Migration and settlement

Emigration, immigration, and migration — and the American story.

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The place you ought to be

Essay by Dr. Bryan Zygmont

The fabric of American cultural life was forever changed precisely at 9PM (Eastern Standard Time) on the 26th of September 1962, for it was at this time that the banjo-laced theme song of The Beverly Hillbillies first aired. An instant run-away hit—it was the top-rated television series in 1962 and again in 1963—The Beverly Hillbillies ran for 274 episodes and each began with the theme song that framed the show as one that pivoted around the idea of migration and the cultural shock that ensued.

Beverly Hillbillies TV program ©rights ownerCome and listen to my story about a man named Jed
A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,
And then one day he was shooting at some food,
And up through the ground come a bubbling crude.
Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea.
Well the first thing you know old Jed’s a millionaire,
The kinfolk said “Jed move away from there”
Said “California is the place you ought to be”
So they loaded up the truck and they moved to Beverly
Hills, that is. Swimming pools, movie stars.

Emigration, immigration, and migration

This song—and the popular television show more broadly—underscores a recurring theme in the history of the United States, that of emigration, immigration, and migration. People were here; people came here; people moved around here. The history of the United States is a long and continuous tale of movement.

To begin, we must first pay particular attention to terminology, for although they sounds alike, these three terms—emigration, immigration, and migration—are distinct from one another. To emigrate means to permanently exit one’s home country to relocate into another. The verb immigrate involves the act of entering another country in order to permanently reside there. To migrate generally refers to movement within the same country. To put it more simply. You emigrate from a country, you immigrate into a country, and you migrate within a country.

American history and mythology

To be certain, the North American continent was populated long before it was “discovered” by exploitive European explorers. But over the past 500 years or so, the history of the American colonies—and later the United States—is one that increasingly involved both immigration and migration. This important narrative was commonly depicted within American art, both as a way of establishing the mythology of the (European) beginnings of America and as a way of commenting on the shifting demographics of the American people.

United States Capitol, Washington, D.C. Rotunda, section http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.23681

United States Capitol, Washington, D.C. Rotunda, section

It is important to note, however, that while these historical images often depict a once accepted perspective, that outlook is often at odds with the historical events they purport to depict. A great example of this is De Soto Raising the Cross on the Banks of the Mississippi (1851). Peter Frederick Rothermel painted this small-scale composition as a study for a much larger painting the artist hoped would eventually be placed in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol which had become a kind of fine arts museum for the American public.

Hernando de Soto was a Spanish conquistador who arrived in what is now the state of Florida in May 1539 with nine ships, at least 600 men, and in excess of 200 horses. In the three years that followed—that is, from May 1539 until de Soto’s death on the western bank of the Mississippi River in May 1542—de Soto led the first European exploration of what is now the United States. However, if the goal of the expedition was to found colonies or to find gold, the adventure was an unquestionable failure.


Peter Frederick Rothermel, De Soto Raising the Cross on the Banks of the Mississippi, 1851, oil on canvas, 101.6 x 127 cm (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, funds provided by the Henry C. Gibson Fund and Mrs. Elliott R. Detchon, 1987.31)

Peter Frederick Rothermel, De Soto Raising the Cross on the Banks of the Mississippi, 1851, oil on canvas, 101.6 x 127 cm (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, funds provided by the Henry C. Gibson Fund and Mrs. Elliott R. Detchon, 1987.31)

What de Soto did accomplish, however, was to introduce European brutality and disease to the indigenous people of the New World. And yet this historical truth is obscured in Rothermel’s painting. In it, de Soto, can be seen standing in the lower left corner, his armed crossed over his chest and his dagger sheathed (but visible) in his belt. He is on the periphery of the painting. The compositional focus is instead on the robed Catholic priest just to the left of center. His arms are spread as if in a gesture of prayer, and he looks upward towards the enormous wooden cross that is being raised on the right side of the painting. This is a scene that suggests the peaceful introduction of Catholicism to the New World. The Native Americans in the scene kneel in supplication or in reverence, and the Spaniards appear as men of profound faith.

Although never placed in the Capitol Rotunda (the commission eventually went to William H. Powell who painted The Discovery of the Mississippi by de Soto in 1853) Rothermel’s painting clearly speaks about a sanitized mythological beginning of the “civilization” of the North American continent. Europeans, this painting suggests, peacefully brought only an awareness of Jesus Christ, and not genocide and mayhem.

Envisioning “manifest destiny”

If De Soto Raising the Cross on the Banks of the Mississippi depicts the arrival of Europeans and a land they sought dominion over, then Emanuel Leutze’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1861), completed but a decade later, shows the migratory movement of (white) Americans from one part of the United States to another. Like Rothermel’s earlier painting, the Leutze work in the Smithsonian American Art Museum is a small-scale study for an enormous 600-square-foot composition that was installed in the United States Capitol (although not in the Rotunda) the following year.

Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (mural study for the United States Capitol), 1861, oil on canvas, 33-1/4 x 43-3/8 inches (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

As products of the middle part of the nineteenth century, it is only logical that Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way is in dialogue with the historical moment in which Leutze painted it. Indeed, this composition is not only about the Westward Course of Empire—that is, the progression of European, and European-descended Americans from the Eastern seaboard (where they had been) to the Pacific Ocean—it also indicates that this migration was divinely ordered. The phrases for this commonly held conceit—Manifest Destiny—suggests both the inevitable nature of this westward migration and the notion that it was somehow sanctified by a higher power. It was thought during the middle decades of the nineteenth century that it was the obligation and duty of the United States and her citizens to both inhabit and make productive the entire North American continent.

The migration of the settlers in Leutze’s composition is from right to left, that is, from East to West. Two figures—one standing, another still climbing—appear on a rocky outcropping in the middle of the painting, and the wagon train of pioneers can be seen near the right most edge. This caravan approaches the edge of the picture plain in the central part of the painting, before moving backwards into space on the left. If the right side looks foreboding and dark—notice the darker hues and the ominous if not entirely believable snow-capped mountain peaks—then the left side of the painting appears warm and inviting, as if bathed in a golden and heavenly light welcoming these people to the Promised Land.

And while their destination might be holy, their path has been exceedingly difficult. Leutze has given the viewer a panoply of humanity; both men and women, and the young, the elderly, and the deceased. What appears to be a shrouded corpse surrounded by mourners is visible on the right side of the painting, and the pickaxe and shovel suggest that the body is set to be lowered into the recently dug grave. The Latin cross immediately above the body suggests the faithfulness of the deceased. Nearby we see a broken wagon wheel and animal skeleton—a horse? an ox?—both indicate the peril these weary travelers have endured on their journey. Several men struggle to push the covered wagons over the treacherous pass, and at least one man, just right of center on the lower edge of the painting—has a bloodied and bandaged head. Two men on the left actively chop down trees to clear the path for the wagons that follow, and at least seven figures in the foreground hold a rifle with varying levels of readiness. But the end of the road is in sight, for the man on horseback on the left side of the painting gestures towards the distant horizon. The Pacific Ocean is in view. To further make this point, Leutze shows the Golden Gate near what is now San Francisco, California on the predella panel at the bottom of the composition.

The “stickiness” of truth

The concept of ‘truth’ in art is a sticky one. On the one hand, we can accept that the very arrangement of Leutze’s painting suggests an underlying truth, an underlying truth that is likewise reaffirmed by Jed Clampett moving his family in The Beverly Hillbillies: people generally migrate (or, for that matter, immigrate) in search of a better life (although it is important to note that this may not always be to California). But as products of the mid-nineteenth century, both Leutze and Rothermel took a certain artistic license, and their compositions are creations of considerable artistic skill.

When people view photographs, however, there is often a greater expectation of truth, even if that belief is somewhat misguided. For even in a photograph, the capturer of the image is responsible for a myriad of design decisions that can fundamentally alter the ways in which an image might be interpreted. This is certainly true of Alfred Stieglitz’s 1907 masterpiece The Steerage and Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936). Interestingly, although created nearly thirty years apart, both of the photographs—perhaps amongst the most famous in the history of American art—interact with and comment upon migration and immigration in the United States.

Photographing emigration/immigration

Sometimes art historians interpret a work of art differently than the artist who made it. This is true of Stieglitz’s The Steerage. Certainly, one could discuss this picture under formal terms. The photograph is vertical in format, and the photographer has captured two distinct bands of people. A more well-dressed group can be seen on the observation deck above while a more humbly dressed group can be seen underneath. A gangplank crosses from the left edge to just short of the right side of the picture, and a hint of a staircase can be seen on the right edge. Several members of the steerage class—the most economical category of travel for steamer travel and that which had the fewest amenities—can be seen standing on the first several steps of this staircase. For the photographer, this work of art was, in part, an exercise in design and form. Writing in 1942, Stieglitz explained, “I saw a picture of shapes and underlying that the feeling I had about life.”

Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage, 1907, photogravure, 33.5cm x 26.4cm (LACMA)

Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage, 1907, photogravure, 33.5cm x 26.4cm (LACMA)

Although this image has commonly been interpreted to be a depiction of people arriving into the United States, we know it instead shows people departing from the United States. In June 1907, Alfred Stieglitz was a first-class passenger on the SS Kaiser Wilhelm II, which departed New York City and was bound for Bremen, Germany. It is uncertain who exactly is present in the photograph, but the steerage class would have likely included both immigrants who were refused entry through the immigration and inspection station at Ellis Island, and skilled laborers who were returning to their home country after the expiration of their work visas. In his attempt at capturing shapes and feelings about life, Stieglitz also succeeded in capturing a truth about the experience of people entering and exiting the United States in the early twentieth century.

The Great Depression

Dorothea Lange had a different goal. Born in New Jersey and educated at Columbia University in the heart of New York City, Lange set off on a kind of world tour in 1918. She and her companion made it as far as California—again, California!—before a robbery cut short their globetrotting adventure. Having studied photography in college, Lange found employment in a photographic supply shop in San Francisco. Several years later she was operating a successful photographic portrait studio, and snapping the likenesses of the social and economic elite of Northern California occupied her for the next fifteen years.

In the meantime, the Great Depression hit. Historian quibble about the precise moment when the Great Depression began, but the crash of the stock market that occurred between Thursday 24 October and Tuesday 29 October 1929 is generally regarded as the catalyst. In the years that followed, personal income plummeted, tax revenue diminished, international trade and heavy industry collapsed, and unemployment skyrocketed. In the United States, for example, unemployment hit 25%, a catastrophic figure, to be certain, and a number exceeded in many other countries.

Although the Great Depression had a profound affect upon cities, rural and farming communities were also particularly hard hit. When crop prices fell, so too did the salaries the owners of the farms paid those who worked them. To make matters worse for the American farming community, three great droughts—now called the Dust Bowl—ravished the American prairies between 1934 and 1940. This not only limited agricultural production for a large part of the American farmland, it also caused a large-scale migration of American farm workers from the drought-stricken parts of the United States to—you guessed it—California.

Dorothea Lange was still in California at the beginning of the Great Depression. Not surprising, the economic turmoil had nearly eliminated the market for portrait photography, and so Lange turned her photographic lens to the depiction of the unemployed and the homeless that surrounded her. This work brought her considerable artistic acclaim, and in 1936 she was hired by the Resettlement Administration—a part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal formed on 1 May 1935—to visually chronicle the relief camps that were built to house the thousands of migratory workers arriving in California during the second half of the 1930s.

Picturing migrant workers

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo California, 1936, printed later, gelatin silver print, 35.24 x 27.78 cm (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo California, 1936, printed later, gelatin silver print, 35.24 x 27.78 cm (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Migrant Mother is not only one of the most famous photographs in the history of American art, is one of the defining images of the Great Depression. This is a more complicated image than a first glance might reveal. Although it has come to be known only as Migrant Mother, a fuller title—which the Library of Congress uses—is “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven Children. Age thirty-two.” The subject—Florence Owens Thompson—was born in 1903 in Indian Territory, what is now Oklahoma; her mother and father were of Native American descent. The subject was an Okie, a derogatory term Californians used for the migrant workers from drought-ravaged Oklahoma. She sits, her left hand raised to her left cheek. She looks forlornly to the distance, a distraught look on the face that appears far older than its 32 years would suggest. Two small children turn away, their ages and genders unknown. Only on a closer inspection do we see the third child—an infant—resting on the mother’s lap. It is an image that nearly overwhelms the viewer with pathos of that sadness and poverty that was a familiar to so many migrant workers during the Great Depression.

Forced migration

The acts of migration and immigration are commonly undertaken to find a better life; if one is content, one generally stays where they are. But sometimes migration is not voluntary. In fact, the United States has a regrettable history of forcing large groups of Americans to migrate against their wills to a foreign—even if domestic—land. The interment of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 could be considered a kind of forced migration. So too could the forced relocation of Native Americans by people of Europeans descent over the past four centuries. One of the more egregious of these forced migrations was the result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which brought about the removal of thousands of members of the Cherokee (1838), Chickasaw (1837), Choctaw (1831), Creek (1834), and Seminole (1832) Nations from what is now the American South to modern-day Oklahoma. The name of the path they took to Oklahoma—The Trail of Tears—gives some indication of the desperation experienced on this involuntary journey.

Native Hosts

This forced migration and its long-term ramifications are one of the themes present in Edgar Heap of Birds’ site-specific series on the grounds of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Native Hosts. The artist’s works appear as signs one might expect to see along an interstate highway. On a white field—and only with some reflection and concentration—one can see a mirrored-version of the word ARKANSAS in all-capitol blue letters at the top of the sign. Underneath that—in the same vibrant azure hue and font “TODAY YOUR HOST IS CADDO” can be read in three cascading layers of text. The subsequent six signs feature the exact message and typography, but with a final concluding word: Chickasaw, Koroa, Osage, Quapaw, Tunica, and Hestaneheo’o. The first five of these are the names of Indian nations native to the land of Arkansas and the final word, Hestaneheo’o is a Cheyenne word for all native peoples.

Hock E Aye VI Edgar Heap of Birds, Native Hosts (Arkansas), 2018, aluminum sign, series of seven, 46.7 x 92.5 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, ©Hock E Aye VI Edgar Heap of Birds)

Hock E Aye VI Edgar Heap of Birds, Native Hosts (Arkansas), 2018, aluminum sign, series of seven, 46.7 x 92.5 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, ©Hock E Aye VI Edgar Heap of Birds)

Upon first notice, a museum goer may not immediately understand why the word Arkansas is shown as if in a mirror, and they might also be unfamiliar with the word Caddo. But as the visit on the ground continues and more recognizable names appear—Chickasaw, Osage, Quapaw—a kind of awareness arises that the artist is speaking of groups of Native Americans. Visitors are then caused to pause over the deliberate use of verb tense. Edgar Heap of Birds does use the past tense (was); he utilizes the present tense (is). This suggests that the hosts are present, seen or not. Moreover, there is a profound kind of agency in the act of hosting, for to host seems to suggest the presence of guests. Guests are invited, they stay for a while, and then they leave. Hosts remain long after the guests have departed. In creating this work, Edgar Heap of Birds subtly (but powerfully) suggests that the native peoples of Arkansas still hold rightful claim despite the arrival of (the non-native) people who have migrated to visit.

There is a common refrain today that suggests, “The United States is a country of immigrants.” While this is true—and while immigration and migration have been popular subjects within the history of American art (and literature)—such a refrain seems to negate the important missing clause on the end of that sentence. Indeed, The United States is a country of immigrants, but it is also a country of native peoples who have been involuntarily displaced—or migrated—to other parts of the country. People come here for many different reasons: religious liberty, political asylum, or merely to chase after the American Dream. They likewise may have moved within the country for a variety of purposes: in search of seasonable or permanent work, because the government maliciously wills it, or for swimming pools and movie stars.

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.