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  • A Temporary Taming of the Wild WestThe Events of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898
  • Abby Whalen (bio)
Key Words

African Americans, American Indians, American West, Buffalo Bill, women

The white buildings emblazoned with thousands of lights that brightened a nighttime walk around a lagoon did not resemble the images of the frontier presented by dime novels. Organizers of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition carefully reconstructed the grandeur of the Chicago World’s Fair and other events which epitomized the advancement of society in the closing years of the nineteenth century. Within a breath of Frederick Jackson Turner announcing the end of savagery and the triumph of civilization closing the frontier, the planning of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition detailed the evidence to support Turner’s views. A closer look at those buildings noted their temporary status, as the entire event only managed to temporarily hide the truth of the difference between life in the cosmopolitan cities and life on the edge of the Great Plains.

The opening of the middle of the present-day United States to settlers seeking to go to the frontier West shifted the dynamics of the country. During the initial stages of western expansion and subsequent migration into the Great Plains, many people assumed that the lands would never produce. In fact, the Plains erroneously gained the title of the Great American Desert. Harvest seasons would soon prove the doubters wrong. In 1854 people received official governmental approval to settle in the newly formed Nebraska Territory, although illegal squatting had occurred for decades. Within a generation, Nebraska had proven itself capable of enormous manufacturing and agricultural production.1 Residents of the region sought to demonstrate their prowess to those not fully willing to believe statistics. The opportunity to display the characteristics intrinsic to Nebraskans and Plains-state residents—productivity, morality, and a fondness for amusement—arrived [End Page 187] in the form of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition.

The latent displays had little to do with agriculture, machinery, or buildings, but instead focused on the societal changes of the region. If the Omaha Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition represented the closing of the frontier, the new West did not manage to shut out every unique societal aspect of the former cultural norms. Socially, the exposition subverted the political powers of people of color and treated them as akin to the rides and sideshows while attempting to neglect the growing political power of women. The fair indicated the United States military’s rise to international power while also reciting an epitaph for Native Americans. While the white settlers had claimed most of the land and effectively closed the frontier of real-estate opportunities, the region did not abruptly adopt all aspects of the Euro-American version of civilization promoted on the East Coast. The Wild West show that fair attendees could pay to attend represented a tamed false version of the real issues presented by the transition to new cultural, economic, and political norms in the region and the United States as a whole.

The Trans-Mississippi Congress

The nature of an exposition appealed to the ambitions of members of the Trans-Mississippi Congress. Cities across the world used world’s fairs and expositions to promote different aspects of their history, culture, and technological developments to groups of people not necessarily aware of that city’s capabilities. World’s fairs brought innovations to the general population, including the Eiffel Tower from the Paris World’s Fair of 1889 and the Ferris Wheel from the Columbian World’s Fair in Chicago. Once the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition closed its gates in 1898, it had displayed technological advancements of great importance. In his review of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition for Nebraska History, historian Kenneth G. Alfers succinctly explained the necessity of a new exposition following the Columbian World’s Fair when he wrote that “despite the magnificence of its scope and the extravagance of its style, Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 was unable to capture fully all aspects of American life. The West had been ignored and slighted, its people felt, since the exposition emphasized industrial growth then concentrated in...


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pp. 187-205
Launched on MUSE
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