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  • The Sioux War Panorama and American Mythic History
  • John Bell (bio)

A remarkable theatrical production toured newly settled towns of the American midwest in the 1860s and 1870s. John Stevens, a skilled sign painter with an ingenious sense of advertising, would pull onto the main street of town riding a “long, covered sleigh” decorated with large translucent canvases that he had painted to depict lurid and exciting scenes from the spectacle he would present that evening: “The Panorama of the Indian Massacre of 1862 and the Black Hills,” now more commonly known as The Sioux War Panorama. 1 In a schoolhouse, town hall, loft above a general store, or sometimes even a city opera house, Stevens and his assistants would set up a mechanical picture screen: a wooden frame about eight feet wide and seven feet tall, with two horizontal dowels set at the top and bottom, whose rotation was controlled by gears and a handcrank. 2 Rolled up on the bottom dowel, and ready to spool up around the top one, was a piece of canvas six feet wide and 222 feet long. On this Stevens had painted 36 scenes which, in performance, would fill the rectangular frame, one after another. Two oil lamps placed inside the frame made the paintings glow.

Attracted by handbills advertising “The Great Moral Exhibition of the Age!” and “The Most Extraordinary Exhibition in the World!” (fig. 1), an audience of settlers would fill the room. The picture screen stood at the center of the performance space, with Stevens (the narrator) standing on one side and a “crankist” on the other (they were often accompanied by a musician or group of musicians). 3 The performance began: the crankist advanced the canvas roll, image after image, while Stevens recited his “correct” version of events which had occurred only recently and not very far away; his show redefined the 1862 Sioux uprising for the settler audience as an epic [End Page 279] narrative of white innocence, Indian savagery, vulnerable nature, and death. 4 Stevens’s audience was already familiar with the uprising, and probably already believed in the moral ideology with which Stevens’s panorama defined and framed the events. But the occasion of watching Stevens’s performance in the company of other settlers allowed the audience, as a whole, to define what had happened up in the Lake Shetek region as another chapter in a vast American mythic history, a history whose ideological function was to justify white acts of retribution against “Indian savagery.”

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Figure 1.

Playbill for a performance of The Sioux War Panorama at the St. Paul, Minnesota Opera House in 1868, narrated by Captain C. E. Sencerbox.

Performing Cultural Myths

As a series of performed paintings, John Stevens’s Sioux War Panorama drew on the forms and conventions of American landscape painting, as well as a newly invented genre of popular performance, the “moving panorama” to represent the American frontier. 5 Its fervent recreation of the settlers’ triumph over the Sioux uprising of 1862, offers a particularly vivid reiteration of the master narrative known as manifest destiny that was to rationalize the prevailing view of United States history and to justify its will to expansion. 6 Historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who as a child in Portage, Wisconsin, lived within the range of Stevens’s peripatetic performances, argued that the frontier constituted the central element defining United States identity. In his 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” he wrote: “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development” (emphasis added). 7 Turner’s thesis has provoked continual debate in the hundred years since it first appeared, but his characterization of the frontier as a cultural, ideological, and even mythical horizon of American history remains compelling.

The frontier in nineteenth-century America was a highly contested site. It marked a one-sided series of struggles between white settlers and Native Americans, in which the former, who called themselves Americans and their antagonists, “Indians,” decimated the latter with superior military technology and the support of an expansionist government. It was also the...

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pp. 279-299
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