Note: Adobe has discontinued Flash Player. For a new version of this lesson, see “American Progress: Analyzing a Portrayal of Manifest Destiny” in Imperial America: U.S. Global Expansion, 1890-1915.


Students will:

  • Understand the concept of a symbol.
  • Analyze a painting’s portrayal of westward expansion.
  • Consider the power of an artistic image to influence an audience’s understanding of historical events.


Analyzing the Portrayal of Westward Expansion

Note: This is an online interactive lesson. It could be done as a whole class, in groups, or as individuals.

1. Focus Question

Write the question “What is a symbol?” on the board. Establish a definition with the class. Can students think of examples of how symbols are used to represent or remember historical events?

2. Getting Started

Direct students to the online activity. Tell students to explore the interactive materials. There are thirteen areas of the painting for exploration. Each area has accompanying questions. Tell students to explore each of the areas and think about the answers to the questions. Tell them to be prepared to discuss these answers with their classmates.

3. Discussing the Painting

Review the specific areas of the painting with the class. Ask students to identify the symbol(s) in each area of the painting.

Challenge students to think about the whole painting.

  • What message did the artist want to convey with this painting?
  • What feeling did the author want the painting to convey? For example, did he want his viewers to feel scared, proud, safe, angry, etc?
  • What story of westward expansion does this image represent? Whose perspectives are represented? Whose perspectives are missing?

4. Making Connections

What power do images have to influence viewers’ perceptions, feelings, and understandings of events? For example, if you were a person in Virginia in 1872 and you saw this image, what would you think westward expansion was like? What feeling do you think this image would evoke if you were an Apache or a Mexican American in 1872? If you were a seventh grade student learning about westward expansion for the first time and you saw this image, what would you think happened when the United States expanded westward?

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZC2-781

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