana's Bitterroot Mountains seriously damaged the concept of a Northwest Passage. However, their report did nothing to erode the notion of the West as an agricultural wonderland destined for American use. Despite the fact that Lewis and Clark described great treeless expanses, unnavigable rivers, and an array of native peoples, Anglo Americans continued to believe that the Far West could be readily molded to fit their economy, society, and culture. Lewis and Clark found a garden, perhaps a rocky and cold one, but a garden nevertheless—because they were expected to find one.7

Nearly fifteen years later, another official expedition ventured into the supposed “Garden of the West.” Led by Stephen Harriman Long of the U.S. Topographical Engineers, this group headed into the heart of the continent, along the Platte, Arkansas, and Canadian Rivers. Perhaps because Long and his men expected to find a fertile region much like the Mississippi Valley just to the east, the arid, treeless plains seemed especially bleak. The report they brought back was not optimistic. The Long expedition found only hostile Indians, towering mountains, and sandy wastes, a region that, according to Long, was “almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.”8 As a result of Long's judgment, the center of the American West was designated the “Great American Desert.”9

Such a dismal appellation did little to slow the conquest of the West, (p.179) nor did it put much of a dent in American assumptions about the region. As the United States made moves toward acquiring Texas, Oregon, California, and the rest of the Great Basin, few Americans considered the geographic realities of the land they coveted. Throughout the nineteenth century, Americans seemed to be looking for two things in the West. One was a scenic West, a place that represented the power and beauty of the American nation and that could be compared to the most sublime scenes in Europe. The other West offered a locus of opportunity and a testing ground for American ingenuity, a notion that had been present long before Thomas Jefferson. However, these two Wests seem mutually exclusive. How could Americans perceive the landscape as sublime Eden and at the same time build farms and mines on top of it? Even more poignant, both of these western visions clashed with the facts of the landscape. And this clash, because of the powerful ideology about the role of the West, could not be reconciled by nineteenth-century Americans.

Although some people worried that the nation was growing too fast and that expansion would destroy the union, no one seemed to question the notion that the land could meet aesthetic standards and the needs of traditional American farming and industry. Even if deserts did mar the landscape, they presented a challenge to be met, not a barrier to development or understanding. The perception of the Far West as a potential wonderland was far too strong.

John Charles Fremont set off on a series of expeditions in 1842 to prove that such a wonderland did exist. His own ambitions and the expansionist fervor of his patrons dictated what he saw. The Great American Desert became the Great Plains, home to nutritious grasses, innumerable buffalo and antelope, and picturesque Indians. The Rocky Mountains contained scenes of grandeur and sublimity that rivaled the famed Alps of Europe. Oregon and California cried out for the plows of industrious American farmers to make the valleys into fertile oases. Certain parts of the Far West could not be described in such glowing terms, but Frémont tended to ignore these unfortunate areas, which included the huge expanses of the Great Basin and the plains. He simply explained them away: “In America, such things are new and strange, unknown and unsuspected,” implying that once known, these regions could be made more appealing.10

The news in Frémont's Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842 and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843–1844 captivated Americans. The report read like an adventure story, but it also provided clear descriptions of the landscape. Fremont used familiar language and analogy to make the Far West comprehensible (p.180)

                   Cultural Filters: The Significance of Perception

Central Chain of the Wind River Range, Charles Preuss, 1842. Lithograph in John Charles Fremont, Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842 and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843–1844 (Washington, D.C., 1845).

to his readers. Because of the publicity surrounding his expedition and the astounding popularity of his Report, the words Frémont selected had great impact on American perceptions of the region.11

Remodeling the West: Promoters and Settlers

Frémont simply echoed what white Americans had assumed all along— that the West was a place of opportunity where American enterprise could spread its wings. However, by the middle of the nineteenth century, geographical knowledge had placed question marks on this opportunity. The Great Plains looked fertile with all of those buffalo chewing grass, but where were the trees and the rain? The Rockies and the Sierra Nevada could be crossed and they had spots of undeniable beauty, but could they ever be anything but a barrier to development? The Great Basin and the desert Southwest provided another cipher. Indians had lived there for thousands of years and Mormons had recently established a toehold using irrigation, but could mainstream Americans establish profitable enterprises (p.181) in those regions? How could the Far West be made into America? These areas presented perceptual challenges that would take another fifty years to solve.

In general, Anglo Americans chose two strategies to deal with the geography of the Far West. Both of these reflected the power of the cultural filter Americans used to view the region. The first method involved denying the facts of the landscape and insisting that the entire region would support traditional American patterns of living. The semiarid plains could be made into agricultural bonanzas while the deserts and mountains could flower with irrigation and mining. The ingrained American belief in Manifest Destiny made geographical barriers impossible. One could argue that this is a history of stubborn misperception.

Confidence and determination could even alter geography. For example, as settlement in the Mississippi Valley pushed people farther west and as the promises of promoters enticed them, Americans began to reevaluate the Great American Desert. Driven by optimism and faith, folk wisdom and science put forth the notion that if the region was settled, more rain would fall. Boosters, settlers, and railroad builders insisted that if Americans dug up the plains and planted crops and trees, annual rainfall would increase. In 1867, Ferdinand V. Hayden, the eminent and politically astute director of the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, announced, “The planting of ten or fifteen acres of forest-trees on each quarter-section will have a most important effect on the climate, equalizing and increasing the moisture.” Thus rain would indeed follow the plow.12 Others insisted that the electricity created by trains on railroad tracks and by telegraph wires would stimulate cloud formation.13 Such fanciful claims evolved out of the perception that the West could be made into whatever Americans wanted it to be, despite geographic realities.

A second way to deal with unpleasant geographical truths was to search for regions of the West that did fit American perceptions of what the West should be and to pretend nothing else existed. The strenuous effort by promoters to make the West attractive to wealthy American tourists by making it into a version of Europe exemplifies this strategy. The practice of imposing European standards on American landscape had a long history. This tendency developed out of Americans' insecurities about their culture, doubts that had been present since the nation's beginnings. Europe provided the standards that determined what was beautiful, what was historical, and what was civilized. And, much to the discomfort of culturally conscious Americans, most of the eastern half of the nation simply did not measure up.14

(p.182) When railroad travel made tourism possible in 1869, Americans were eager to find the scenery they craved, and promoters were just as eager to provide it. Unpleasant or inconvenient deserts and plains could be ignored or simply slept through. Instead, promoters advised visitors to focus on California and Colorado, the two places easiest to describe in European terms.15

The resort town of Colorado Springs offers a clear illustration. The Rockies provided an alpine setting that promoters were quick to exploit. A pamphlet produced by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad promised, “All the sublimest glories of the Swiss and Italian Alps, all the picturesque savagery of the Tyrol, and all the softer beauties of Killarny and Como and Naples dwindle to insignificance by comparison with the stupendous scenes that meet the gaze at every turn in Colorado.”16 The president of the Denver and Rio Grande, General William Palmer, added an English resort to this alpine splendor in hopes of attracting wealthy tourists to his railroad and community. Because the dry, windblown sage plains covering the site that Palmer chose for his new town did not fit American perceptions

                   Cultural Filters: The Significance of Perception

Distant View of the Rocky Mountains, Samuel Seymour, 1823. Courtesy Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.

(p.183) of what a “Europeanized” West should be, Palmer simply changed the landscape. He planted trees, built casinos and hotels, designed Queen Anne houses, and held “fox hunts” in which coyotes, who did not understand the sport, were chased through the sagebrush. Because American tourists perceived European scenery as being proper scenery, they sought it and encouraged its cultivation in the Far West, even though few parts of the region could be construed as looking the least bit European.

These perceptions of what the West should be, ideas created by a century of cultural preparation, prevented Americans from accepting the facts of the far western landscape. The result was an unprecedented series of failures. The cultural determination to re-create the West to suit the needs of white American left a legacy of environmental destruction and abandoned farms, resort areas, and mines. In spite of this, we have insisted on representing the history of the nineteenth-century American West as a heroic success story, though the new western history has made a few inroads on this monolith.17 Nevertheless, the lens of cultural expectation is still carefully focused.

An important variant on this lens is the filter of gender. Women saw the West very differently from men, particularly in the nineteenth century. In general, they saw much less economic opportunity and exciting adventure. As they looked at the great expanses stretching west and at the mountains looming overhead, they saw danger and real limits to stable agricultural and family existence.18 Tamsen Donner voiced her concerns in her diary as her party wandered from the main trail onto the infamous Hastings Cutoff. Caroline Kirkland warned other women of the dangers and discomforts of the Michigan frontier and of the lies presented in promotional literature written by men. On the Dakota plains of Ole Rolvaag's novel Giants in the Earth, Beret sees misfortune lurking in the endless prairie grasses while her husband, Per Hansa, can see only endless profits. Although men mocked them for being frightened, these women held perceptions far more accurate than the optimistic ones of their brave husbands. The places they attempted to settle and conquer often proved to be disastrous for the maintenance of family life.19

Such impressionistic accounts suggest that gender may be crucial in determining perception. Particularly in the case of nineteenth-century women who rooted their lives so entirely in the health and safety of their families, gender may have prevented other cultural filters from acting so strongly. The struggle to keep up domestic standards under primitive frontier conditions and the fear of losing the network of family and friends that gave life meaning made the West less appealing to many women.20 In (p.184) fact, women may have held the advantage in looking at the West because ambition and Manifest Destiny did not color their perceptions so strongly.

Travel, Technology, and Vision

Certainly most white American men perceived the West through a cultural filter of optimism, Manifest Destiny, and pure stubbornness, but other filters acted on nearly everyone's impressions of the Far West. Perception often depends largely on mode of transportation. Speed, distance, safety, and comfort have enormous impact on any observer. Whether one travels across the landscape on foot, on horseback, by stagecoach, by train, or by airplane affects what one sees. Someone being chased by an angry buffalo or being jolted through wagon ruts sees a different West than someone enjoying a game of whist in a parlor car or sipping a cocktail at thirty thousand feet.

The first explorers, travelers, and settlers who ventured into the new world of the Far West did so on foot or horseback. They moved slowly across the great distances and depended on the landscape for much of their food, water, and fuel. In addition, most of these early sojourners were headed for Oregon or California and had little interest in the plains and the mountains of the western interior.21 Their concerns about safety and the difficulties of everyday travel colored their perceptions of the region.22 The plains, deserts, and mountains stood, for most people, as obstacles rather than objects to admire. One can hardly blame the members of the Donner Party, for example, for not being thrilled by the sight of the magnificent Sierra Nevada rising over them as they stumbled out of the Carson sink.

Though many travelers did comment on certain sights as being particularly beautiful, their perceptions of beauty depended a great deal on cultural preparation and the realities of traveling across the plains, mountains, and deserts. For people who came from an agriculturally based culture and who were accustomed to well-watered, wooded areas, the plains were a shock. Americans and Europeans used trees to determine an area's fertility, and the plains did not measure up. A generation of overland emigrants who moved out across the plains with the intention of making their fortunes in Oregon or California found the region strange and unsettling. The lack of wood made building fires and repairing wagons difficult, and the flat unchanging landscape made distances impossible to judge. Traveling in a wagon over rough roads, swallowing alkali dust, drinking muddy water, and worrying about the possibility of Indian attacks did little to improve the travelers' perceptions of the landscape.23

(p.185) When the influential newspaper editor Horace Greeley, who had urged Americans to head west, finally took his own advice in 1859, he traveled in a slightly more comfortable way. Ensconced in a coach that had rudimentary springs and reassured with the promise of stage stations to provide meals and a place to sleep, Greeley had different concerns. Monotony and boredom replaced physical hardship and actual danger. Even so, he was shocked by the landscape, particularly the lack of trees. In Greeley's view, land had no value if it could not be used for farming or for growing trees to build stout farmhouses or produce railroad ties. By the time he reached Utah, his shock had turned into depression. He disconsolately remarked, “I have not seen the raw material of a decent axe-helve growing in all my last thousand miles of travel.”24

Despite his initial disgust with the region, Greeley found much to celebrate. He had seen oases of trees and rivers at the base of the Rockies and in California, and he fervently believed that what nature had left out of the West, industrious Americans could provide. All they needed was a railroad to get them quickly and comfortably to the more amenable parts of the landscape and to bring the materials necessary to make the West into a properly productive part of the United States.

Travel by train forever changed the experience of crossing the continent. Safety, comfort, and speed not only made the trip more pleasant and faster but also changed the perceptions of travelers. The far western landscape looked different from a train than it had from a horse, a wagon, or a stagecoach. Gazing out a window while seated in the plush luxury of a Pullman car and hurtling along the track at twenty-five miles an hour affected the way Americans saw the West. Mark Twain explained the significance of comfort while traveling when he observed, “Nothing helps scenery like ham and eggs.”25 Such luxuries took the threat out of the wilderness and made it something to enjoy.

Speed and luxury, however, altered what people actually saw. Perceptive travelers had long noted that the swiftness of the train made the scenery a rapidly moving blur. The historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch explains that railroad travel required a new kind of perception. All details near the train disappeared into a haze of speed, and the traveler could see only the general outline of the far distance. Schivelbusch calls this “panoramic perception.”26 The scenery, which from a slow and bumpy coach had provided the only entertainment available, became a boring fog from the window of a train.

The speed of train travel not only affected what people saw from the window but also changed their perceptions of the space covered by the train. Many nineteenth-century observers noted the phenomenon of the (p.186) annihilation of space. The railroad linked places together as its speed destroyed the distance between them.27 In the American West, however, the new experience of train travel did not conquer space. In a sense, the railroad created new spaces as it initiated large numbers of people to vast tracts of land. Because few towns interrupted the expanse and because travelers now spent days in what seemed like a gigantic void, space seemed to expand. The region's lack of recognizable landmarks often disoriented passengers, who could find no way to tell how far they had traveled. Subtle geographic changes noted by earlier overland travelers disappeared with the train's rapid movement. Many observers shared the feelings of an 1881 tourist who commented in her journal one morning, “We wake up in the morning and find ourselves speeding along the great American desert, a wide expanse [where] all is blank and bare.”28 Vast monotony challenged the idea that Americans had controlled their landscape.29

Paradoxically, the comfort and power of the train also changed national perceptions about the utility and conquerability of the region. The space might be vast and alien, but if Americans could build a railroad across it, the Far West could be mastered by American ingenuity as well. Railroad promoters assured travelers and settlers that the railroad had changed the landscape forever. “Once the home of the savage and the wild beast,” an early Union Pacific guidebook noted, “the deep gulches and gloomy canyons are alive with the sounds of labor, the ring of pick, shovel, and drill.”30 Evidence of such material progress helped to convince Americans of both the economic potential of the region and the safety of travel.

Railroad builders had a vested interest in making sure that Americans perceived the West as fertile, safe, and readily developed. The huge tracts of land granted to them by the federal government in recompense for building track needed to be bought by settlers and speculators if the railroads were to be profitable. The Union Pacific Railroad alone had more than twelve million acres of land to sell, most of it in the arid parts of the West. As a result, an entire industry developed around making the West attractive to potential settlers.31 This meant, of course, making it familiar— green and fertile.

Beginning in the 1850s with the promotional department of the Illinois Central, railroad boosters littered the nation with circulars, pamphlets, and newspaper advertisements. Hordes of paid agents visited farming regions all over the eastern half of the nation and traveled throughout northern Europe looking for land-hungry and ambitious potential settlers. Would-be farmers were lured to Illinois and Iowa and then to Kansas and Nebraska “because it is the garden spot of the world … because it rains here more than in any other place, and just at the right time.”32

(p.187) Even the undeniably dry plains of Colorado, Wyoming, and western Kansas became arcadias. Promotional materials designated these regions as “semiarid” but insisted, “Successful crops can be raised every year without irrigation.”33 Anyone who suggested that inadequate rainfall might be a problem on the plains west of the one hundredth meridian was laughed at and reminded that a nation that could bring iron rails west of the Mississippi could surely bring some rain. The presence of the railroad alerted Americans to the enormous space in the center of the nation and convinced them that this land could be made into a familiar and profitable version of America.

If the train encouraged Americans to look at the vast spaces of the Far West and to perceive them as potential homes, scenic wonderlands, and moneymakers, the automobile allowed them to envision the complete remodeling of the region. The appearance of the automobile in the early twentieth century had two contradictory effects on perceptions of the West. It reintroduced the idea of adventure into travel, and it allowed a mass penetration of the West in areas Anglo Americans had never seen before. Now that trains crisscrossed the landscape, now that the Great Plains, the mountains, and the deserts had burgeoning communities, and now that most of the Indians were herded onto isolated tracts of land, many Americans felt confident that the region was safe enough for an “adventure.” The car allowed them to have it.

The car gave the illusion of freedom by taking travelers out of trains and placing them in control of individual vehicles. The automobile liberated the traveler from the restriction of railroad schedules and tracks. The artist James Montgomery Flagg expressed a common feeling when he wrote that there was “a freedom about motoring across the continent” as opposed to what he described as “the galling monotony of the stifling Pullmans.”34 Even though the earliest motorists spent most of their time pushing their vehicles out of the mud, changing tires, or cranking engines, they saw themselves as freed by their machines.35 The driver of the car controlled where it went, when it traveled, and how quickly it covered a certain distance, giving motorists a sense of personal choice. The availability and quality of roads, automobiles, and motoring supplies placed obvious limitations on this choice but did not change the perception that from the car, Americans could see the “real” West.

However, like the wagon, the stagecoach, or the train, the automobile itself affected how people viewed the landscape. Like the train, the car had speed and power that heightened the perception of control over the landscape, but the relatively small size of the car and the ability to stop and start it at will increased the sense of intimacy. The experience of driving (p.188) created an illusion of knowing the landscape even while whizzing past it at high speeds. Speed itself interfered with actual vision. Because moving fast was lulling and addictive, few drivers could resist the urge to cover ground as quickly as possible. Only the grandest natural or human-made objects could lure the motorist to stop before the need for gas, food, or sleep forced a break. The intimate knowledge made possible by the car was often overwhelmed by the rush to cover distance.

Beginning in the early decades of the twentieth century, many Americans could claim firsthand knowledge of the West. The automobile and the large numbers of travelers it carried across the region produced new perceptions of the West. The automobile provided a filter of safety and control, making the Far West a place of comfortable adventure. It also became a region of great distance, but a distance that could be conquered by an individual in three days. The West presented challenging geographical variety, challenges that could be met with different grades of gas, types of tires, and styles of dress. Deserts and mountains held no terrors as long as the motorist had reliable sources of gas, food, and water. Roads and cars made the West "knowable," but in the most superficial sense; this too increased the perception that the region could be anything that Americans desired.

The airplane also added to the complexity of the perception question. In some ways, the airplane provides a very accurate view. When you fly over the western landscape, you are struck with how little of the land is settled. Lights are few and far between, and green circles or squares of farmland appear like tiny grafts on a vast expanse of brown skin. Mark Reisner describes what we have achieved in the West as a beachhead against wilderness and aridity, and his description is borne out in the view from thirty thousand feet.36 Though we pass over the region in comfort, we are reminded of the inaccuracy of our perceptions and of how little control we have actually achieved.

The View from Afar

A century before Americans could climb in their cars and speed across the western expanses and see the West for themselves, they believed they knew what the region looked like. Beginning early in the nineteenth century, the views of these armchair travelers determined much about perceptions of the Far West. What Americans read and saw and how they interpreted this information are complex issues but important ones to consider. Images of the West in a variety of media provided another critical filter through which Americans perceived the West. Though written descriptions played (p.189) a crucial role in forming ideas about the West, pictorial material had special impact.

For example, many tourists who ventured West in the late nineteenth century expected to see a version of the Alps in Colorado and California because of the enormously popular work of Albert Bierstadt.37 A few years later the photographs of William Henry Jackson and the paintings of Thomas Moran played a role in popularizing Yellowstone as the first national park.38 Similarly, later in the century, the drawings, paintings, and sculptures of Frederic Remington created an image of American enterprise in the West, a place of vibrant soldiers, cowboys, Indians, and horses, now indelibly etched in national culture. Remington's visions have particular import because they depict the West as a blank place where white Americans make exciting things happen, not as a geographic region where the people and the climate have the power to limit what happens.39

Given the significance of these pictures in creating American perceptions about the West, we need to look at them more carefully. Stunned by both the beauty and the sterility of the region, artists groped for adequate ways to depict it. Professionally trained artists had a particularly difficult time because far western scenery bore little resemblance to the landscape they considered artistically significant. The artists who traveled west and drew, painted, or photographed the region carried cultural expectations with them, and many had specific goals in creating their art. Often the works they sent back to eastern audiences were reflections of personal ambitions or national expectations about the West rather than depictions of actual sights.

The first artists to travel west in the early nineteenth century had a clear mission. Hoping to preserve the pristine grandeur of western landscapes and peoples on canvas, painters like Karl Bodmer and George Catlin perceived an exotic world of color and action. They did more than document the appearance and customs of Native Americans; they extended and glamorized the idea of the noble savage in the American mind.40

Similarly, the artists who traveled with the geographical surveys of the mid-nineteenth century did more than provide illustrations for the scientific treatises produced by the surveyors. Recognizing the midcentury appetite for sublimity and heroic images, many artists made the western landscape bigger, better, and more fertile than it was. They created an image of the West as a compendium of fantastic landforms, plants, and animals that reflected the variety and wealth Americans hoped they would find.41

John Mix Stanley, for example, who accompanied Colonel Stephen (p.190)

                   Cultural Filters: The Significance of Perception

Chain of Spires Along the Gilo. River, John Mix Stanley, 1855. Oil on canvas (31″ × 42″). Courtesy Phoenix Art Museum. Purchased with funds provided by the estate of Carolann Smurthwaite.

Watts Kearny on his march across the Southwest in 1846, was hired to make accurate depictions of the landscape for military use. Instead, his delight in the color and shapes of the region drove him to combine plants, animals, and geological forms in impossible ways. In Chain of Spires Along the Gilo. River (1855), cacti, ferns, spires of rock, rushing water, deer, and horned toads all crowd the same painting. Stanley's perception of the Southwest seemed to be a bizarre cornucopia—desert forms in lush surroundings.42

Later in the century, artists' different purposes in going west affected their perceptions in equally important ways. By the 1860s, some painters could see the commercial possibilities of the western landscape. Albert Bierstadt, for example, saw the potential for making a name for himself in the West. Determined to find scenery in America that could be heralded in Europe, he latched onto the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. In paintings (p.191) like The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak (1863), Bierstadt produced a vision that thrilled Americans—towering Alps with American flourishes. Sharply pointed granite peaks and fantastically illuminated clouds float above a tranquil, wooded genre scene. Bierstadt painted the West as Americans hoped it would be, making his paintings vastly popular and reinforcing the perception of the West as either Europe or sublime Eden.43

A similar shaping of reality appeared in other media. Photography provides a useful example because of the illusion that it captures truth. This illusion made photography especially effective in convincing Americans that the West could be what they wanted it to be. In 1851, the first photographs of the West to reach a large audience appeared in New York with the claim, "These views are no exaggerated and high-colored sketches, got up to produce effect, but are … the stereotyped impression of the real thing itself."44

Such a claim denies the significant control the photographer has over

                   Cultural Filters: The Significance of Perception

Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, Albert Bierstadt, 1868. Oil on canvas (72″ × 120″). Courtesy National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, bequest of Helen Huntington Hull, granddaughter of William Brown Dinsmore, who acquired the painting in 1873 for “The Locusts,” the family estate in Dutchess County, New York.

(p.192) the creation of an image. Carleton Watkins, one of the earliest successful landscape photographers, understood the art involved in photography. He used a combination of painterly aesthetics and photographic truth to make the western landscape appealing to American audiences. His compositions included careful framing and sharp contrasts between light and dark. He used trees to frame a single monolithic object, which provided a picturesque introduction to the scenery in a style not unlike the paintings of Claude Lorrain and his American followers in the Hudson River school. These images presented an ideal version of the landscape—carefully balanced, silent, and grand.45

The photographers who accompanied government surveys, ostensibly with scientific intentions, demonstrated the considerable manipulation possible in the medium of photography. Because Rick Dingus has “rephotographed” the work done by Timothy O'Sullivan, who accompanied George Montague Wheeler and Clarence King on parts of their surveys

                   Cultural Filters: The Significance of Perception

The Castle Geyser, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park, Thomas Moran, 1873. Chromolithograph by Louis Prang. Courtesy Bancroft Library.

                   Cultural Filters: The Significance of Perception

The Three Brothers, Carleton Watkins, 1868. Courtesy Bancroft Library.

into the Great Basin, we know “how much the choice of positioning, lighting, lens, and framing alters a subject.”46 O'Sullivan clearly heightened the drama of the landscape in shaping his images, sometimes holding his camera at odd angles to tilt the horizon or masking the background to make a rock or a tree stand out. Much like the scientists themselves, O'Sullivan “was willing to subdue or enhance certain features of the environment. … so he could thereby convey the truth as he saw it.”47 And this truth, of course, had more to do with cultural expectation than with geographic fact. The most important filters O'Sullivan and other photographers placed on their cameras were their own notions about what the West should or could be.

The work of these photographers reinforced a powerful perceptual tradition that had been present since the first explorations of the region. The perception of the West depended largely on national ideology. (p.194)

                   Cultural Filters: The Significance of Perception

“Conglomerate Column [Witches Rock #1],” Timothy O'Sullivan, 1869. In Clarence King, U.S. Geological Survey of the Fortieth Parallel, vol. 2 (Washington, D.C., 1878).

                   Cultural Filters: The Significance of Perception

“Conglomerate Column [Witches Rock #1],” Rick Dingus, 1978. In Rick Dingus, The Photographic Artifacts of Timothy O'Sullivan (Albuquerque, 1982).

(p.195) Americans had invested so much hope in the West of their dreams that they would not even consider the possibility that the geographic West would not fulfill their expectations. For much of the nineteenth century, most Americans were dependent on the perceptions of others—artists, writers, promoters, and scientists—for their information about the Far West. This gave nineteenth-century observers the awesome responsibility of producing a West that Americans wanted to see. Amazingly enough, they did manufacture this miraculous West, despite the “reality checks” of failed farms and ghost towns. Deserts became gardens and Rockies became Alps and, at least in national mythology, the West continued to be the land of opportunity.

New Perceptions, Stubborn Legacies

Finally, I want to explore the significance of the history of perception in the twentieth century. Americans could now see the West for themselves, but the perceptual legacy of the nineteenth century certainly colored their view. As Patricia Nelson Limerick has argued, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are not easily separated in western history.48 The perceptions of the West constructed in the nineteenth century continue to affect our ideas and behavior. The tension between wanting to expand and develop agriculture and industry and wanting to enjoy splendid scenery has not been resolved. We still perceive the West as the setting for limitless opportunity and indestructible wilderness, despite the realities that surface daily. The persistence of successive droughts in the Great Plains, of failing dams and irrigated lands destroyed by salt, and of deserted mining towns and overgrazed ranges seems to have had little impact on national mythology. Because few Americans have been able to disengage the cultural filters that affect their vision of the region, the twentieth-century West is the result of the West we perceived in the nineteenth century.

The interpretation of the West has changed as Americans have integrated the region into their culture. Because the landscape of the Far West now represents a distinctive national culture, cacti, Indians, and rock monoliths have become tourist attractions. However, few of the cultural filters that affected perceptions in the nineteenth century have been removed. Some, in fact, have been enhanced. New developments in communication and technological skill heighten the perception that the West can be molded in any way its inhabitants see fit. Cellular phones shrink frightening distance into a momentary crackle, and great dams can turn any desert into a garden.

In some ways, the twentieth century brought a new set of misperceptions (p.196)

                   Cultural Filters: The Significance of Perception

A Dash for the Timber, Frederic Remington, 1889. Oil on canvas (no. 1961.381). Courtesy Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.

but in other ways it brought a new understanding of what the West could mean for American culture. As non-Anglo Americans have begun to challenge mainstream views of what the West was, is, or should be, our perceptions of the region have grown increasingly complex. Americans discovered that the parts of the West they had been avoiding or ignoring were invested with unique cultural and economic value. Some artists looked beyond European models and reveled in the distinctive shapes and colors of the Southwest. Georgia OʼKeeffe's abstract landscapes challenged Frederic Remington's men of action in the category of most popular western art.49 Ethnologists and anthropologists learned to appreciate the rich history and culture of Indian peoples. The former wastelands of the Great Basin and the Southwest have become convenient testing grounds and waste dumps.

These discoveries, however, also continued the old role of the West: providing what the nation needed. By the early twentieth century, the nation needed a distinctive history and personality—one that distinguished it from Europe—and the West provided this. The areas that did not meet economic needs could be turned into quaint “frontierlands,” places where scenery and native peoples combined to give white Americans a sense of (p.197) history. Early in the century, for example, the Santa Fe Railroad recognized the growing perception of the unique landscape of the Southwest as the “real America” and cleverly packaged it for Americans to consume.50

Many of us now perceive the West as original, distinctive, and quintessentially American. The irony is that much of the West that seems so important to our self-perception either never existed or has disappeared, but we have re-created it as we imagine it must have been. The perceptual West of glorious mountains, verdant grazing land, and noble Indians now decorates T-shirts and motel rooms because the landscape has been molded to fit our perceptions of what Anglo Americans thought the West should be; in the process, the landscape was eaten by cattle, blasted by miners, and blurred by smog. We need to reexamine our perceptual legacies and take some cues from other cultures about using adaptation rather than remodeling as our approach to the West. Perhaps then we will take off some of the filters and look at the western landscape with a clearer view. (p.198) (p.199) (p.200) (p.201)

(p.202) Commentaries

Looking West from Here and There

Martha A. Sandweiss

It is ironic that so much of our enduring national myth about the West should have been created by nineteenth-century explorers, artists, and writers who never really lived there. These chroniclers could propose hypotheses they would never have to test. After a season in the West they could return to the comfort of home, never worrying about whether winter would prove as felicitous as spring or whether technology would make the desert bloom. To an eastern audience hungry for news of the sparsely settled West, they left behind a mixed legacy of spare facts and complex ideas that ranged from useful maps and geological sketches to culturally loaded ideas about the region's native peoples and the utility of the western landscape. And, as Anne Hyde suggests, their reports and photographs, books and paintings, not only shaped a national myth but also helped set the stage for more than a century and a half of federal policy toward the West. The constraints or “filters” that conditioned the perceptions of these early western chroniclers are thus worth examining in some detail.

The idea of “perception” that frames Hyde's essay is used in several different ways that might be useful to distinguish. First, it denotes personal, firsthand observation of the West, such as the perceptions formed by Major Stephen H. Long and his companions on their trek across the plains in 1819–21. It also refers to the response of readers or viewers of the firsthand accounts produced by eyewitness observers like Long or Albert Bierstadt. Finally, it describes the more generalized cultural beliefs of countless Americans with little exposure to either the West or the many visual and literary accounts produced to describe the region. This is the sense of the word that Hyde uses when she refers to our continuing cultural “perception” of the West as a place of limitless opportunity.

Each use of the word perception raises different conceptual problems, for in each case the perceiver is developing an understanding of the West based on a different sort of information or experience. Because most dictionary definitions of the word perception invoke the concept of direct visual cognition or apprehension, it seems most appropriate to apply the word only to the activities of eyewitness observers of the West and to clarify that second-and thirdhand consumers of information or ideas gathered knowledge in a different way.

As Hyde suggests, even firsthand observations are conditioned by cultural filters, and she argues for the importance of gender and comfort as important mediating factors. To these, we might also add the health and age of the observer (p.203) and even the local weather. Calling for a cross-cultural perspective, Hyde also proposes that we look at the perceptions of early Hispanic travelers and settlers as well as those of Native American peoples. This is an important idea that suggests yet another category for analysis. We might also consider the differences in the perceptions formed by western residents and western travelers, even within the same ethnic group; an unfamiliar terrain is always very different from the familiar landscape of home.

But any discussion of western literary or visual images must begin with the acknowledgment that visual or literary renderings of firsthand experiences do not necessarily reflect the creator's “perceptions” of the West. That is, they do not always convey the feelings experienced by the artist at the time he or she observed a particular scene. The creative process is much more complicated than that. Artists are not necessarily reporters, and they have no moral obligation either to tell the truth or to reveal their own feelings. Indeed, nineteenth-century artists and writers often served particular patrons who had very specific goals for their work. If Alfred Jacob Miller painted Indian odalisques, it was not necessarily because they fairly represented either the women he found at the fur traders' rendezvous of 1837 or his own longings. It may also have been because he was in the employ of the Scottish nobleman William Drummond Stewart, who wanted romantic paintings of the West to take home to Murthley Castle. Likewise, whereas Carleton E. Watkins's landscape photographs of the West are often, as Hyde argues, “balanced, silent and grand,” it is important to note that many were done for commercial clients who wanted to promote a particular popular understanding of their steam navigation company, mining operation, or large industrial farm. The worlds of western art and western commerce often intermingled.

As businessmen or entrepreneurs with complicated agendas for their work, most chroniclers of the nineteenth-century West worked with a public audience in mind. Thus to Hyde's list of factors motivating artists, a list that includes “personal ambitions” and “national expectations,” we must add economic considerations, embracing everything from the very specific demands of patrons to the more nebulous demands of public audiences. Consider, for example, the John Mix Stanley painting that she cites, Cham of Spires Along the Gila (1855). We should not necessarily conclude from the image itself that Stanley “perceived”—that is, saw, experienced, and understood—the Southwest as a “bizarre cornucopia.” The image, after all, was painted some nine years after his trip to the region. We must thus ask whether he painted it as a record of a particular site or as a kind of typical landscape, specific to none, that would recapitulate a wide range of experiences. Perhaps he intended to convey an impression or idea rather than an actual perception of a particular place. Perhaps he merely wanted to work out a formal painting problem. We must be wary of the ways in which we use images as primary source evidence of either the physical appearance of a place or the actual beliefs or intentions of its creator.

(p.204) The worlds of firsthand observers and secondhand viewers are inextricably intertwined. Western travelers' eyewitness accounts sent back east could inform and shape Americans' understanding of the West. But the needs, demands, and desires of a distant audience could also dictate the form of a work created in the field.

These distant readers and viewers who encountered eyewitness accounts and images of the West in public ways—through published works or exhibitions—form the second category of “perceivers” that Hyde addresses in her essay. To distinguish their means of learning from those of firsthand observers, let us say that these secondhand observers “understood” or “imagined” the West rather than “perceiving” it for themselves.

How did they receive their firsthand accounts of the West? And what relationship did the message they receive have to the one that firsthand observers sought to create? I pose this last question because so much of what was initially written about the West, or drawn or photographed there, passed through a sort of translation process before it reached a wide audience. Hyde's metaphor of a game of “telephone” is apt. Letters to a hometown newspaper might become a published book. A photograph might be distributed with descriptive captions written by a publisher or might be reproduced as a wood engraving. A painting might become a hand-colored engraving marketed to a mass public. Changes in content (and often in meaning) would inevitably occur, for firsthand observers could not always control the message their work conveyed to distant viewers.

The consumers of western literature or western imagery might not discriminate between the descriptive material produced by an eyewitness observer and that produced by someone else. Among Currier and Ives's most popular western prints, playing on numerous widely held beliefs about the West, were those created by Frances Palmer, an Englishwoman who never ventured west herself. Likewise popular were the paintings and prints of the hunting and wildlife artist Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, who never ventured west of the Adirondacks and who based his western scenes on earlier works by the artists Karl Bodmer and George Catlin, works that he looked up at the New York Public Library.

Hyde's interesting questions about the filters through which eyewitness observers viewed the western landscape might also be applied to the vast American audience that encountered the West in other forms, through books, pictures, and films. Did gender, class, and age influence the image of the West these consumers formed from their reading of the texts and viewing of the images? Did women read Charles Fremont's report differently than men did? Did they draw different lessons from Bierstadt's paintings? Did youths take away from dime novels different ideas than did their parents? What filters, we might usefully ask, were in operation back in eastern America?

The third and final sense in which Hyde uses the concept of perception is to apply to broad, generally held cultural beliefs, as when she discusses the perceptions of the West constructed in the nineteenth century as opposed to (p.205) twentieth-century beliefs, or the nineteenth-century “perception that the West could be made into whatever Americans wanted it to be, despite geographic realities.” Again, because “perception” connotes mental apprehension or personal observation, it seems more useful to introduce another term that more clearly suggests that broadly held beliefs are shaped by a wide variety of political, cultural, and economic forces that may or may not reflect visual or literary information about the western landscape or the experience of being in the West. What we're really talking about here is a mode of thought shaped by popular culture in its most broadly construed form, a form of thought that reflects the Zeitgeist of the age.

Many questions might be asked about the ways in which specific information is translated into general beliefs, personal visions into popular myth. But again, Hyde's essay suggests a useful approach. We might ask, as we did with eyewitness observers and the viewers or readers of their work, what cultural filters operated on the vast number of Americans who had no personal experience of the West but who nonetheless formed certain beliefs about it. However popular certain ideas might have been, they were not universally held. Were popular beliefs about the West conditioned by gender, class, geographical location, or political persuasion? This is a rhetorical question, for of course they were.

Hyde asserts, "Few historians have looked systematically at the history of perceiving the West." Such a statement is true only in the narrowest definition of the historical profession, for the field has long been of interest to western literary historians, western art historians, and students of popular culture. Nonetheless, one of the significant virtues of Hyde's essay is its suggestion that cultural history deserves greater pride of place in the academic study of the West. The complicated history of western literary and visual images—from their creation through their publication and popular reception—is a history intertwined with the history of exploration and settlement, political decision making, and economic development. It is, as Hyde argues, a history that is fundamental to a deeper understanding of the questions that are central to the field of western historical studies.

The Shadow of Pikes Peak

Elliott West

Nathan C. Meeker loved three things above all. He loved his wife, the longsuffering Arvilla. He loved the Prohibitionist cause. And he loved the idea of how agricultural reform might improve society and elevate the spirits of those who worked the soil. In 1869 Meeker left love number one to pursue numbers (p.206) two and three in the great West. He went to Colorado, hurrying to a place that was, to him, symbolic of the West's glorious, uplifting possibilities: Pikes Peak. One story has it that Meeker arrived late at night near the mountain's base and that, after a few hours of tossing in bed in anticipation, he arose at the first of false dawn and looked out of his tent at the magnificent shape that towered in the dark. Overwhelmed with emotion, he wrote an ode on the “awful majesty” of such a masterpiece of God's handiwork. By the time he finished, it was full light. Stepping from his tent for another view of the peak, he looked up and saw—a haystack.1

Anne Hyde, a young historian who works near the foot of that mountain that Meeker didn't see, has written a provocative essay on the importance of perception—or rather misperception—in understanding western history, and she raises important issues to which we have paid too little attention. Historians have not ignored perceptions of the West, of course. There is an enormous, sprawling scholarship on the mythic West and on western literary and artistic images. But Hyde is stressing a couple of points that have not been taken seriously enough. First, she is arguing that we need to identify and define the many variables of perception—the “cultural filters,” to use her phrase, through which actualities are bent into what is finally perceived by individuals. These filters might be cultural expectations rooted in historical experience or might be distorting mechanisms arising from changing technology. In the case of the latter, I found especially fascinating her insights into how modes of travel influence how we see the land and our relationship to it and what we anticipate from it.

Second, and more fundamentally, Hyde is arguing that perception is an integral part of studying everything else, from the topics laid out in traditional texts, such as ranching, politics, military campaigns, and town building, to the subjects of contemporary concern, such as gender and ethnic relations. The premise is simple. A prominent Yale alumnus has put it well. “How I see the world,” he wrote, “is the only way I know to react to the world.” These words are from William F. Buckley in his most recent book, WindFall, but the principle holds, whether we are talking about mining and native-white relations or about sailing and Tory politics.2

The role of perception in human action has long been a part of western historiography. There are the well-known works by William Goetzmann and John Logan Allen on expectations and exploration, for instance, and works by David Emmons and Donald Worster on fantasies of the Great Plains and their disastrous consequences.3 But we need to think more broadly and complexly about the dynamic relationship between perception and action. In a recent essay on the continuing process of discovery in North America, for instance, Richard White wrote that European Americans' mental encounters with the West have been a kind of conversation, with each exchange building on the ones before it. People act on the land according to particular imagined constructions of “nature”; what they do changes the actual environment; the (p.207) modified environment inspires new mental constructions, which lead people to make different sorts of changes.4 Considered this way, as a component of every human's dialogue with his surroundings, perception is not just another significant topic; it is an essential element in understanding all other significant topics.

That means, among other things, that we have to be very careful in defining and using the term perception. In the other commentary on Hyde's essay, Martha Sandweiss considers some of the various meanings of this flexible word and some of their implications. Instead I would like to expand on what Hyde has said and to suggest a few ways that this perceptual approach, however we define it, might be applied other than the ways she has emphasized.

For example, Hyde stresses the promise and possibilities newcomers saw in the land itself. But perceptions of the West were never limited to the landscape per se and to what it would give pioneers and let them do. There was always a social dimension to the vision. Easterners looked westward and pictured who was and would be living there. These perceptions were often as bizarrely wrongheaded as those of the physical potential of the land, and when pioneers acted on them, the results were similarly calamitous.

Hyde tells us about William Jackson Palmer, who, like Nathan Meeker, stood at the base of Pikes Peak and had a vision, in his case of a place of surpassing beauty, European-style, that would become a lounging ground for the well-to-do from both sides of the Atlantic. But that was not all he saw. A few months after Meeker's encounter with the haystack, Palmer sat at about the same spot and wrote his wife of rising early in the morning, gazing at Pikes-Peak, and envisioning what might be: his own castle, surrounded by prosperous farmhouses and round about a vast deer park with buffalo, antelope, “and with them a few Indians to recall more vividly the wild prairie life—which the Americans of a few years hence will only know from the pages of storybooks.” Two years later, with plans for Colorado Springs well under way, he wrote more specifically of his social vision: “We shall have a new and better civilization in the far West; only may the people never get to be as thick as on the eastern seaboard. We will surrender the briny border as a sort of extensive Castle Garden to receive and filter the foreign swarms and prepare them by a gradual process for coming to the inner temple of Americanism out in Colorado. … Isn't that a logical as well as a unique notion?”5

Well, it was not so logical and, alas, certainly not unique. At the time Palmer was writing, the percentage of foreign-born in Colorado was more than twice that in his native state of Delaware, half again that of Maryland, and greater than that in Pennsylvania. The state along the eastern “briny border” with the highest portion of aliens was New York, with about 26 percent. Wyoming and Montana each had more than 38 percent, whereas Idaho had 52 percent, twice that of New York, and these figures do not include most Hispanics, who were counted as native-born, or Indians, who stubbornly refused to vanish into the storybooks.6 In short, if Palmer had wanted to escape (p.208) the “foreign swarms,” he should have headed back east, because the West was then, as it is now, the most ethnically diverse part of America.

The Palmers of that time perceived the West not just as a wilderness of sublime scenery; they saw it also as a kind of social void waiting to be filled with people of their choosing. Just as they looked at deserts and saw gardens and looked at the plains and saw European resorts, so they looked at human diversity and saw uniformity or saw nobody at all. They then projected westward a society of blue-eyed sons of Albion.

This perceptual approach should also be applied to all groups involved in the story. For all of the new ideas in Hyde's essay, her approach is in one way traditional. Her emphasis is on the cultural misperceptions of Anglo Americans moving west. We should also consider the perceptions of the many other ethnic groups that accompanied the Anglo invasion, of the earlier Hispanic intruders who would in turn be intruded on, and of the Asians for whom eastward expansion was another distinct experience.

Yet another cultural variable must be included. Early in her essay Hyde stated, “In … he lands west of the one hundredth meridian, Anglo Americans came up against a series of landscapes that defied their notions about utility and beauty.” She might just as well have written, “In … he lands west of the one hundredth meridian, Americans came up against thousands of eastern interlopers who acted very oddly and who had very strange ideas about the land.” These Americans—the Native Americans—brought their own cultural biases to events. Reconstructing the Indian perception of contact, exchange, and conflict is one of the most challenging, and essential, tasks before us. The obstacles are formidable, beginning with the fact that most of what we know of native perceptions comes from white observers, so the voices are doubly and triply filtered, like the electronically altered accents of a witness testifying against the Mafia. And yet, keeping in mind the Buckley principle, we cannot possibly understand what happened, the changing hows and whys of Indian history, without some conception of what natives saw and what reality had become by the time it arrived in the native consciousness.

Interestingly, most work so far has focused on the time most difficult to recapture—the earliest contact between Europeans and Indians. From the eastern United States there is the work of James Merrell, James Axtell, Mary Helms, and George Sabo. Investigations in the West have lagged a little behind, but the work that has been done shows that the effort is clearly worth it. Ramon Gutierrez's When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away shows how wonderfully, deliciously complicated the story gets when we bring to it the native cultural perceptions.7

Finally, as Hyde notes briefly, we ought to carry this perceptual approach forward into the present era. Certainly the perceptions Hyde discusses have survived. The two insistent images she stresses—the West as economic opportunity and the scenic West of “frontierlands”—in away have converged in what is arguably the region's leading industry: tourism. In the West of today, (p.209) the search for the scenic is opportunity. But this seeming reconciliation actually represents a new set of contradictions, as millions of vacationers leave the crowded, polluted cities of the East and flee to litter-choked, bumper-to-bumper, smog-shrouded Yosemite and Jackson Hole. As Hyde notes, the earlier, nineteenth-century versions of these nagging national psychic needs had a profound impact on western lands. How much, much greater, then, are the ecological consequences today, given the numbers of people involved? Pikes Peak draws rather larger crowds than in the days of Meeker and Palmer; in 1981, 253,000 persons drove to the top. In 1955, the last year before limits were set on river traffic through the Grand Canyon, about as many people floated through the canyon by raft as emigrated to Oregon by wagon between 1840 and 1850. There is not the slightest hint that the situation is changing. I suggest a simple measurement, which might be called the “turnstile test.” The perception of the West as sublime wilderness will remain among the preeminent factors in its history as long as the number of annual visits to the four most popular western national parks (Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Olympic) is greater than the population of New England.

Just as surely, the misperception of the blue-eyed West remains an important part of contemporary life. William Jackson Palmer's vision survives in extreme form in places like northern Idaho, pockets of the dream of the West as Aryan Americas last line of defense against ethnic and racial degeneration. Far more widespread is resentment and alarm over the most recent immigration from across our southern border and across the Pacific. The confusion of perception and reality results in the; strangest contortions in the current debate. Critics of the new immigration sometimes invoke the principles of conservatism, even as they promote what would be a profoundly radical innovation (ethnic uniformity) and as they resist the West's oldest process (immigration and adaptation) and work to undo its most ancient condition (cultural diversity).

Less can be said about bringing into the present century the perceptions of other cultural groups, for the good reason that, except in Hispanic studies, relatively little attention has been given to the subject. There are a growing number of works on recent Indian history, but their emphasis has not been on the perceptual world—how Native Americans have seen themselves and their place in the changes around them. Enough has been done to be provocative: David Baird's recent presidential address before the Western History Association; John Farella's study of Navajo philosophy, The Main Stalk; and a few tribal studies that raise the issue, such as Morris Foster's recent Being Comanche.8 Nonetheless, the history of Native American self-perception in the twentieth century is one of the great understudied topics before us.

We can learn more, in fact, by turning from shelves of history to those of literature, specifically to the large and growing number of fictional works by Native American authors, established stars like James Welch, Louise Erdrich, and Leslie Marmon Silko and slightly lesser known writers like Diane Glancy. (p.210) When we integrate their writing into western literature, it is impossible to miss what seems to me a revealing irony. Among even our best white writers, the descendants of those supposedly practical and pragmatic and realistic and forward-looking pioneers, we are far more likely to find stories that look backward to a lost, magnificent West free of restraints or to a place of Old Testament wrestlings with God and the devil, a land of Little Big Men and Blood Meridians and Buffalo Girls. Yet among Indian novelists, grandchildren of those supposedly tradition-bound peoples who, as the cliché goes, “watched their way of life disappear,” the stories are almost without exception in the present, or rather the present is bound seamlessly to the past, usually through rich weavings of family and kin, as in Erdrich's trilogy.

This is not to say that Indians have not misperceived and suffered the consequences. Obviously they have. But the themes of this new native literature—of return and reconciliation, of beliefs both evolved and enduring, of many peoples and traditions tangled beyond any thought of unraveling—suggest at the very least a different perceptual experience, in particular one that has been fairly successful at negotiating the changes of the past century and a half and at keeping today and yesterday connected.

So as we mark the centennial of a thesis that celebrated adjustment to changing circumstances, it seems especially timely to study more closely how Native Americans have taken in the reality of events since the Europeans' arrival in the West. We may find that they have a stronger claim as masters of adaptation than do the white pioneers Turner celebrated, because it may be that Native Americans have had a more accurate perception of what the West was and is, what it can and cannot do, and who has been here. Telling that story will certainly enrich and nicely complicate western history; it might also offer hints about how to cope with the present, about how to look at a haystack and see a haystack, or to use Hyde's words, how to “reexamine our perceptual legacies and … look at the western landscape with a clearer view.”



An earlier version of this essay appeared under the title “Cultural Filters: The Significance of Perception in the History of the American West,” by Anne F. Hyde. Previously published in the Western Historical Quarterly 24 (August 1993): 351–74. Copyright by Western History Association. Reprinted by permission.



(1.) Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains (Boston, 1931); Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York, 1979) and Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (New York, 1985); Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Cambridge, Mass., 1950); Annette Kolodny, The Land before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630–1860 (Chapel Hill, 1984); William H. Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West (New York, 1966).

(2.) This gets into sticky issues involving “reader response theory” and understanding why people read texts or view images; it is at least worth considering the relationship between eyewitnesses and armchair observers. For a clear description of the basics of such ideas, see Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis, 1983), 74–88, or John Betgci, About Looking (New York, 1980).

(3.) Little work has been done on Native Americans' or non-Anglo colonizers' perceptions of landscape. See Douglas Monroy, Thrown among Strangers: The Making of Mexican Culture in Frontier California (Berkeley, 1990), 10–50, 134–62, for examples of peoples who accepted the limitations of landscape. See Richard White, The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos (Lincoln, 1983), and Ramón A. Gutiérrez, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500–1846 (Stanford, 1991), for discussions of the impact of conquest on perception and use of land. For a discussion of Asian views of the region, particularly of Japanese-American internees, see Patricia Nelson Limerick, “Disorientation and Reorientation: The American Landscape Discovered from the West,” Journal of American History 79 (December 1992): 1021–49

(4.) For a more detailed discussion of these points, see Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1974) and Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis, 1977), and John A. Jakle, The Visual Elements of Landscape (Amherst, Mass., 1987). For a general discussion on the cultural role of perception, see John Brinckerhoff Jackson, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (New Haven, 1984).

(5.) Bernard DeVoto, ed., The Journals of Lewis and Clark (Cambridge, Mass., 1953), xl–xli. See also Donald Jackson, Thomas Jefferson and the Stony Mountains: Exploring the West from Monticello (Urbana, 1981).

(6.) Thomas Jefferson, Message to Congress, 18 January 1803, in Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, ed. Donald Jackson, 2 vols. (1962; reprint, Urbana, 1978), 1:12.

(7.) For a more detailed discussion of the impact of Lewis and Clark on national ideology, see John Logan Allen, Passage through the Garden: Lewis and Clark and the Image of the American Northwest (Urbana, 1975).

(8.) Edwin James, “Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, Performed in the Years 1819, 1820,” in Early Western Travels, 1748–1846, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites, 32 vols. (Cleveland, 1905), 17:147.

(9.) Lieutenant Zebulon Pike may have been the first to designate the region as useless deserts, but his report was not well known during the early nineteenth century. For discussions about the origins and ramifications of the “Great American Desert” idea, see W. Eugene Hollon, The Great American Desert: Then and Now (1966; reprint, Lincoln, 1974); Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire, 49–64; and Martyn J. Bowden, “The Great American Desert in the American Mind: The Historiography of a Geographical Notion,” in Geographies of the Mind: Essays in Historical Geography, ed. David Lowenthal and Martyn J. Bowden (New York, 1976), 119–47.

(10.) Donald Jackson and Mary Lee Spence, eds., The Expeditions of John Charles Fremont, 3 vols. (Urbana, 1970), 2:702.

(11.) For an analysis of Frémont's language in the Report, see Anne Farrar Hyde, An American Vision: Far Western Landscape and National Culture, 1820–1920 (New York, 1990), 1–6. For descriptions of the popularity and impact of the Report, see Allan Nevins, Frémont: Pathmarker of the West (1939; reprint, New York, 1955), or Ferol Egan, Frémont: Explorer for a Restless Nation (New York, 1977).

(12.) Quoted in Smith, Virgin Land, 180. See also David M. Emmons, Garden in the Grasslands: Boomer Literature of the Central Great Plains (Lincoln, 1971), 128–61.

(13.) Webb, Great Plains, 376–82.

(14.) For discussions about American cultural insecurities, see Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825–1875 (New York, 1980); Elizabeth McKinsey, Niagara Falls: Icon of the American Sublime (Cambridge, England, 1985); and Christopher Mulvey, Anglo-American Landscapes: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Travel Literature (Cambridge, Flngland, 1983).

(15.) Hyde, American Vision, 107–46.

(16.) Passenger Department, Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, The Heart of the Continent: An Historical and Descriptive Treatise … of the Advantages, Resources, and Scenery of the Great West (Chicago, 1882), 29.

(17.) See, for example, Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York, 1987); Donald Worster, Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West (New York, 1992); and Richard White, “It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own” A New History of the American West (Norman, 1991).

(18.) For a clear definition of these gender differences, see Glenda Riley, The Female Frontier: A Comparative View of Women on the Prairie and the Plains (Lawrence, 1988), 195–97. Kolodny, in The Land before Her, provides a provocative discussion of the real differences in the ways that women imagined and perceived aspects of the frontier.

(19.) George R. Stewart, Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party (1960; reprint, Boston, 1964), 5; Caroline S. Kirkland [Mrs. Mary Clavers], y4 New Home—Who'll Follow? Or, Glimpses of Western Life (Boston, 1839); O. E. Rolvaag, Giants in the Earth (New York, 1927).

(20.) For a discussion of the powerful impact of women's sphere on frontier life, see Julie Roy Jeffrey, Frontier Women: The Trans-Mississippi West, 1840–1880 (New York, 1979). For the ambivalent feelings about leaving settled areas and the difficulty of maintaining standards on the frontier, see John Mack Faragher, Women and Men on the Overland Trail (New Haven, 1979), 66–109, and Joanna L. Stratton, Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier (New York, 1981), 34–106.

(21.) The exceptions to this would be travelers like Francis Parkman, Bayard Taylor, and Edwin Bryant, who took the trip into the West for pleasure.

(22.) Much attention has been given to the Overland Trail experience, but little work has been done on the overlanders' perceptions of the landscape. John D. Unruh Jr., The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840–60 (Urbana, 1979), and Faragher, Women and Men, both devote some discussion to this issue but are more concerned with the mechanics of travel and social relationships.

(23.) For examples of overlanders' reactions to the environment, see William Swain's account in J. S. Holliday, The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience (New York, 1981), 150–71, or Phoebe Goodelljudson, A Pioneer's Search for an Ideal Home (1925; reprint, Lincoln, 1984), 31–38. For a more general discussion of the difficulties of travel, see Faragher, Women and Men, 66–87.

(24.) Horace Greeley, An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859 (New York, 1860), 205.

(25.) Samuel Clemens [Mark Twain], Roughing It (1872; reprint, New York, 1980), 114. See also Patricia Nelson Limerick, Desert Passages: Encounters with the American Deserts (Albuquerque, 1985), 75.

(26.) Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: Trains and Travel in the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1977), 65–66. See also Geoffrey Hindley, Tourists, Travellers, and Pilgrims (London, 1983), 198–205.

(27.) Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918 (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), 10–64; John R. Stilgoe, Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene (New Haven, 1983), 249–56.

(28.) Lady Duffus Hardy, Through Cities and Prairie Lands: Sketches of an American Tour (New York, 1881), 134–35.

(29.) Hyde, American Vision, 117–20.

(30.) Thomas Nelson, The Union Pacific Railroad: A Trip across the Continent from Omaha to Ogden (New York, 1870), 15. For a discussion of Americans' fascination with the technology of railroads, see Stilgoe, Metropolitan Corridor, 137–45.

(31.) Emmons, Garden in the Grasslands, 25–46; Robert G. Athearn, Union Pacific Country (Chicago, 1971), 147–97.

(32.) Paul Wallace Gates, The Illinois Central Railroad and Its Colonization Work (Cambridge, Mass., 1934), 171–99; 1873 pamphlet quoted in Emmons, Garden in the Grasslands, 35–36.

(33.) George S. Clason, Free Homestead Lands of Colorado Described: A Handbook for Settlers (Denver, 1915), 97.

(34.) James Montgomery Flagg, Boulevards All the Way—Maybe! (New York, 1925), 138. For discussions of the perceived freedom created by the automobile, see Warren James Belasco, Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910–1945 (Cambridge, Mass., 1979), 18–22; James J. Flink, The Automobile Age (Cambridge, Mass., 1988), 129–31; or John A. Jakle, The Tourist: Travel in Twentieth-Century North America (Lincoln, 1985), 146–52.

(35.) See Flink, Automobile Age, 169–71, for a description of early travel. See also Vernon McGill, Diary of a Motor Journey from Chicago to Los Angeles (Los Angeles, 1922).

(36.) Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (New York, 1986), 3.

(37.) For the impact of Bierstadt on national conceptions of the West, see William H. Goetzmann and William N. Goetzmann, The West of the Imagination (New York, 1986), 149–51; Hyde, American Vision, 77–80; and Nancy K. Anderson and Linda S. Ferber, Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise (New York, 1990), 24–34.

(38.) Peter B. Hales, William Henry Jackson and the Transformation of the American Landscape (Philadelphia, 1988); Carol Clark, Thomas Moran: Watercolors of the American West (Austin, 1980).

(39.) Ben Merchant Vorpahl, Frederic Remington and the West: With the Eye of the Mind (Austin, 1978), 38–47, has a perceptive discussion of Remington and the Far Western landscape.

(40.) Many tourists were disappointed because they did not see Indians that resembled Catlin's noble figures or the heroic characters of James Fenimore Cooper's novels. See Hyde, American Vision, 27–31, 140–42. For more detailed discussions of George Catlin, see William H. Truettner, The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin's Indian Gallery (Washington, D.C., 1979); for Karl Bodmer, see John C. Ewers et al., Views of a Vanishing Frontier (Omaha, 1984).

(41.) Hyde, American Vision, 54–62.

(42.) Goetzmann and Goetzmann, West of the Imagination, 38–40.

(43.) Gordon Hendricks, Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West (New York, 1974), 51–58, 149–50; Anderson and Ferber, Albert Bierstadt, 74–77.

(44.) Catalogue of the Daguerreotype Panoramic Views in California, by R. H. Vance (New York, 1851).

(45.) Hyde, American Vision, 81–85; Peter E. Palmquist, Carleton E. Watkins: Photographer of the American West (Albuquerque, 1983), 18–26.

(46.) Rick Dingus, The Photographic Artifacts of Timothy OʼSullivan (Albuquerque, 1982), xiii.

(47.) Ibid., 55.

(48.) Limerick, Legacy of Conquest.

(49.) See Patricia Janis Broder, The American West: The Modern Vision (Boston, 1984), for a perceptive discussion of the change in western art from narrative realism to symbolic abstraction.

(50.) T. C. McLuhan, Dreamw Tracks: The Railroad and the American Indian, 1890–1930 (New York, 1985), 13–29; see also Hyde, American Vision, 229–44.

(1.) Marshall Sprague, Massacre: The Tragedy at White River (Boston, 1957), 16–17.

(2.) William F. Buckley Jr., WindFall: The End of the Affair (New York: 1992), xii.

(3.) William H. Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West (New York, 1966) and New Lands, New Men: America and the Second Great Age of Discovery (New York, 1986); John Logan Allen, Passage through the Garden: Lewis and Clark and the Image of the American Northwest (Urbana, 1975); David M. Emmons, Garden in the Grasslands: Boomer Literature of the Central Great Plains (Lincoln, 1971); Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York, 1979).

(p.211) (4.) Richard White, “Discovering Nature in North America,” Journal of American History 79 (December 1992): 877.

(5.) John S. Fisher, A Builder of the West: The Life of General William Jackson Palmer (Caldwell, Idaho, 1939), 163–64, 202–3.

(6.) U.S. Office of the Census, Ninth Census, Volume I, Statistics of the Population of the United States … (Washington, D.C., 1872), 299.

(7.) James Merrell, The Indians'New World: Catawbas and Their Neighbors from European Contact through the Era of Removal (Chapel Hill, 1989); James Axtell, “Through Another Glass Darkly: Early Indian Views of Europeans,” After Columbus: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial America (New York, 1988), 125–43, and Imagining the Other: First Encounters in North America (Washington, D.C., 1991); Mary Helms, Ulysses' Sail: The Ethnographic Odyssey of Power, Knowledge, and Geographical Distance (Princeton, 1988); George Sabo III, “Reordering Their World: A Caddoan Ethnohistory,” in Visions and Revisions: Ethnohistorical Perspectives on Southern Cultures, ed. George Sabo III and William M. Schneider (Athens, 1989), 25–47; Ramón Gutiérrez, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500–1846 (Stanford, 1991).

(8.) David Baird, “Are the Five Tribes of Oklahoma ‘Real Indians’?” Western Historical Quarterly 21 (1990): 5–18; John R. Farella, The Main Stalk: A Synthesis of Navajo Philosophy (Tucson, 1984); Morris W. Foster, Being Comanche: A Social History of an American Indian Community (Tucson, 1991). (p.212)