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What can visual images tell us about the past?

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For most historians (who are not art historians), the answer to this question is, “not much.” They use images only as illustrations in their books and articles—to show the reader what a particular person or place looked like at a particular moment.

This is a mistake; visual images are rich in details that can tell us all kinds of interesting and important things about the past, if we pay attention to their details.

In the nineteenth century, visual images circulated in a number of ways. Urbanites who could afford subscription or entrance fees could see paintings—and by mid-century, daguerreotypes and photographs—exhibited at institutions like the American Art-Union in New York City. But it was a series of technological improvements in the printing of images—woodcutting, lithography and engraving—that truly democratized visual culture. Readers could now access visual images in magazines and newspapers, in books and pamphlets, and in single sheets that they could tack up onto their walls or to peruse at parlor tables.

These developments dovetailed with U.S. government-sponsored and privately funded expeditions to the newly acquired territories west of the Mississippi River; the survey teams often included artists who created visual records of landscapes, human communities, flora, and fauna. The reports that they produced were scientific but also promotional literature, and they often included engraved or lithographed images that were used to convey important messages about this region and its place in the nation.

In 1853, one such expedition brought Carl Schuchard, a German immigrant, miner, and artist, to the desert Southwest. In the preceding years, northern and southern Congressmen had been arguing bitterly about the route of the transcontinental railroad. Southerners—led by Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis—wanted a route along the 32nd parallel, which would connect St. Louis to Los Angeles on a 2,000-mile track through Texas, New Mexico, sections of the territory recently gained in the just-completed Gadsden Purchase, and southern California.

The Texas Western Railroad Company wanted to secure the government contract for building the railroad along the 32nd parallel; in 1853 they sent Andrew Belcher Gray to survey the route and produce a report. Carl Schuchard was in Texas at the time and joined the team as the survey artist.

Gray’s Survey of a Route for the Southern Pacific Railroad on the 32nd Parallel was published by Wrightson’s of Cincinnati in 1856 and included more than 20 lithographs of Schuchard’s sketches.

Included in the report is “Valley and Town of Mesilla, New-Mexico.” The town of Mesilla was the site of a skirmish between Confederate Lieutenant-General John Baylor’s 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles and Union Major Isaac Lynde’s U.S. regulars in July 1861. Baylor won the battle, and several days later forced the surrender of 410 of Lynde’s troops after they attempted to flee through the desert. In August he declared Mesilla the capital of the newly created Confederate Territory of Arizona.

But Schuchard’s sketch predates all of that. So why is it useful to a Civil War historian? For me, “Valley and Town of Mesilla, New-Mexico” illuminates the predominant American vision of this region that informed both the coming of the war and the prosecution of it. To really get at this, though, you have to look at the details.

In many ways, this image is an authentic rendering of Mesilla. The illustration’s central focus is the town’s main street, which extends in a straight line from the foreground into the middle distance of a more rural landscape. The road is dirt and the buildings are made of adobe, with mud and straw roofs. There is a wagon, a corral, and a hayrick, suggesting that Mesilla is a center of both production and trade—which it was, as the county seat of Dona Ana County. The hay is also important because it suggests that Mesilla could produce food for cattle; work animals were absolutely necessary to survival on the long roads that connected towns in this region.

People mill about the street, singly or in groups of two. It is a small town, to be sure. And in 1850, Mesilla was small—the census counted around 600 residents. A line of lush trees (cottonwoods, most likely) marks the middle ground of the image—this probably denotes the Rio Grande, which in the 1850s was east of Mesilla (the river changed course in the 1860s and is now west of Mesilla). A mountain range looms up, hazy, in the distance—the Organ Mountains, a volcanic range that juts up in jagged peaks to the east.

These details also suggest not authenticity but a more deliberate shaping of views about Mesilla and the entirety of the Southwest in the American imagination.

It is notable that Schuchard chose to depict Mesilla’s main road from this vantage point. The viewer is standing on one edge of the town’s plaza, a “townscape” that characterizes Spanish colonial and Mexican towns in this region, and the site around which all of the town’s civic and business life revolves. As Daniel Arreola has argued, plazas are “symbolic social forms” that suggest a strong Mexican ethnic identity. In 1860, there were many businesses on Mesilla’s “Gran Plaza,” including hotels, saloons, billiard halls, general stores, and the Overland Mail office. Mesilla’s plaza also served as a kind of defensive bulwark; the residents could gather here to defend themselves from attacks—from Native groups or from Americans.

By erasing the plaza from his sketch of Mesilla, Schuchard wanted to bring the town more in line with American expectations of a “main street”—by this time, the grid held sway in many American towns west of the eastern seaboard. As Schuchard depicts it, this is a town in the process of shedding its Mexican past and embracing its new American identity. The entire vibe of the image is non-threatening; this town looks like a sleepy hamlet in the middle of a desert, amenable to absorption into the American landscape.

In his sketch of Mesilla and others in the survey report, Schuchard was creating a vision of the desert Southwest for Anglo Americans, confirming , (as John O’Sullivan put it in 1845) the nation’s “manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” The United States would encounter no opposition to the expansion of its empire in this region, through the military, through Anglo settlement and cultivation, and through transportation networks that would connect East and West—the southern route of the transcontinental railroad.

It was these ideas that convinced Jefferson Davis—increasingly in the 1850s and then as President of the Confederate States of America—that the desert Southwest was the key to the new nation’s goals. And so he sent John Baylor up the Rio Grande to secure New Mexico Territory—and the rest of the West—for the Confederacy. Nineteenth-century visual images, then, had power to move people to action, to convert ideas into policy. And we can see this, if we just look a little more closely.


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The Journal of American History, Vol. 81, No. 4 (Mar., 1995), pp. 1534-1561
Oxford University Press on behalf of Organization of American Historians
Modern Art, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Summer, 1896), pp. 82-86
Thomas J. Watson Library, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Mar., 1942), pp. 56-62
Oregon Historical Society
Geographical Review, Vol. 82, No. 1 (Jan., 1992), pp. 56-73
American Geographical Society