24 Primary Source Images: Conquering the West


Native Americans long dominated the vastness of the American West. Indigenous Americans had lived in North America for over ten millennia and, into the late-nineteenth century, perhaps as many as 250,000 natives still inhabited the American West. But then unending waves of American settlers, the American military, and the unstoppable onrush of American capital conquered all. The United States removed native groups to ever-shrinking reservations, incorporated the West first as territories and then as states, and, for the first time in its history, controlled the enormity of land between the two oceans. The history of the late-nineteenth-century West is many-sided. Tragedy for some, triumph for others, the many intertwined histories of the American West marked a pivotal transformation in the history of the United States. The following sources explore the long American “conquest” of the West.

Tom Torlino, 1882 to 1885

Photograph of Tom Torlino as he entered school on the left. He has dark, tanned skin, long hair, earrings, and is wearing traditional clothing. In the picture on the right, his skin is lighter, he has short hair, is wearing a suit, and looks modernized.
Tom Torlino in 1882 and 1885. Source: Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center.

Tom Torlino, a member of the Navajo Nation, entered the Carlisle Indian School, a Native American boarding school founded by the United States government in 1879, on October 21, 1882 and departed on August 28, 1886. Torlino’s student file contained photographs from 1882 and 1885.

Frances Densmore and Mountain Chief

Frances Desmore sits with a megaphone in the face of Mountain Chief while he wears a traditional headress.
Mountain Chief is interviewed by Frances Desmore. Source: Library of Congress.

American anthropologist and ethnographer Frances Densmore records the Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief in 1916 for the Bureau of American Ethnology.


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