Durango, Colorado – 2023
“Other nations have tried to check the fulfilment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions”.
It was in 1845 that John Louis O'Sullivan, a popular columnist, articulated the long-standing American belief in the God-given mission of the United States to expand across North America all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In so doing he coined the term “Manifest Destiny”. There was a sense of unbridled purpose. Nothing would get in their way: forests would be cut; mountains carved and railroads built. 60 million bison were culled and replaced by cattle. Native Americans faced an existential crisis.
Some tribes, of course, fought, whilst others negotiated. There was heavy loss of life on both sides and there is irony now that this period of nation building is deeply uncomfortable for many current day Americans. What created the wealthiest country in the world is not something to celebrate. Railroads were an integral part of the Manifest Destiny and undermined the sovereignty of Native nations. Their construction threatened to destroy indigenous communities and their cultures as the railroad expanded into territories inhabited by Native Americans.
But for all that, encounters between steam trains and Native Americans were not necessarily as Hollywood has depicted. There was not much conflict and indigenous people mostly watched the railroad construction with a degree of fascination. Indeed, some found themselves drawn into a closer relationship with settlers because of the commercial opportunities that came with railroad construction. There was collaboration and often Native Americans offered protection from bandits.
19th century artists often depicted Native Americans as passive contextual narrative in railroad images; they are present but only to frame the story, not make the story. They simply establish the scene. This was my intent one cold February morning at Horseshoe Bend on the famous Durango & Silverton Railroad high in the San Jose Mountains. The Native American is not on the bend to attack, he is there simply to proudly show his presence. It is for the viewer to imagine how the next five minutes unfolded.
A great deal of logistical teamwork enabled this opportunity that cold sunny morning and the result is a strong photograph. As always it is a big team effort to create work like this.