Indian warriors and pioneer mothers: American identity and the closing of the frontier in public monuments 1890-1930

Paul Scolari
Department of History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh
July, 2005


At the end of the 19th century, Americans heralded the end of the westward march across the continent. The West had been won. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner put it best when in 1893 he proclaimed: 'And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.' Long understood as a geographically remote wilderness where the epic struggle between 'civilized' and 'savage' would determine the fate of America' future, suddenly the frontier defined the nation's past. Previous scholars, in examining the work of artists, writers, entertainers, and others, have explored how certain individuals fashioned a nostalgic legacy of western expansion at this moment in the nation's history. My dissertation charts new territory in this field by exploring how Americans nationwide fashioned a legacy of western expansion in an assemblage of works of art neglected until now, sculptural monuments erected in public space. In so doing, it provides a fresh understanding of the nation's defining legend, the myth of the frontier, and how this myth corresponds to the history upon which it is based. By employing the Smithsonian Institution American Art Museum Inventory of American Sculpture to examine the entire range of public monuments commemorating western expansion from 1890-1930, my study provides an unprecedented synthesis on this topic. Inventory research revealed one striking pattern--monuments focused overwhelmingly on two figures, the Indian and the pioneer. It also led to one surprising finding--while represented as combatants in the battle for the continent in the 19th century, both figures would be remembered heroically in the wake of western expansion, each the foundation upon which citizens would construct American identities in the early-20th century. Thus, in a series of case studies complementing my Smithsonian Inventory research, my dissertation examines the life of two mythic American figures, the Indian and the pioneer, and how these figures were used to fashion a legacy of western expansion in a rich array of artifacts including public sculptures, minted coins, and memorial highways.