The American Myths of Westward Expansion That Just Won’t Die

Lauren Markham on Two Very Different Stories of Manifest Destiny

When we first got together in our early twenties, my boyfriend and I, both fresh out of college, would fight regularly about the pioneers. We fought about the pioneers on long car trips through the scorched and gleaming landscapes of California, while walking the blooming streets of San Francisco, the city where we were both from, and while cooking dinner in our first apartment, and then our second (hard to imagine a time we could afford an apartment in San Francisco.)

Because we were both raised in California, we’d been steeped in the narrative of westward expansion, of manifest destiny, of California as the landscape where hardscrabble dreams came true—be it our own, my father’s, my great grandfather’s, the millions of migrants and explorers (or were they invaders?) who’d arrived here over the course of the last few hundred years. But Ben considered every single pioneer to be complicit in a colossal, unforgivable genocide. I considered Ben to be a confounding absolutist.

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BOOKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY

The Pioneers, David McCullough (Simon and Schuster, May 7, 2019) · The Promise of the Grand Canyon, John F. Ross (Viking, paperback, May 7, 2019)
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For I saw a romance in the pioneers—some from whom I am descended. Yes, there were the horrific ones who perpetrated internment and genocide of Indigenous people, who distributed the smallpox blankets, who enslaved Indians in missions in the name of God. These people, of course, were reprehensible (I was descended from them, too). But what about the Regular Joe Pioneers? As far as I understood, it was completely possible that many of these pioneers knew nothing of the genocide as it was happening (Ben would point out the extensive documentation of genocide and slavery at the time, as well as a movement of people who fought against it). Weren’t many pioneers just down on their luck folks who’d traveled to a bewildering, mysterious new world looking to start over and risking all to do so? Wasn’t there something beautifully human about moving into untrammeled land on a wing and a prayer, forming a new community on new ideals, building a life on self-reliance, leaving the old behind?

No, was Ben’s point. Not when this all happened against the backdrop of genocide.

This fight of ours, I’m ashamed to admit, went on and on.

*

Manaseh Cutler, a protagonist of David McCullough’s new book, The Pioneers, is a glowing example of the virtuous pioneer that I might have cited back in my indoctrinated youth. Cutler was a pastor from Connecticut who presided over a small community church in Ipswich, Massachusetts, before leading the charge westward. Not only was he a doctor of divinity, but also of medicine and of law, as well as an “avid astronomer, meteorologist, and naturalist.” He was a man, we are told, of deep moral conviction and commitment to ecology, community and country. On Sunday, June 24th, 1787, Cutler was to embark on “a mission that, should he succeed, could change the course of history in innumerable ways and to the long-lasting benefit of countless Americans.”

That mission was to pioneer the U.S. settlement of the Northwest Territory, a region that now includes Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. The 1783 peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War ensured that these British-controlled lands be turned over to the newly formed United States of America. “Now, all at once, almost unimaginably,” writes McCullough in The Pioneers, “[the U.S.] had acquired some 265,878 square miles of unbroken wilderness, thus doubling the size of the United States.” Manaseh Cutler, along with other key players from history who people The Pioneers, would lead a group of men (the women would follow) to break in that so-called wilderness, to settle the lands, to drive this optimistic, self-assured new empire westward.

But in this way, readers are inculcated in their murderous march west, at any—at horrifically high—cost.

After Cutler’s “historic mission,” the settlers came in droves. They built log cabins, schools and farms; later they built stores and forts and then cities. The barges plowed down the Muskeeegum River and the Ohio, bringing both provisions and more people. And, of course, war.

For aside from the difficult nature of the land itself, there was a problem for these settlers: the “Indian Menace,” in the parlance of the times—a threat McCullough portrays as though a fact of nature to be reckoned with, like the ruthless winter or the prowling bears.

Another way of looking at this scenario, which McCullough unfortunately declines to do, is that Cutler and his people were, themselves, the “menace,” and not the other way around. They were, after all, invading territory that belonged to others. This territory was not in fact the “untrammeled wilderness” that the settlers conceived of it as, and as McCullough claims (as many before him have) but rather a place that had long been inhabited by other people. The Indigenous residents of what the U.S. called the Northwest Territory had such sophisticated and complex relationships to the landscape that their stewardship was often unrecognizable to the invaders. This fact has been largely erased from mainstream narratives of history like McCullough’s, as has the existence of the people who lived in this landscape before the settler’s exalted arrival.

“Ohio Fever,” the story of how the Northwest Territory was broken and became what it is today, is the narrative spine of The Pioneers. McCullough is a masterful historian; one can feel his obsessive, euphoric tear through the archives to assemble this vibrant narrative in which people and places are brought alive. He introduces us to the landscape of pre-settlement Ohio—before Cleveland and Cincinnati and Columbus, before the rushing grind of I-90, before the cars and the skyscrapers and even the crude log cabins. We feel the painful slog as the settlers move west through dense forests, the fertility of the soil in the new settlements, the ominous onset of winter, the brutal loss of a corn crop from a late frost. The reader can almost hear the trees being felled and the cabins being hammered into place and the rumbling in the pioneers’ bellies. The settlers in his book are fully rendered people, masterfully re-assembled through archives; we hear their voices, we feel their fears, we understand that we are meant to cheer them on. But in this way, readers are inculcated in their murderous march west, at any—at horrifically high—cost.

The Pioneers is a vibrant collage of primary sources, which means that it is steeped in the diction, the mindset, and the Manifest Destiny gaze of the time with little contemporary correction. On the one hand, McCullough lays bare just how horrifically the European settlers regarded the Indians. Army General Rufus Putnam, another settler protagonist of The Pioneers, considered some Indians to be friendly, but “judged the Mingos, Shawnees and Cherokees residing by the waters of the Scioto to be ‘a set of thievish murdering rascals.’” Putnam wrote a letter to George Washington imploring him to attack. “As to Indian matters,” he wrote, “we are fearful that the spring will be open by a general attack on the frontiers unless prevented by Government carrying a war into the enemy’s country.”

While they were fighting to keep slavery out of their newly forming society, Cutler and his compatriots were actively killing Indigenous people in the name of progress.

But McCullough has, like many of us, inherited the language of erasure and contempt of native people, and neglects to exorcise it from his own text. America, he writes, was “discovered” by the Europeans. “The only hope,” he writes, “was that the savages would be so taken up with plunder of the camp as not to follow after”—he neglects to put the term “savages” in quotations. Meanwhile, The Pioneers perpetuates some myths that are historically false, such as when he writes, “There were no roads yet anywhere in all this wilderness.” In fact, the Indigenous people of the Americas had one of the most complex road systems of anywhere on earth, upon which many of today’s highways and byways are now built.

While McCullough renders the white settlers as fully human in their love and loss, their dreams and triumphs, in their suffering and trembling fear of what will become of them in this vast, new-to-them landscape, he affords the Indigenous people none of this same humanity or complexity. They remain a hazard in the background and in the way of progress. And when it comes to the wars and battles of the new frontier, The Pioneers portrays the destruction and loss only from the side of the settlers—for whom “savages” were killing innocents and preventing progress—and never from the other side. 

Manaseh Cutler vehemently opposed slavery and was instrumental in ensuring the passage of the Northwest Ordinance, which rendered slavery illegal in the Northwest Territory and its future states. “It was almost unimaginable,” McCullough writes, “that throughout a new territory as large as all of the thirteen states, there was to be no slavery.” McCullough glorifies the moral compass of Cutler and the other anti-slavery activists of the Northwest Territory, as well he should on this front; theirs is an important story of resistance and establishing morality in the laws of the land. (They were also ardent supporters of an egalitarian public school system.) Yet while they were fighting to keep the enslavement of people out of their newly forming society, Cutler and his compatriots were actively killing Indigenous people in the name of progress. 

In this country, we have a tendency to simplify history and celebrate the simple version of things—our pernicious myths about who we are and all that was so valorously sacrificed to get here. I have great shame for how steeped I was in the giddy origin story of California. But wasn’t I taught to see it in those terms?

It’s so easy to allow what’s been said before to determine the stories we tell and how we tell them. The Pioneers is a deeply rendered work about a critical moment in the story of the United States, but so much of what really happened, and its implications, remains swept under the rug.

The valorous, sacrificial pioneer—haven’t we met him before, again and again? One might wonder if, at this moment in time, The Pioneers is the narrative we need. The more we tell this story, the more the narrative calcifies. It can be hard to see past it, let alone get out from under it.

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Where McCullough’s book seems to merrily join the mythology of the valorous pioneers, another book, The Promise of the Grand Canyon, by John F. Ross, out recently in paperback, offers a clear-eyed vision of the costs of expansion, both on fellow human beings and on the land itself. It is in some ways both a sequel and a narrative corrective to The Pioneers as a book, and to the pioneer mythology, telling the story of expansion into the arid West beyond the edges of the Northwest Territory. 

The Promise of the Grand Canyon centers on explorer John Wesley Powell, who grew up as the son of a Methodist preacher traveling the settlements of the Northwest Territory, offering people “the intoxicating chance to wipe away their sins right there and then on that patch of meadow, dusty road, or porch front.” An active abolitionist, Powell’s father found himself “forced to decide between obeying the laws of Ohio or those of his God” when, in 1839, the state passed a fugitive slave law. Facing threats to their lives, the family was forced to move. But the landscape of Ohio, and his father’s moral compass, shaped the younger Powell’s life path. 

In so many ways, John Wesley Powell was a prophet—we were warned.

John Wesley Powell would go on to become one of the United States’ most prominent naturalists, becoming the first settler to successfully navigate a crew of men down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. His exploration wasn’t merely for a notch on the belt or for acclaim, but rather for mapmaking and ecological study. His scientific surveys were, he believed, critical to understanding the resources, opportunities, and limitations of the expanding American West. Powell, Ross writes, “would shape the newly emerging American West and, in so doing, help cast the national identity.”

For many years, the American West was considered a land of dust and despair (“This Plain is a waste of Sand,” wrote one explorer of the expanse between the Sierras and the Rockies). But Powell saw in the arid landscape an almost godly beauty and bounty. As people began to move west, the American public, Ross writes, “hungered” to learn more about what lay beyond Ohio. “Americans needed someone to explain the West to them, not only to discern more clearly what it contained but to interpret its very significance.” Powell’s writings, and his ingenious idea to bring artists and photographers along with him on his survey expeditions in order to better bring the West to life on the page and in the minds of U.S. Americans, helped shift the maligned image of the west and brought forth yet another scramble for expansion beyond the reaches of the Northwest Territory. 

It’s hard to fathom that the Grand Canyon was once written off as little more than a treacherous topographical lance through a merciless desert. But thanks to Powell’s exploration, Ross writes, “this former vision of desolation now emerged as a distinctive, American landscape,” that reflected the “American” spirit; the Grand Canyon part and parcel of American exceptionalism.

More and more people moved west. They built railroads, setup settlements and towns. “As the [civil] War ended, most Americans had embraced the West as an untapped Eden . . . as the very place in which it would fulfill its national identity.”

In the midst of this rapid expansion, Powell, much to the consternation of Western politicians and the general zeitgeist, offered great caution. The watersheds of the West could not handle the influx, nor the standard 160-acre land grants allotted via the 1862 Homestead Act. Water allocation in the new western communities needed to be deeply planned, carefully considered, and managed in the public sphere, lest greedy companies seek to profit off the scant resources. (In so many ways, Powell was a prophet—we were warned.) Powell testified before Congress and insisted in his writings that “America could not have everything it wanted.” What a spoilsport. “Like the American Indians,” Ross writes, Powell “seemed to stand simply in the way of progress.”

While he was complicit in U.S. expansion, Powell regarded the Indigenous people with more than anthropological curiosity, but as sources of knowledge of natural resources.

This book reads like an adventure tale, and while it is a story centered on the exploration efforts of a single, stoic, and relatively ill-tempered white man—that classic frontier trope—Ross acknowledges the false gods of Powell’s era, and of today.

Chapter one opens with Powell—who is portrayed warts and all throughout the book—as a four-year-old riding next to his father in 1838 through the “rugged Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio,” where, like the protagonists of The Pioneers, they would setup a home and a ministry. “They may have felt like pioneers,” Ross writes, “but that same hard-beaten path had carried multifarious travels since the last Ice Age.” This wasn’t an untrammeled wilderness, as McCullough claims, and as so many of us have been taught; it just appeared so to the pioneers. The invocation to “Go West, Young Man!”, Ross asserts, was “bound with iron-ribbed assumptions of an almost-divine sense of national self discovery and superiority, a birthright of conquest so exalted as to often blind Americans to the consequences of their actions.” 

Lines like these are refreshing. Ross doesn’t shy from calling things as they are, and as they were. Andrew Jackson was “an Indian Killer.” The U.S. American landscape wasn’t a “trackless wilderness,” but rather “spoke of a world shaped by others than the present immigrants.” Romantic hero Ralph Waldo Emerson saw abolitionists as angry bigots. “No one, certainly not the Sage of Concord, liked even the hint of getting their noses rubbed in the moral contradictions upon which the Founders built the Republic.” And while he was complicit in U.S. expansion, Powell, Ross tells us, regarded the Indigenous people with more than anthropological curiosity, but as sources of knowledge with regard to the land and natural resources, from which settlers had much to learn.

It’s not only refreshing to have a book about the West call out these moral contradictions in our historical narrative, but it feels necessary.

“When they stop killing us,” a Shivwitst chief explained to Powell, ”there will be no Indian left to bury the dead.”

*

It seems to me that now more than ever, it is every work of literature’s job—regardless of genre—to correct old narratives and to set fire to our murderous mythologies. Who has time for stories that tell the same old lies?    

Ben and I are now married; we no longer fight about the pioneers. In spite of my past ignorance and insistent participation in these poisonous myths, the veil has long since been pierced. Once that happens, a person is destined to see the scaffolding upon which the veil is hung everywhere she goes.

These days Ben and I live in Berkeley, across the Bay from where we were raised and where we met; we can’t afford to live in San Francisco, not anymore. We’ve seen the most recent gold rush, the most recent scramble for territory and empire, which, though nothing like the scale of the Pioneer’s unapologetic genocide, has left so many without homes, and which has contributed to our state’s undoing. What’s called progress is so rarely in service of the common good. Just walk a few miles through San Francisco past the encampments of the un-housed and the new, gleaming skyscrapers and you’ll see it for yourself, and perhaps find yourself thinking of the brutal banks of the Muskeegum in Ohio, and of McCullough’s settlers, and how the river sometimes ran with blood in the name of progress, of expansion, of empire. 

Come back to California later this summer or early fall, once our grass has all dried up into tinder and we walk the streets with high-grade surgical masks (pack your own, as our pharmacies quickly run out), and you’ll be thinking of John Wesley Powell, and how he warned us. “Individualism, hard work, and private enterprise alone,” writes Ross of Powell’s central argument, “could not overcome the challenge of the arid lands.” There’s not enough water in our watersheds to sustain all that we’ve built and our great biological and economic thirsts. “Would America develop her rich, promising western lands with the public interest in mind,” writes Ross, “or hand development over to the selected, well-connected, and wealthy individuals to exploit, and worry about the consequences later?”

Those consequences have come. These days, we flood and we burn as if extras in Manaseh Cutler’s tattered Bible. We know to keep go-bags packed in our cars and in accessible corners of our houses with supplies: food, water, emergency blankets, whistles, a knife, duct tape, a compass, warm layers, some extra cash. These emergency bags are contemporary versions of the bags the Pioneers would have packed as they tramped through land that wasn’t theirs, that Powell would have packed as he floated the rivers in order to determine how best to exploit and manage them. My emergency kit is not to survive the treacherous march toward supposed progress, but rather to survive the apocalypse of our own making.

“Powell had refused to regard the West through rose-colored glasses, and that remains one of his greatest legacies,” writes Ross. All of these myths we’ve told ourselves, all of this snakeoil we’ve sold and bought and slugged down with greedy glee. It’s unpleasant to see things as they are, and as they will be, but what other act—in life, and in literature—is more urgent?

Manaseh Cutler had a favorite quotation, one that his family regarded as “they key to his character.” The quote was from Virgil: “Felix, qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas.” Fortunate is he who understands the cause of things.

Lauren Markham
Lauren Markham
Lauren Markham is a writer and reporter based in Northern California. Her work has appeared in VQR, The New Yorker.com, The New Republic, Guernica, VICE Magazine, Orion, The Utne Reader, Pacific Standard, and on This American Life. She is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts' MFA in writing program and works at a high school for immigrant youth in the Bay Area. She is currently at work on a book about child migration, to be published by Crown.





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