Skip to Main Content

Dr. Amanda Zink

Manifest Destiny, Frontier Fantasy: The Myth of the Old West

By introducing students to the concept of myth-making as it pertains to narratives of the American West, students will be able to note where stories /poems/films reinforce the Myth of the Old West or where they resist, revise, and/or re-narrate it. I will lead the students through these six steps with a Power Point presentation that includes images and definitional text.

1. Students will be asked to define the terms “Manifest Destiny,” “Frontier Fantasy,” and “Myth."

  1. To draw out their prior knowledge of these concepts, I will begin by showing them a projection of John Gast’s 1872 painting, American Progress.
  2. Students will first point out elements of the painting.
  3. Students will then use those elements to begin interpreting the painting.
  4. Students will use these interpretations to show their knowledge of what these terms mean (manifest destiny, frontier fantasy, myth).
  5. Students will use these interpretations to narrate the Myth of the Old West.

2. Students will call out elements of the Myth of the Old West, broken down into basic elements of narrative:

  1. What characters usually populate these stories?
  2. Where are these stories usually set?
  3. What is the typical plot?

3. Students will examine those elements, and together we will work towards

  1. These stories often rely on racial and gender stereotypes
  2. These stories often exclude women and minorities (except for the use of Native Americans as characters)

4. I will then introduce a very abbreviated timeline to show students how this myth became organized and reified:

  1. Exploration and Conquest (1492-1776)
  2. Jackson’s Indian Removal Act (1830)
  3. O’Sullivan’s Coining of “Manifest Destiny” (1839)
  4. Lincoln’s Homestead Act (1862)
  5. The Dawes Act (1887)
  6. Turner’s Frontier Thesis (1893)

5. After another brief discussion of Lewis and Clark’s mapping, we will discuss the complexities of “real” histories of the American West, drawing attention to

  1. Race and Cultural Relations
  2. Gender Roles
  3. Who are the “bad guys” anyway?

6. Students will then receive a copy of Sherman Alexie’s satirical poem, “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel” to discuss the question of Alexie’s response to the Myth of the Old West:

  1. Is Alexie reinforcing the myth?
  2. Is he resisting or revising the myth?
  3. What literary devices is he using to make his points?
  4. What are his points?
  5. How do we know?

State Standards

These presentations meet the following state education standards for high school students:

English Language Arts

Key Ideas and Details

RL.11-12.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

RL.11-12.2 Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.


Craft and Structure

RL.11-12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or powerful language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.)

RL.11-12.5 Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

RL.11-12.6 Analyze a case in which grasping point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).


Social Studies

U.S. History II

9-12.USH2.1.1.1 Analyze ways in which language, literature, the arts, traditions, beliefs, values, and behavior patterns of diverse cultures have enriched American society.

9-12.USH2.1.5.1 Analyze the causes and effects of the expansion of the United States.