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Bringing the Great American Frontier to Life

The Wild Bunch (1900).  National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Pinkerton's, Inc.
The Wild Bunch (1900). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Pinkerton's, Inc.

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Susan Koster

 

Hollywood has shaped our perception of the American West. Images of cowboys in saloons, American Indians in feather headdresses, and outlaws robbing trains at gunpoint come to mind. But visitors to the "Faces of the Frontier" exhibition organized by the National Portrait Gallery here in Washington can learn more about the real personalities who helped shape the West.

Some faces and names are familiar, like Sitting Bull, the Dakota Indian chief whose warriors defeated and massacred George Armstrong Custer's troops at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Custer's portrait is also in the exhibit, taken 16 years before his death, when he was a cadet at West Point.

Faces of the Frontier

Other faces and names are not as well remembered. Curator Frank Goodyear included them among the portraits of 115 men and women he chose for the exhibit. "If you look beyond the myth, you come to understand that people from many different places, different backgrounds, different fields of endeavor and ambitions converge to recreate the American West," says Goodyear.

 

Theodore Roosevelt (1904) National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Theodore Roosevelt (1904) National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


Some of those people had a huge impact, like Joseph Glidden, whose invention of barbed wire transformed the open landscape of the West into cattle ranches.  And Theodore Roosevelt, who spent time ranching in North Dakota, before he became President in 1901. "When Roosevelt became president, he transformed this love of the West into concrete legislation," Goodyear says, "setting aside land for national parks and national forests and initiating a vigorous debate about conservation."

The exhibit contains portraits of other conservationists including John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club. And there are businessmen whose products are still being sold today: confectioner Domingo Ghiradelli and Levi Strauss, who made a fortune selling his 501 jeans to miners during the Gold Rush.

Western Voices

There are explorers like John Wesley Powell, the first white man to navigate the entire length of the Colorado River.  Artists like Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt, who painted sweeping landscapes and photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who used his camera to capture more authentic images of the West. "He was an extraordinary landscape photographer and his images, and photographs by other important landscape photographers, resonated with audiences in the East who couldn't imagine the scale and the beauty, the grandeur of some of these landscapes."

Jack London, author of Call of the Wild and other stories revolving around the Yukon Gold Rush in Alaska, gave Easterners a literary portrait of the West, as did Samuel Clemens. Using the pen name Mark Twain, Clemens was "the first individual to bring a Western voice to American literature," Goodyear says. "His short stories written in California in the 1860s and his novel Roughing It really provide a larger American public with some of the colorful characters and dramatic stories associated with the West." 

Annie Oakley (c. 1885) National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired through the generosity of friends of the Department of Photographs
Annie Oakley (c. 1885) National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired through the generosity of friends of the Department of Photographs


The Wild West

The West did have its share of colorful characters, both famous and infamous; criminals like Jesse James and the Wild Bunch, led by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And there were entertainers like Annie Oakley, who was known for her marksmanship, and the man she worked for, William Cody, or "Buffalo Bill," whose "Wild West Show" toured abroad.

There are even portraits of Hollywood's earliest stars. "In portraits of famous cowboy actors such as Tom Mix and William S. Hart and such silent film stars as Gloria Swanson and the director Cecil B. DeMille, we get a wonderful snapshot of the early silent era in California cinema," says Goodyear.

The exhibit spans a period of 80 years, from 1845, when Texas became a state, to 1924, when Native Americans were given full citizenship. Those eight decades, Goodyear says, were a time of great change in the West and the United States as a whole  "One thinks of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the acquisition of more than 500,000 square miles [more than 1 million square kilometers] of land into the territory, a series of well-publicized battles between native and non-native peoples, and the birth of the modern-day environmental movement."

"Faces of the Frontier" shows the people behind those changes.
            
 

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