As an artist my primary interests and points of research have always been history, feminism and landscape, in that order. When I found a group of photos from the early 20th century depicting homesteading in Eastern Montana. The images commenced a chain of research into the elements of the imagery and the history of the American West. Most of our popular understanding of the American West are myths that coincide with a narrowly documented history that excluded women, among others, and promoted an imaginary romanticism about the colonization of the west. On the counter point I found New Western Historians such as Patricia Limerick and Glinda Riley who look at the fallacies of previous history writing and are essentially rewriting it. There are many more historians, histographers, writers and literary critics who work to expose the dominant popular myths of the west but there is a lack of visual artist addressing the topic. As an artist I am joining them in acknowledging there is more than one narrative to be be told about the history of the American West.
|Arthur O’Connor book of 120mm Brownie Camera Negatives from the early 1900’s|
In my Grandmother's home I found an interesting set of photographic negatives taken by her father, my great grandfather, Arthur O’Connor. The negatives are a 120mm format, taken from 1907-1920 on a second generation Kodak Brownie Camera for which Arthur would have paid $2. The original Brownie camera came out in 1900 and cost $1. It was hugely popular, as it was the first truly accessible amateur camera, “So simple any boy or girl can operate them....” 1
Arthur O’Connor, came from a wealthy family, his father was a banker in Homer, Nebraska. He was in a privileged position, where he traveled the West with his newly accessible technology, the camera, for adventure, and to treat his tuberculosis. The images among the negatives I was most interested in were taken when he married my Great Grandmother, Mable Johnson, and acquired a homestead in the Eastern Montana area of Ekalaka, Montana. The photos of the homestead begin around 1910 and show the growing family on a desolate, arid, landscape, building a tiny house, trying to raise crops and poultry.
Mable O’Connor w/ son Dan O’Connor on their homestead in Eastern Montana, 1910’s
How Arthur O’Connor acquired the land was through the homestead act. The homestead act originally created in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln, allowed any American, “who headed a family,” to claim 160 acres of federal land to create a small farm. The new owner had to build at least a 12’ x 12’ house and work the land for five years. 2
As I researched these initial facts surrounding this set of photographs I began to discover how much political mythology and problematic history were attached to the images; the deep running inaccuracies of the actual written history and how it came to be that way. The myths of the west began to stack up in my reading and as a person born and raised in the west (Idaho) myself I was surprised at how many of the myths of the west I carried as truths in my own consciousness and supposed understanding.
The invention of myths for entertainment, political, or financial gain are common occurrences in culture making their creation and perpetuation easily understood. How the myths of the American West were given academic and intellectual backing and how these ideas came to be ingrained in the writing of actual history starts with Frederick Jackson Turner.
In 1893, a historian from the University of Wisconsin, Frederick Jackson Turner, presented his paper ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’ to an audience in Chicago. This paper is now commonly referred to as the Frontier Thesis or as The Turner Thesis. Turner was trying to prove America’s “exceptionalism.” His thesis claimed what made America great and American democracy great was the “struggle” of the western frontier. Prior to this, American history was written based on the “germ theory” that focused on the transfer of European people, culture, and ideas to America.3
The frontier was, and is still is due to Turner’s influence, commonly defined as “free land” west of the eastern settlements for white Americans to take and use as they pleased.Turner's thesis paints a triumphant scenario where white men valiantly struggle against the wilderness, living independently, making progress and creating democracy everywhere they go, thus making America exceptional. 3
While Turner’s theory took some time to gain popularity, both historians and politicians of the time started to agree with these ideas. By 1903 the “Frontier Thesis” was known by all professional historians and also widely known by the public.4 Historians began to focus their histories on the actions of the white political male and thus continued to create a rosy mythology of how great the struggle and adventure of colonizing and “democratizing” the west was. Turner developed a large group of “disciples” who believed in his largely speculatory and under researched doctrine and with this, Turner essentially changed the historiography of how both western history and American history would be viewed and written about from then on. 5
The Turner thesis gave the American West it’s significance, and by the 1930’s it was seen as inarguable.6 Going against it was seen as claiming the West was insignificant. However, as historian Patricia Limerick explains in her important 1987 text “The Legacy of Conquest”
“....the apparently unifying concept of the frontier had arbitrary limits that excluded more than they contained. Turner was, to put it mildly, ethnocentric and nationalistic. English speaking white men were the stars of his story; Indians, Hispanics, French Canadians, and Asians were at best supporting actors and at worst invisible. Nearly as invisible were women, of all ethnicities.”7
By the 1970’s academic historians were fully questioning many parts of the Turner Thesis and began to identify a wide range of inaccuracies and the pervasion of myths created and perpetuated by the large number of Turner Thesis followers. Patricia Limerick is one of several modern historians challenging the rosy, heroic and exclusive ideals of Turner’s thesis and their continued dominance in the field of history writing. Limerick’s calls this approach “The New Western History.”
New western history looks at the west as a place not as a process. It acknowledges that whites colonized the west. It corrects the narrative to include women and other groups of people that were systematically excluded. It debunks the myth of the ideal Jeffersonian farmer and disagrees with Turner’s statement that the Frontier closed in 1890. Recognizing that even the term “frontier” has a nationalistic and racist ideology. 8
As a feminist artist I am drawn to the deletion of females from the history. Feminist historian Glinda Riley wrote an essay in 1993 titled “Frederick Jackson Turner Forgot the Ladies.” In addition to writing about Turner leaving women out of his history model she also looks at how and why he deleted women from the narrative. There were additional social and political forces at work that caused women to be deleted as Riley points out. Turner worked in a male dominated field, where there were no women to question his exclusion of them. While Turner’s work is praised for it’s originality, he still used prior historians work and those historians also deleted women, who usually saw them as unimportant supporters of men. The title of Riley’s essay comes from a statement by Abigail Adams, when she asked her husband John Adams to “not forget about the women” when writing the U.S. constitution, of course, he did not listen her to request. Other reasons women were deleted in Turner's thesis is that Turner himself was focused on political and economic history, and he wasn’t interested in groups of individuals or their narratives.9 So while half of the population moving West were women, sadly, through this combination of forces, their work, their lives, and their contributions were deemed unimportant and not worthy of recording for many decades.
There are many problems from ignoring and deleting half of the population who colonized the West that continue on like a line through history to today. The central issue being that when women’s stories and lives are not represented by the women themselves, narratives are created for them. Narratives that fit the dominant group's ideals for entertainment or political gain. When the historically accurate accounts of what women’s frontier life actually looked like are deleted a new account is invented. The invented perspective of females sees them as symbols, objects of ownership, delicate flowers in need of protection, who once they were able to live in the West, would signal the conquering of the rugged land. The invented female narratives are composed of archetypes including the irritating and dividing dichotomy of the saintly wife and the fallen whore, lived out in turn of the century times and still displayed in too much of our current media. It deletes the realities of the work, tragedy, triumph, and violence that actually occurred during colonization. The reality of the women who came west were that they were an important part of everyday life, working all day, alongside the men, to try and create a new way of life.9
There are different ways in which women begin to be written back into the history. There is the “and” approach, by simply “and women” to statements of history.10 There is the heroic or “saintly” women writers, who search out and write about exceptional women that existed and created progress in the West. Then there are the feminist historiographers, such as Riley, who look at the structure of why women were deleted. They work to reframe and essentially rewrite the history to be a more accurate portrayal of the reality of women; the "everyday women.” 11
The deletion of women is only one problem in the Turner Thesis that is concurrently relevant in the photographs of the Eastern Montana Homesteaders. Another problem in Turner's thesis was his focus on the perpetuation of the Jeffersonian ideal of the small farmer.
Jefferson wrote in “Notes on the State of Virginia” that “...those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God…” He believed there was power in property and in order to maintain democracy and morality, individuals needed to own land and farm it.12 This ideal was widely believed and promoted in order to colonize first, the Eastern United States and then the West. Promises of land ownership and financial independence brought people to the West. However the imagined idea and the reality were quite different from each other for many documented reasons, but one of the largest problems was the aridity of the land west of the 100th meridian where the average rainfall is less than 20 inches in contrast to more well watered locations. Turner used his hometown of Porter, Wisconsin, which was East of the 100th meridian, as his place of understanding, and thus never accounted for the aridity that would ultimately cause so many homesteaders chasing the Jeffersonian ideal to fail, which included my Great Grandparents.13
“The Homestead act “deceived many people into thinking a piece of land was all
they would need.” 14
Frederick Jackson Turner also promoted the statement put forth by US census supervisor, Patrick Porter, who claimed the frontier was closed in 1890. That there was no longer any “free land” and the process was over. Historian Gerald Nash writes that Patrick Porter was no expert in either demography or statistical analysis and that he was wrong. Frontier style settlement actually continued up through the 1930’s especially in remote and desolate places such as Eastern Montana. 15
With this new understanding of feminist historiography and the work of The New Western History, I looked at the images, taken from my Great Grandfather, Arthur O’Connor on his eastern Montana homestead,which he acquired in about 1910, along with his new wife and growing family, with a different perspective. Any nostalgia and romanticism I had applied to them was a myth and the harsh reality of homesteading, colonization, the authoritarian ownership of the land, and the deletion of women’s hard work were seen instead. A new conversation had to take place with my Grandmother, the only living connection to the reality of my Great Grandmother's life. With new questions to ask her, I discovered my Great Grandfather was not a good provider. Being the son of a wealthy banker had left him, as well as many other people who attempted homesteading, under prepared for the conditions and tasks associated with homesteading. They lived in a small home with a dirt foundation. My Great Grandmother, Mable O’Connor, had six children. My Grandmother being the youngest born in 1925. The eldest, Arthur Junior, perished due to simple appendicitis but could not be saved due to a remote location, hours from any medical care. Arthur would often leave Mable alone with the children for long stretches of time while he wandered to find other work because the homestead could not support them. This is a far more typical narrative of homestead reality than is presented in the Western myth. Arthur O’Connor may or may not have known about Fredrick Jackson Turner’s lofty beliefs about the land but he was certainly playing into them.
Mable O’Connor w/one of her six children outside her homestead home,1910’s
These original Kodak Brownie negatives were intended to be printed 1 to 1 directly onto photographic paper or on a handy postcards to mail. In the tradition of using the newest technology of the day, I scanned the negatives at a high resolution allowing me to get large clear prints on a large format printer. I selected images to print at 24” x 14”, their native ratio, which displays the details of the stark landscape and their small home with a dirt foundation. The foundation on which the O’Connors were convinced they would build their financial independence.
My focus is on the deletion of “everyday” women from American history and the continued effect that deletion has had on women to this day. The ludicrousness of the seemingly bottomless misogyny that has been inflicted on the daily lives of women as well as the lack of value assigned to recording their lives, is the main idea I want to portray.
I decided to visually reverse this sexism as an attempt to point out the true absurdity of the treatment of women. With a razor blade, I physically cut out the men from the reprinted photographs. The fabric is then sewn into the photographs, a skill typically assigned to women, a labor necessary for survival to clothe the family in remote places on tiny budgets.
By removing the men from the photographs and replacing them with sewn patches of brightly colored floral fabric, the men become beautiful space holders, without details or context. The women, their actions, their likenesses are the only people seen. Then just as it has been with women, the men’s stories are deleted and we can instead create whatever narrative suites us for their spaces.
As Patricia Limerick states in Legacy of Conquest”
“The conquest of Western America shapes the present as dramatically - and
sometimes and perilously as the old mines shape the mountainsides. To live with that legacy, contemporary Americans ought to be well informed and well warned about the connections between past and present.” 16
There are twelve of these images in my display: men removed, women left to try and create their fortunes in arid and desolate Eastern Montana on a politicized homestead. However, the story of the deleted women plays out in thousands of stories in not just the colonization of the west, but also in women’s histories around the globe. This deletion strongly affects women’s lives and attitudes about women to this day.
Just as Frederick Jackson Turner changed the course of how Western American history was written, historians such as Patricia Limerick, with her influential writing “The Legacy of Conquest” along with other writings, try to change it again with the principles of the New Western History. As an artist I aim to visually exhibit this historiographic change, puncturing the myths of the west with emphasis on the everyday women’s stories to further the feminist cause of equality both historically and today.
- Chuck Baker. “The History of the Brownie” The Brownie Camera Page. 10/2016
- History.com. Staff. “Homestead Act” History.com, A+E Publishing. 2009. Accesed 10/2106, http://www.history.com/topics/homestead-act
- Jacquelyn A. Sparks “The Frontier Debate” The Frontier Debate. 10/2016. http://thepinkflamingo27.tripod.com/The_Frontier_Debate.htm.
- David H. Murdoch, The American West, The Invention of The Myth (Wales: Welsh Academic Press, 2001), 78.
- Barbara Howard Meldrum, “Introduction” in Old West - New West, Centennial Essays, ed.Barbara Howard Meldrum (Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 1993), 1-2.
- David H. Murdoch, The American West, The Invention of The Myth (Wales: Welsh Academic Press, 2001), 80.
- Patricia Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest. (Canada: Penguin Books, 1987), 21.
- Patricia Limerick, “What on Earth is the New Western History?” in Does the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional?, ed. Etulain, Richard W., and Frederick Jackson Turner. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999), 111
- Glinda Riley, “Frederick Jackson Turner Forgot the Ladies” in Does the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional?, ed. Etulain, Richard W., (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999), 65-67
- Patricia Limerick, “What Raymond Chandler Knew” in Old West - New West, Centennial Essays, ed.Barbara Howard Meldrum. (Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 1993), 32.
- Karen Sayer, “Modern Women's history: A Historiography.” Academia. The Malta Historical Society. 2003/October 2016. http://www.academia.edu/8235421/Modern_Womens_history_A_Historiography
- Patricia Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest. (Canada: Penguin Books, 1987), 58.
- Patricia Limerick, “What on Earth is the New Western History?” in Does the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional?, ed. Etulain, Richard W., and Frederick Jackson Turner. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999), 109
- Patricia Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest. (Canada: Penguin Books, 1987), 125
- Gerald D. Nash, “New Approaches to the American West” in Old West - New West, Centennial Essays, ed.Barbara Howard Meldrum (Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 1993),19.
- Patricia Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest. (Canada: Penguin Books, 1987), 80
Baker, Chuck. “The History of the Brownie” The Brownie Camera Page. 10/2016 http://www.brownie-camera.com/
History.com Staff. “Homestead Act” History.com, A+E Publishing. 2009. Accesed 10/2106, http://www.history.com/topics/homestead-act
Limerick, Patricia, The Legacy of Conquest. Canada: Penguin Books, 1987.
Limerick, Patricia, “What on Earth is the New Western History?” in Does the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional?, ed. Etulain, Richard W., and Frederick Jackson Turner. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999.
Limerick, Patricia, “What Raymond Chandler Knew” in Old West - New West, Centennial Essays, ed.Barbara Howard Meldrum. Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 1993.
Meldrum, Barbara Howard, “Introduction” in Old West - New West, Centennial Essays, ed.Barbara Howard Meldrum. Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 1993.
Murdoch, David H. The American West, The Invention of The Myth. Wales: Welsh Academic Press, 2001
Nash, Gerald D. “New Approaches to the American West” in Old West - New West, Centennial Essays, ed.Barbara Howard Meldrum. Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 1993.
Riley, Glinda. “Frederick Jackson Turner Forgot the Ladies” in Does the frontier experience make America exceptional?, ed. Etulain, Richard W., and Frederick Jackson Turner. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999.
Sayer, Karen. “Modern Women's history: A Historiography.” Academia. The Malta Historical Society. 2003/October 2016. http://www.academia.edu/8235421/Modern_Womens_history_A_Historiography
Sparks, Jacquelyn A. “The Frontier Debate” 10/2016