Students study a painting to learn about the spirit of westward expansion and the types of people who settled the west. Students will observe the different people drawn to the west and the terrain they hoped to find there.
This lesson is part of "Great States: Idaho Unit 5: Westward Expansion" which introduces students to the period of Westward Expansion, when people lived much differently than they do today. In spite of these differences, pioneer families struggled with how to obtain food and shelter, how to define the roles of each family member, and how to balance risk and opportunity—much like families in modern day Idaho.
Standard: 4.SS.5.1.1 Analyze the roles and relationships of diverse groups of people from various parts of the world who have contributed to Idaho’s cultural heritage and impacted the state’s history.
- Image: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way
- Notebook or loose-leaf paper (for expansion)
(Source: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way was painted in 1861 by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. United States Capitol, Washington, DC.)
Explain that in the painting, which hangs in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, Leutze is depicting a pilgrimage to the western frontier. He groups together pioneer men and women, American Indian guides, wagons, and mules. Leutze suggests the journey is a divinely ordained pilgrimage to the Promised Land. It does not represent any real individuals, but the overall symbolism of the pioneers’ journey west. The man atop the rock in the foreground is pointing left to the Golden Gate, the entrance to San Francisco Bay. To the right is a depiction of a valley, which represents the Valley of Darkness from which they’ve escaped. It symbolizes of the troubles faced by explorers as they traveled westward. The imagery is regarded as the realization of Manifest Destiny, which is the belief in the United States that pioneers were meant to expand the territory across North America. The painting is metaphorical; rich with symbols that represent the concepts of American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny as Americans traveled westward across the continent, settling, farming, and taking control of the land and its inhabitants.
Ask them the following questions:
Describe the people in this painting.
What would you imagine are in the wagons?
Do you think that the painting depicts an actual place or did the artist combine several landscapes into the painting? Explain your reasoning.
What is in the center of the painting just below the bluff that two men are climbing? Why do you think that object is in the painting?
Families of white European ancestry, fur hats, people with rifles/guns, rugged, tired, hopeful, pioneers, dirty, hard working, and more answers are acceptable.
Family belongings such as furniture, tools, a Bible, personal affects, clothing, and food
Answers will vary
Cross. Answers will vary.
Expand the lesson (5 minutes):
Have students imagine that they are the person wearing the red top and standing on the rock looking out of the painting to the left (left as you look at the painting). Ask them to write two thought bubbles about what this person is thinking as they gaze across the landscape: one can be creative or funny about what they would hope to see at the top of a mountain and one that they think the person was actually thinking or seeing.