Manifest Destiny in the American West


Research Paper


A Manifest Journey

Manifest Destiny is the belief that white Americans were unique, and that they were destined to supplant other cultures with their own as they moved across the North American continent. Manifest Destiny is clearly intertwined with the mythical American West. This paper will attempt to show how attitudes of Euro-American uniqueness were prevalent in the actual West by contrasting and comparing narratives from two white emigrants, Harriet Loughary and Hugh Heiskell, and two Native Americans, Sarah Winnemucca and Chief Joseph. I chose these two ethnic groups because white emigrants directly supplanted many Native Americans in fulfilling the predictions of Manifest Destiny, and I chose two male and two female accounts to gain a more diverse perspective. The narratives all provide evidence of Manifest Destiny, but the various authors disagree about the legitimacy of this white exceptionalism and even vary in their own recognition of it, largely along racial lines.

It is not surprising that a Native American account by Sarah Winnemucca, daughter of a prominent Paiute chief from western Nevada, describes the idea of Manifest Destiny as rampant throughout the American West. Winnemucca was a largely self-educated “tribal interpreter…and intermediary between US military leaders, government agents, other tribes”[1] and her own people, so its not shocking that she had many experiences with Manifest Destiny. Native Americans were after all the primary victims of these Euro-American perceptions of exceptionalism and expansion. Sarah Winnemucca writes in her widely published “Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims” in 1883 that whites “came like a lion, yes, like a roaring lion, and have continued so ever since.”[2] This quote epitomizes the concept of Manifest Destiny and portrays the perception in a Darwinistic light. The whites were at the top of the food chain, and like a smug lion they believed that a loud roar justified their own inherent feelings of superiority.

Although Sarah Winnemucca views the overall attitude of white emigration as the roaring lion of Manifest Destiny, she recognizes that not all whites are the same and not all share this ideal of exceptionalism and superiority. Interestingly Winnemucca maintains that the army soldiers “know more about the Indians than any citizens do, and are always friendly.”[3] The citizens and government agents whom Winnemucca has encountered in her lifetime have followed the tenets of Manifest Destiny much more closely than the soldiers in assessing their exceptionalism. Winnemucca has the benefit of a firsthand assessment of these attitudes as she worked an interpreter and intermediary for tribes in communicating with the US Army, government agents, and other tribes.[4] This close association may, however, cause some bias in her assessment of white attitudes in this autobiography.

In her narrative, Winnemucca frequently describes how attitudes of Manifest Destiny and downright racism have plagued the Indians in their relationship with white settlers. In one example she describes how two white traders kidnapped two twelve-year-old Indian girls, and they later were found in the traders’ cabin “lying on a little bed with their mouth tied up with rags.”[5] Tribal members proceeded to kill the two traders, which resulted in a war with the local settlers because according to local whites, “the bloodthirsty savages had murdered two innocent, hard-working, industrious, kind-hearted settlers.”[6] The local white community was clearly composed of believers in the exceptionalism of Manifest Destiny and saw their own kind as incapable of committing such atrocities. They conveniently blamed the Indians for their alleged savagery. In this society white citizens were largely unable to see beyond the confines of Manifest Destiny, and they were unable or unwilling to seek the truth.

Perhaps Sarah Winnemucca is also blinded by a sense of Native American exceptionalism, and maybe she just interprets events differently from her white neighbors and exaggerates the allegedly poor treatment by whites. This is less likely, though, because other Indians from different regions such as Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce write about similar maltreatment by white settlers. His account will be discussed later in this essay.

Harriet Loughary, an overland journeyer from Iowa, exemplifies the white settler that Winnemucca is describing. Loughary’s diary of her overland expedition from Iowa to Oregon in 1864 with her family is riddled with references to “hostile savages.” Because this was meant to be a personal diary, the narrative provides a useful look into the psyche of a white traveler in the mid-nineteenth century. Loughary’s condescending views of Indians and her assumptions of white exceptionalism are quite evident by the end of her narrative.

Loughary starts off early on describing one group of Indians as a “hideous, half naked lot of men, women and children,”[7] and her opinion remains virtually unchanged as she travels across the West. She is constantly worried about Indians even when they are making “signs of peace. Of course they are always pleading for peace, when they are not committing depredations.”[8] Loughary deeply distrusts the unfamiliar Native Americans she encounters and generally considers them as potential thieves and murderers who will take everything from you as soon as you let your guard down as exemplified in this quote. Loughary implies that this nuisance to Manifest Destiny should be eliminated just as criminals should be jailed.

Although Harriet Loughary encountered relatively few problems with the Indians that she encounters, she still asserts near the end of the trip that “we have found that all the harmless Indians so far are the dead ones.”[9] This passage sums up the bad aspects of Manifest Destiny, namely the overt racism that characterized relations between whites and Native Americans in the American West. In this statement Loughary is essentially justifying any future genocide of Native Americans. Ironically, two days after Loughary writes this, a member of her party kills an Indian while hunting, and the death is automatically deemed accidental. If the man were white, it would probably have been ruled a murder. Cleary there is something exceptional about this group of Euro-Americans and their perception of destiny.

Even though Harriet Loughary implies that Native Americans are a dangerous inconvenience to Manifest Destiny, she does not hold Indians as solely responsible for their actions. Loughary claims that “white men who were living with squaw wives; men who have escaped from justice in some form [are responsible for] most of the terrible massacres committed by the Indians, while they hide among the women and children.”[10] Loughary puts the blame for slowing of Manifest Destiny on corrupted white people in this quote. Indeed it makes sense for a proponent of Manifest Destiny to claim that the only roadblocks to white domination of the continent are white people themselves. After all who else could possibly halt this unique march to the Pacific?

At one point Loughary even blames the white men for a supposed burglary committed by Indians. She claims that “doubtless a white man had planned it as the Indians would not know that Greenbacks were valuable.”[11] Harriet Loughary implies that Indians lack the intelligence to know that dollar bills are valuable, and therefore whites must once again be behind the robbery. By downplaying the role and aptitude of the “other” in her discussion of Manifest Destiny, Loughary is once again hoping to legitimatize her own view of white supremacy and exceptionalism.

Chief Joseph and his constituents were prime recipients of this racist exceptionalism. Joseph, known as In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat (Thunder traveling over the Mountains), was a famous Nez Perce chief in the late 1800s. He was born in Oregon, and his father was known as Chief Joseph as well. Joseph describes the devastating effects of Manifest Destiny in “An Indian’s Views of Indian Affairs,” an article in the North American Review in April 1879. Certainly this article is aimed at a predominantly white audience, yet regardless it is extremely critical of United States policy towards Native Americans. If this article was toned down for the white audience, it easy imagine that the actual rage and sorrow of the Nez Perce was many times greater than whites even realized.

Chief Joseph describes how this animosity developed over the course of a century of Nez Perce interactions with whites. At first the Nez Perce eagerly traded with Europeans and befriended “Lewis and Clarke, and agreed to let them pass through their country, and never to make war on white men.”[12] These peaceful early relations were bound to change as more whites moved into Nez Perce lands. As white attitudes of exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny became more prevalent, Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce saw that many “white men were growing rich very fast, and were greedy to possess everything the Indian had.”[13] Whites’ greed and desire to take Nez Perce lands were rationalized by dehumanizing Native Americans in order to justify the frequent plundering.

Chief Joseph makes a point of humanizing the Nez Perce in his essay in order to combat racial stereotypes and white exceptionalism. He discusses Indian laws, which largely parallel stereotypical Christian values, claiming that:

Our fathers gave us many laws, which they learned from their fathers. These laws were good. They told us to treat all men as they treated us; that we should never be the first to break a bargain; that it was a disgrace to tell a lie; that we should speak only that truth; that it was a shame for one man to take from another his wife or his property without paying for it. We were taught to believe that the Great Spirit sees and hears everything, and that he never for gets; that hereafter he will give every man a spirit-home according to his desserts: if he has been a good man, he will have a good home; if he has been a bad man, he will have a bad home. This I believe, and all my people believe the same.[14]

These basic moral tenets, which Chief Joseph outlines, are important in gaining acceptance among the Victorian readership of North American Review. To dispel the savage stereotype, Joseph focuses on actual Nez Perce beliefs in honesty, justice, God, and heaven. He seeks to find commonalities with the white Americans instead of stressing differences. Through humanizing his people, Joseph makes the attacks against the Nez Perce seem all the worse.

These numerous attacks started when whites streamed onto Indian lands in search of gold, breaking an 1863 treaty with the Nez Perce. Eventually Joseph and his followers were forced out of their homeland against their will, and ordered onto reservations because of this white greed. Instead on simply complying, the Nez Perce decided to fight. After being pursued by the army for over 1000 miles, Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce were forced to surrender in the fall of 1877. On October 11, 1877, the New York Times reported on the “Surrender of Chief Joseph”, maintaining that Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce:

…deserve the treatment of foes, not of felons. By refraining from scalping and mutilation, by their frequent release of women and children, and sometimes even of unarmed citizens, they have set an example in Indian warfare which should earn them consideration. If they have inflicted terrible losses on our troops, it was in a war for their homes and what they believed to be their rights. We rejoice that this slaughter is over; but the fate of Joseph and his Nez Perces should not be that of Capt. Jack and Modoes.[15]

This article stops short of recognizing the legitimacy of the Nez Perce’s complaints and instead merely asserts that the combatants are noble savages and should not be executed. The piece simply reassures Americans that they are indeed fighting a worthy opponent and not persecuting innocents. The piece fails to completely condemn the sense of Manifest Destiny, exceptionalism and greed that led to the war with the Nez Perce.

Chief Joseph on the other hand strongly denounces these characteristics in his essay. Joseph tells army officials that “I do not believe that the Great Spirit Chief gave one kind of men the right to tell another kind of men what they must do.”[16] Joseph disagrees with white claims of any inherent superiority or exceptionalism. It is obvious through their actions that white settlers and officials disagreed with him. Many probably believed that it was their God given right to force Indians from their land and take it for themselves.

Joseph was not asking for special treatment for his people, but only “to be treated as all other men are treated” and not to be “treated as outlaws and driven from country to country or shot down like animals”[17] Chief Joseph was unsuccessful in his plight to gain this equal treatment. Eventually after his surrender, Joseph and his group were sent to reservations in Kansas and then Oklahoma where the conditions were horrendous. After lobbying the President and Congress for a better area to live, Joseph leaves off his narrative discouraged and disgusted with the American attitudes of Manifest Destiny. In the last paragraph of his essay Chief Joseph claims, “whenever the white man treats an Indian as they treat each other, then we will have no more wars.”[18] Joseph clearly recognizes Manifest Destiny as the predominant white attitude of the era, yet he does not believe that its tenets are legitimate, and he realizes it will be a lengthy process to reverse these white exceptionalist beliefs.

Although Chief Joseph spent much time contemplating the motives behind Manifest Destiny, average white settlers such as Hugh Brown Heiskell seem to barely have pondered the legitimacy of this belief at all. Heiskell was too busy fulfilling the prophecy of Manifest Destiny to sit down and dissect his own beliefs (at least on paper). Heiskell was one of the original forty-niners that went West to seek gold in 1849.[19] He kept a diary of his overland journey to from Tennessee to California in which he describes interactions with Indians as well as numerous other observations of life on the western frontier.

It is interesting how Hugh’s descriptions of the Indians he encounters over the course of the journey vary quite a bit. Heiskell stereotypes no generic Native American. Instead he describes the various tribes, occupations, and attitudes of the Indians he encounters. Near the Green River, Heiskell encounters Snake Indians who “fear the emigrants, and they are anyhow peaceably disposed and would not injure us.”[20] This peaceable disposition seems to be common among nearly all of the Indians that Hugh Heiskell encounters. Although some members of the group worry about livestock being stolen by Indians, for the most part these fears never materialize. At one point members of his group wondered why their horses ran off at night, and “the uninitiated thought the Indians had done it & that the horses were lost.”[21] However the horses “were nearby feeding in excellent grass.”[22] It is easy to imagine slight misunderstandings such as this resulting in hostilities between Indians and white settlers.

Fortunately Heiskell’s group avoids conflict with almost all of the Indians they encounter throughout the trip, and instead of being a menace to be eliminated, most of the Indians were actually quite helpful to the travelers. Sometimes Heiskell’s “camp was filled all day with Indians, ready to do anything you wished them, provided you gave them some…beads.”[23] At other points along the journey there were Indians who would trade “blankets for buffalo robes, powder & lead or tobacco for deer skins, lariats.”[24] Cleary most of the encounters with the Native Americans were of a positive nature. One malevolent encounter did, however, occur. On this occasion “the Indians shot an arrow into John.”[25] John was a friend of Hugh and luckily for him his wounds were not mortal. This incident seems to be an anomaly on the trip rather than the norm, as no other attacks on the wagon train occurred according to the diary.

Even though most of experiences with the Indians seemed to be of a positive nature, there is evidence in the diary that Heiskell felt superior to many of the Native Americans he encounters. This exceptionalist attitude is seen when he refers to some friendly Indians as “savages,”[26] and also when he discusses the marriage of an old friend to an Indian woman. Heiskell sympathetically points out that his friend “has an Indian wife who he is now trying to get clear of, as the country is settling with whites, but she clings to him.”[27] From this statement it is apparent that Heiskell and his friend do not view this marriage as legitimate, and the Indian wife is essentially just a bothersome concubine, not the equal of a white wife. Heiskell also comes across Indians that have much “money, which they do not know the value of,”[28] and another who is a “poor miserable specimen of humanity, miserably dirty, with a shirt of fox skins.”[29] Whether rich or poor Hugh Heiskell stares down, rather condescendingly, on most of the Indians he meets, viewing the rich as ignorant and the poor as miserable and dirty.

At least from a modern perspective, Heiskell appears to be rather racist in many of his comments. In the mid-nineteenth though, Hugh Heiskell may have actually been fairly progressive, as he observes that Indians “are not to be cheated as they were many years ago.”[30] Recognition of past injustices is more than many settlers could claim at the time, but perhaps Heiskell is simply regretting missed opportunities that he can longer capitalize upon, instead of recognizing past abuse. Even if Hugh Heiskell recognized some abuses against the Indians, he may very well have felt that settlers were justified in staking claims upon Indian lands, as presumably he was hoping to do in California. Undoubtedly Heiskell felt some degree of superiority to his Native American counterparts. The overall attitude of white supremacy and Indian inferiority is a major component of Manifest Destiny, and although Heiskell may not have been aware of the exact principle, he certainly is working within the paradigm with these exceptionalist attitudes.

Although Hugh Heiskell’s interactions with Indians are extremely interesting to analyze, they are but a small part of his overall narrative. The most predominant theme in his diary seems to be one of materialism and the pursuit of wealth. Hugh is constantly assessing the value of objects he observes, and he often focuses on inventories and trade in his diary rather than emotions. The overall objective of his journey was to reach California where he could start mining for gold in hope of becoming fabulously wealthy. Along the trek Heiskell hears reports of basic goods such as food being extremely expensive in California, and he is concerned that such expenses might cut into his future profits.[31] Even when describing the Native Americans he encounters, Heiskell describes their physical appearance and the particular objects they possess, rather than detailing their attitudes and emotions. For example when comparing the Snake and Sioux Heiskell claims that the Snake are “well off, plenty of clothes—coats, vests, blankets, &c., living in lodges made of buffalo skins—not too large or [as] good as the Sioux, although they appeared better off with horses, skins, & money.”[32] This comparison of cultures is in purely material terms. Later when a member of Heiskell’s group is shot with an arrow Hugh writes a paragraph that describes the workmanship of arrow in great detail.[33] This focus on the material rather than the immaterial is generally representative of Hugh Heiskell’s writing. Ironically Heiskell never found the material wealth he desired because he died shortly after reaching California in 1849 as reported to his family by a letter from a friend.[34] After a long, strenuous journey across the entire country, Hugh Heiskell’s death seems all the more tragic, at least to those people whom he was not supplanting. Although Heiskell was unsuccessful, his dreams of wealth and his underlying sense of Manifest Destiny were typical of the era. Thousands of emigrants must have had this special sense of mission driving them across a continent as they followed Heiskell’s tracks and ultimately settled upon lands formerly occupied by Indians in the West.

Hugh Heiskell and Harriety Loughary’s accounts of crossing the United States in search of economic opportunities seem to be typical white tales from the mid-nineteenth century. Although the flowery academic language of Manifest Destiny would probably seem foreign to these two travelers, they were both essentially providing evidence for this theory. Heiskell and Loughary both viewed Indians rather condescendingly and tended to dehumanize them throughout the course of their journey. This dehumanization sets the stage for settlers’ later ability to supplant Indians that they encounter at their final destination. Although future supplanting is not mentioned as a goal of either Heiskell or Loughary, it is implied that neither would protest against the elimination of what they perceive to be a dramatically inferior race. This is clearly an exceptionalist attitude that labels Heiskell and Loughary as proponents of Manifest Destiny.

Chief Joseph and Sarah Winnemucca are at the opposite end of the spectrum from Hugh Heiskell and Harriet Loughary. They are victims of this white exceptionalism. Joseph and Winnemucca recognize the effects of Manifest Destiny and its detrimental effects on their cultures. To them Manifest Destiny is synonymous with injustice and persecution. Both Chief Joseph and Winnemucca stress the difficulty in communicating with white people who are blinded by their own exceptionalist beliefs. This blindness often allows whites to overlook maltreatment of Native Americans especially if these whites can benefit from a particular injustice. By declaring that Joseph and Winnemucca are savages and by ignoring reasonable arguments, whites that potentially have an economic stake in supplanting native peoples are eager to remove these potential roadblocks and nuisances. It is not surprising that Winnemucca and Chief Joseph put less of the blame on soldiers and more on settlers and government officials. The soldiers are simply carrying out orders and not directly benefiting from the removal of Indians, but the settlers and officials are. The prevalent attitudes of Manifest Destiny and exceptionalism are the truly guilty culprits in the supplanting of Native Americans in the West.

According to these narratives, Manifest Destiny was more realized by Native Americans than whites in the American West. Native Americans were the constant recipients of white feelings of exceptionalism and the supplanting and the extermination that resulted from these attitudes. Whites, on the other hand, tended to view Indians as an afterthought rather than a focal point, as economic opportunities seemed to be the main reason for white emigration and supplanting. Rationalizing the removal of Native Americans was simply the result of whites’ desire for natural resources that Indians possessed. While Indians tended to view whites are equals, whites clearly viewed themselves as inherently superior. Most Native Americans and whites realized that whites held an extremely exceptionalist view of themselves, but they disagreed about the legitimacy of this opinion. People can rationalize anything they have the will to do, and Manifest Destiny is a clear example of this kind of rationalization by white settlers in the West.

[1] Sarah Winnemucca, “Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims,” in Native American Women’s Writing, ed. Karen Kilcup (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2000) p. 131.

[2] Winnemucca, Writing, p. 131.

[3] Winnemucca, Writing, p. 164.

[4] Winnemucca, Writing, p. 129.

[5] Winnemucca, Writing, p. 156.

[6] Winnemucca, Writing, p. 156.

[7] Harriet A. Loughary, “Travels and Incidents,” in Covered Wagon Women, ed. Kenneth Holmes (Spokane WA: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1989), p. 130.

[8] Loughary, Women, p. 132.

[9] Loughary, Women, p. 150.

[10] Loughary, Women, p. 132.

[11] Loughary, Women, p. 137.

[12] Chief Joseph, “An Indian’s Views of Indian Affairs,” in Literature of the American Indian, ed. Thomas Sanders (Toronto, Ontario: Glencoe Press, 1973), p. 296.

[13] Chief Joseph, Literature, p. 296.

[14] Chief Joseph, Literature, pp. 295-296.

[15] “Surrender of Chief Joseph,” New York Times (New York, NY: H.J. Raymond & Co, October 11, 1877) p. 4

[16] Chief Joseph, Literature, p. 300.

[17] Chief Joseph, Literature, p. 310.

[18] Chief Joseph, Literature, p. 310.

[19] Hugh Heiskell, A Forty-niner from Tennessee, ed. Edward Steel (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1998), p. xiv.

[20] Heiskell, Forty-niner, p. 10.

[21] Heiskell, Forty-niner, p. 20.

[22] Heiskell, Forty-niner, p. 20.

[23] Heiskell, Forty-niner, p. 54.

[24] Heiskell, Forty-niner, p. 12.

[25] Heiskell, Forty-niner, p. 74.

[26] Heiskell, Forty-niner, p. 13.

[27] Heiskell, Forty-niner, p. 35.

[28] Heiskell, Forty-niner, p. 13.

[29] Heiskell, Forty-niner, p. 37.

[30] Heiskell, Forty-niner, p. 12.

[31] Heiskell, Forty-niner, p. 82.

[32] Heiskell, Forty-niner, p. 13.

[33] Heiskell, Forty-niner, p. 75.

[34] Heiskell, Forty-niner, p. 86.

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