The History of Transcontinental Travel: The Unknown Horizon

American Progress, by John Gast, 1872. Chromolithograph published by George A. Crofutt. Source: Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

By Ryan Price

John Gast was a painter based in Brooklyn when he was commissioned to paint this picture for George Crofutt, a publisher of a popular series of western travel guides. The images Gast put to canvas represent a historical timeline of transportation technologies up until 1872 when the painting was completed. The Indian travois, the covered wagons, Pony Express, overland stage and the three railroad lines are not only progressively pushing one another forward (from East to West) but also driving the indigenous inhabitants — buffalo, bear and Native Americans — almost literally off of the painting. In the wake of this expansion are the tall ships in the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Columbia (a personification of the United States) guides the way, holding a schoolbook in one hand while stringing telegraph wire with the other. The imagery is a vivid and dynamic telling of not only the history of westward expansion but the future of it as well.

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