As the museumgoer browses the hard-set visages and unspoiled terrains of the mid-to late-19th and early-20th century American West in the San Diego History Center’s "Faces of the Frontier," kaleidoscopic annals of American history are resurrected. On loan from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, San Diego is this photographic collection’s only West Coast stop on a two-city tour outside the nation’s capital. Running through early June, the archives begin with the 1845 Texas Annexation that helped spark the Mexican War and end with the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. From adventurers, double-crossers and statesmen to conservationists, nativists and industrialists, it’s impossible to dilute these souls into a unifying cast — whether their paths overlapped, diverged or collided.
Photography was born in 1839. Until early photographic forms such as stereographs and daguerreotypes were introduced, Easterners mostly relied on oral and newspaper accounts, in addition to dime novels, to shape their conceptions of the trans-Mississippian West. Charged by the axiom of manifest destiny — that the mere signposts of progress and acquisition were moral justifiers — settlers traced a westward course behind a sun that arced below the frontier horizon.
An intimate space is broken into four thematic categories: Land, Exploration, Discord and Possibilities.
Mexican War figures such as Andrés Pico, commander of Mexico’s colonial military, and Winfield Scott, the U.S. Army’s commanding general, are captured in Land images. Several audio descriptions may be activated through the patron’s cell phone as part of the tour, one of which features Sandra Day O’Connor narrating a brief biographic sketch of Scott — also a close relative. Sam Houston, a pivotal character in Texas’ gritty history, is a noteworthy inclusion.
Railroad barons built networks that linked into transcontinental railroads. As navigable waterways failed to reach the interior and overland trails were treacherous at best, these railway lines were momentous achievements.
Land surveyors were of vital importance in demarcating new American borders as shown in the Exploration section. The burgeoning scientific fields of Native American anthropology and ethnology, among others, were also radically enlarged by pathfinders.
As foreign cultures and peoples began to intermix, in many instances what began with curiosity ended in encroachment, exploitation and bloodshed. Ambition often ruled the day in Discord. Native American warriors such as Geronimo and Sitting Bull clashed with non-natives and former Civil War soldiers such as Nelson Miles and George A. Custer. Defiant to indignities, glowers and off-center gazes unmask a legacy of displacement.
A technological gem of yesteryear is another highlight. Mounted on a tiny table, an antique wooden box allows patrons to view rotatable stereographic slides that reveal 3-D vistas.
Concluding in Possibilities, activism, liberation and reinvention define particular facets of the emergent American identity. Showmen like William F. Cody lent credibility to on-stage depictions of Western personas. Popular revisionists enshrined villains like Jesse James in legend. Meanwhile, the Crow tribe’s Plenty Coups and other proponents of Indian rights, in addition to leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, labored to reform injustices of the era.
Tickets for "Faces of the Frontier: Photographic Portraits from the American West, 1845-1924" are $2-$5. Children under 6 are free. 1649 El Prado, Suite 3, Balboa Park 619-232-6203; sandiegohistory.org