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Art Analysis: American Progress by John Gast, 1872

Use this primary source imagery to analyze major events in history.

 Suggested Sequencing

  • Use this Primary Source activity after students have an understanding of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny to allow them to analyze the different aspects of the painting through the lens of the groups who settled the western parts of the United States.


George Crofutt, a publisher of a popular series of western travel guides, commissioned Brooklyn-based artist John Gast to create “American Progress” in 1872. Crofutt reproduced the painting in his guidebooks; though the image is rich in detail, most Americans would have seen the image at just 12.75 – 16.75 inches. The central female in the image is called Columbia. She is carrying a schoolbook in one hand and a string of telegraph wire in the other. The image has been interpreted to represent the passage of time from left (past) to right (future). Another interpretation is that the entire image is a depiction of the present, with the left representing the West, and the right representing the East. Columbia is moving West and taking the civilization of the East with her, driving off American Indians and bison in the process.Look carefully at the image to determine how you interpret the painting before answering the questions that follow.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Where did Americans encounter this image?
  2. How might the medium in which this image was presented affect its message?

The painting shows a larger-than-life woman in the center with a star on her head and wearing a flowing white garment. She moves from the light-skied east to the dark west, leading white settlers who follow her either on foot or by stagecoach, horseback, Conestoga wagon, wagon train, or riding steam trains. She lays a telegraph wire with one hand and carries a school book in the other. As she moves westward, American Indians and a herd of buffalo are seen fleeing her and the settlers.

Figure 1 American Progress by John Gast, 1872.

Comprehension Questions

  1. (Figure 1) Refer to the provided image. How do each of the following change as the viewer moves from left to right?
    1. The figures depicted
    2. The light
    3. Technologies
  2. (Figure 1) Refer to the provided image. Taken as a whole, do you think Gast had a positive or negative view of westward settlement? Explain.
  3. (Figure 1) What figures in the provided image might have a different view of westward settlement? Explain.

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. (Figure 1) Explain the causes of westward migration present in the provided image.
  2. (Figure 1) Refer to the provided image. Explain how this image hints at cultural cooperation and conflict during westward migration.
  3. (Figure 1) Explain how the provided image shows competition for natural resources affecting relationships between settlers and with American Indians.

American Progress

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