Westward Expansion: Image and Reality


In this exercise, teachers examine a lithograph titled, “Across the Continent, Westward Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” published in 1868. Then teachers examine excerpts from two letters written by Nebraska pioneer Uriah W. Oblinger to his wife Mattie Oblinger in 1872.

Teachers examine each source carefully, answering the following questions:

  • What do you notice about the source?
  • What questions do you want to ask about it?

After discussing these questions, teachers learn more about the historical context of westward expansion, and attempt to determine where the lithograph was published. After completing the activity, teachers discuss classroom applications.

Source Analysis, Lithograph


  1. Distribute one copy of the lithograph to each person, and project it on a screen if possible for more detailed viewing.
  2. Ask teachers to work in pairs, writing down what they notice about each visual element in the lithograph, and a list of questions that they want to ask about the lithograph and the historical context in which it was published more generally.

Group Discussion, Lithograph

Write three columns on the whiteboard: Notice, Questions, and Historical Background. Use the following questions to guide discussion:

  • Where are your eyes drawn first when you look at the lithograph?
  • What did you notice about each element of the lithograph?
  • What did you notice about the layout of the lithograph?
  • What questions do you want to ask about each element or the overall layout?
  • What do you already know about the lithograph, publisher, or artist?
  • What does the lithograph say about Westward expansion? Do you think it presents Westward expansion favorably or not?
  • What further information would you want to know (i.e., the time period, 19-century lithographs)?

Make a tentative guess: Where do you think the lithograph was published? Why?

Source Analysis, Letter


  1. Distribute one copy of the letters to each person.
  2. Ask teachers to work in pairs, writing down what they notice, and a list of questions that they want to ask about the letter and the historical context in which it was published.

Group Discussion, Letter

Write three columns on the whiteboard: Notice, Questions, and Historical Background.

Use the following questions to guide discussion:

  • What did you notice about the letter?
  • What hardships does the writer encounter?
  • What questions do you want to ask about the letter?
  • What do you already know about the settlement of Nebraska and this letter?
  • What does the letter say about Westward Expansion? Do you think it presents Westward Expansion favorably or not?
  • What does the letter not tell us about Westward Expansion?
  • What similarities do you notice between the way the lithograph and the letter portray Westward Expansion
  • What differences do you notice between the way the lithograph and the letter portray Westward Expansion
  • What further information would you want to know (i.e., the time period, 19-century lithographs)?

Historical Background

Present this historical background to enhance the group's knowledge of the time period, and as a basis for drawing conclusions in Step 7. Write the words in bold on the whiteboard, and use the rest of the text for guidance.

Origins of Westward Expansion

In some ways, the story of westward expansion helped define the 19th-century U.S., and allows us to discuss many themes important in 19th-century life, including immigration, slavery, Native Americans, and increasing tensions between both northern and southern states and eastern and western states.

In 1801, Thomas Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon, doubling the size of the U.S. In the wake of the War of 1812, settlement of the western frontier began in earnest and by 1821 both Mississippi and Missouri had joined the United States. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law, which promised compensation to Indian tribes who agreed to settle west of the Mississippi River. The 1830s saw the fighting of the Black Hawk War against the Sauk Indians after they were pushed from Illinois across the Mississippi River, as well as the Trail of Tears, in which 14,000 Cherokee Indians were marched from their homes in Georgia and Tennessee into Oklahoma. More than 4,000 died en route. These Indian removals were largely responsible for opening western lands to settlers from the eastern United States.

Westward Expansion Later

Settlement of the Far West—the area beyond the Mississippi River—began in the 1820s and 1830s with fur trappers and traders. In the 1840s, settlement of this territory increased. To reach these territories, most settlers faced a four-month journey with a wagon train. In 1849, 80,000 people migrated to California; 55,000 of those traveled by land.

In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act opened Kansas and Nebraska to white settlement. The federal government continued to create reservations for Native Americans, hoping that groups in the Far West would submit peacefully to relocations, but the 1860s and 1870s saw significant conflict in the Great Plains. In May 1869, completion of the transcontinental railroad significantly shortened the amount of time required to travel across the continent, and lowered settlers’ anxieties about failing on the frontier.

Images of Westward Expansion

Newspaper reports and pamphlets published in the east during the mid-19th century often emphasized the bountiful resources, tranquility, and comfort of the west, obscuring the harsh conditions that settlers faced. This tendency stemmed, in part, from the desire of the federal government to encourage development of the West and make the nation more prosperous. While there was, indeed, ample unclaimed land in the West, the stories of the West’s bounty and comfort became exaggerated in the East.



The lithograph was drawn by Frances Palmer, a British artist who worked for the publishing company Currier & Ives. Currier & Ives, based in New York City, described itself as “Publishers of Cheap and Popular Prints,” and it is likely that thousands of copies of this particular lithograph were hung in homes across the eastern U.S. Many pictorial elements of the lithograph can serve as clues to the fact that it was created by an artist who lived in the east, published in the eastern U.S., and distributed by an eastern-based company.

Railroad: The eye is immediately drawn to the railroad that bisects the image from the bottom right-hand corner to the upper left-hand corner. The layout of the railroad in this way helps create a feeling of movement from east to west in the lithograph itself, suggesting that the railroad goes as far as the eye can see, both geographically and into the future. The writing on the railroad car reads: “Freedom Line, New York, San Francisco” and there is one car full of passengers. The lithograph was published in the years immediately following the completion of the transcontinental railroad and can be seen, perhaps, as a celebration of its completion.

Nature: On the right-hand side of the lithograph is a beautifully rendered nature scene, with a series of waterways that give way to a mountain range in the distance. Native Americans are part of this natural scene, a 19th-century stereotype of Native Americans, and are being left behind in a cloud of smoke created by the train. They are not portrayed as threatening.

Pioneer Activity: On the left-hand side of the lithograph is a cluster of log cabins. The lithograph shows pioneers busy at work and well-clothed. Timber is plentiful. At the foreground is a building labeled “Public School,” symbolizing progress and the spread of “civilization” into western territories.


The excerpts from letters help highlight some of the hardships that pioneers faced around the time when Currier & Ives created the lithograph. Uriah W. Oblinger, a Civil War veteran, migrated from Indiana to Fillmore County, Nebraska, to claim a homestead for his new family in 1872. His letters describe experiences typical of many pioneers to the West during this time period. Oblinger focuses on the difficulties of securing a claim to land, despite the fact that land appears plentiful. He also notes the absence of timber near those claims, and tries to reassure his wife that a sod house will be comfortable. He notes twice that it will be difficult to get employment for the winter, and that the funds brought have dwindled. He also expresses the emotional difficulty (“a vacant place to me wherever I go and no one can fill it”) of being away from his wife and daughter. While these two letters do not sound devoid of hope, they reflect frustration blended with encouraging words for his wife.

Comparing the lithograph to the letter, it becomes clear that the lithograph glosses over many hardships of frontier life. It represents an idyllic image that served to encourage westward migration as seen through the eyes of easterners rather than a depiction of lived experience. It is interesting to note that almost all of the existing images of the 19th-century West were made by Easterners.

Classroom Applications

  • Do you think this activity would work with your students?
  • Could you use this strategy with other resources?
  • Would you do anything differently in your classroom?


Oblinger, Uriah. “Letter from Uriah W. Oblinger to Mattie V. Oblinger and Ella Oblinger, November 3-5, 1872.” From Library of Congress, Prairie Settlement: Nebraska Photographs and Family Letters, 1862-192. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/ps:@field%28DOCID+l082%29 (accessed November 28, 2011).

Palmer, F. (artist) and J.M. Ives (lithographer). “Across the Continent: ‘Westward the course of empire takes its way.’” Lithograph, hand colored. New York: Currier & Ives, 1868. From UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library, Framed items from the collections of The Bancroft Library. http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/kt8d5nb39b/?order=1 (accessed November 28, 2011).

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