Faces of the Frontier

Photographic Portraits from the American West, 1845-1924

March 12, 2010 – June 6, 2010

This special exhibition was organized by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery and will feature over 100 portraits representing men and women who explored, fought over, and developed the American West. San Diego History Center is one of only two venues outside of Washington, D.C. hosting this exhibition.

The American West was dramatically remade in the eight decades between the beginning of the Mexican War and the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. This exhibition tells the story of those changes through the photographs of the men and women who helped define this era. Although the history of the trans-Mississippian West is many centuries old, the period beginning with the annexation of Texas in 1845 and the outbreak of war with Mexico in 1846 saw ever-increasing encounters between people of different cultural traditions and circumstances. These individuals played a significant role in the exploration, settlement, and representation of this vast territory.

At the same time, the new visual technology of photography, first introduced in 1839, reshaped the way Americans and others came to understand the West. More than any literary or artistic medium, photography made visible the region’s great natural and human diversity. Although photography often reinforced popular notions, it also presented new ideas about the West—and in the process about America itself.

Four general themes emerge as most significant in understanding the West’s history during this period: land, exploration, discord, and possibilities. From 1845 to 1924 the West was a dynamic crossroads where people of diverse backgrounds and varied intentions encountered each other. Through their words and deeds, they contributed to the wholesale transformation of this region and its identity.

Audio Tour

Listen to the Audio Tour created for the exhibit using your cell phone, or download the tour to listen on your mp3 player. Download the audio tour now!

Lesson Plans for Educators

Interested in using this exhibit as an extension of learning in your classroom or home? Download lesson plans created for this exhibition.


San Diego Union-Tribune: Exhibition puts a face on America’s West