American West in rare pictures, 1860s-1870s

In the 1860s and 1870s, photographer Timothy O'Sullivan produced some of the most famous images in American history.

US After covering the Civil War, O'Sullivan was the official photographer on the United States Geological Exploration of Fortieth Parallel under Clarence King, an expedition organized by the federal government to help document new frontiers in the American West.

The expedition began in Virginia City, Nevada, where he photographed mines and worked his way east. His job was to take photographs of the West to attract the settlers. In doing so, he became a pioneer in the field of geophotography.

O'Sullivan's photographs were one of the first to record prehistoric ruins, Navajo weavers, and the pueblo villages of the Southwest. The subject he focused on was a new concept, unlike the Asian and Eastern landscape fronts.

This involved taking photographs of nature as an untamed, pre-industrial land without the use of landscape painting conventions. Above all, O'Sullivan captured the natural beauty of the American West on film for the first time.

The completion of the railroad to the west after the Civil War opened up vast areas of the region for settlement and economic development. White settlers from the east moved to the Mississippi to mine, farm and ranch.

African-American settlers also came west from the Deep South, convinced promoters of all-black Western cities could find prosperity there. Chinese railway workers have further added to the diversity of the region's population.

Former settlements replaced the Great Plains. Huge herds of American bison roaming the plains were virtually destroyed, and farmers plowed the natural grass to plant wheat and other crops. The cattle industry grew in importance as the railroad provided a practical means for bringing cattle to market.

The loss of bison and the growth of white settlements greatly affected the lives of Native Americans living in the West.

In the conflicts that resulted, American Indians, despite occasional victories, seemed doomed to defeat by large numbers of settlers and the military force of the US government. By the 1880s, most American Indians were confined to reservations, often those areas in the West that seemed the least desirable to white settlers.

The cowboy became a symbol for the West in the late 19th century, often depicted in popular culture as a glamorous or heroic figure. However, the stereotype of the heroic white shepherd is far from true.

The first cowboys were the Spanish vaqueros, who brought cattle to Mexico centuries ago. Black cowboys also rode at the range.

Furthermore, shepherd life was far from glamorous, involving long, arduous hours of labor, poor living conditions, and economic hardship.

The Cowboy Myth is one of the many myths that have shaped our views of the West in the late 19th century. More recently, in the words of historian Frederick Jackson Turner, some historians have turned away from the traditional view of the West as a boundary, which is "the meeting point between civilization and barbarism".

He began writing about the West as a crossroads of cultures, where different groups fought for wealth, profit, and cultural dominance. Think about these differing views on Western history as you examine the documents in this collection.

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