During late seventeen hundreds and the early eighteen hundreds America focused on growth and development. In 1803, America bought from France 828,000 square miles of land that ranged from the Mississippi to the Rockies for the bargain price of $15,000,000. This pristine land had not yet been ravaged by the rigorous process of growing cotton, so Southern farmers were excited about the prospect. However, most farmers were also afraid of what lay in the West, be it “savages,” dangerous wildlife or inhospitable terrain. The government believed that American citizens needed convincing that travelling west, settling and stabilizing this new land was a smart thing to do. To help convince the populace, the government turned to a new media, photography. The product of this invention astounded and perplexed many viewers who believed that the photos they saw depicted the absolute truth. Their ignorance of the selective bias of photographers paved the way for rumors and myths that influenced many to venture into dangerous areas, having little idea what really lay ahead. Photography in the early American West was a manipulative tool of the government’s interest by portraying the West as a safe land filled with opportunity.
Many Americans believed that they were entitled to the vast land that their government had just purchased and even more land to the west of it. One reason was the incredible sense of superiority that the Americans felt in their own virtue and their superior form of government. Another reason was that the Americans thought that the native Americans didn't appreciate the land that they occupied and that the Americans should liberate it, making the land more useful and productive. These reasons were all based in the ideology of "Manifest Destiny." Democratic Review editor John O' Sullivan was the first to use this idea of Manifest Destiny, "And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us" (O'Sullivan). American leaders took hold of this concept and used it to justify expansionism.
Although not all parties of government in the eighteen hundreds believed in Manifest Destiny, the Democrats won elections championing the concept and were eager to employ photographers to further their cause. Some Democratic supporters saw money-making opportunities in exploiting western resources and wanted to encourage migration to make their dreams possible. A few photographers dared venture into the wilderness for the sake of art but others travelled westward to photograph for pay. Three of the more famous photographers who journeyed toward the West under contract were Timothy O' Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, and Andrew J. (AJ) Russell. These three photographers all depicted different, but appealing, features of the West.
Timothy O' Sullivan photos developed his...