Pacific Postcards

Cameron Davidson: How a Drawing of an Empty Beach Defines American Perceptions of the Pacific Coast


In the mid 19th century, as the United States Manifested its Destiny and expanded its borders to the west, the Pacific was the ultimate end goal for many American citizens but especially the American government. The government wanted its borders to stretch from sea to shining sea, and upon incorporating the coastal states into the union, the goal then became to “populate” and “tame” the region. Americans viewed it as a land of opportunity, where anyone could be whatever they wanted to be. Thousands flocked across the country in the 1840’s in pursuit of gold in California, and they were far from the only anglo-Americans to begin to inhabit the region in the 19th century. However, with this vast migration came great loss, as increased American interest in the coast led to further theft of land and resources and atrocities committed against indigenous peoples in order to finance construction and commercialization. A drawing depicting Santa Monica Canyon circa 1870 showcases this perfectly, as the scene of an empty beach that would come to be extensively developed in coming years perfectly encapsulates how Americans viewed the Pacific Coast as an empty and beautiful region where it was their divine right to develop it, despite the history that had already taken place there and the people who inhabited it.

The artist behind this drawing is unknown, but the version we can see today came from a photo of the drawing taken by CC Pierce, a photographer active from 1886 to 1940 whose work includes extensive photos of Los Angeles and the American Southwest. He likely took the picture as a means of documentation and preservation of history, and it's likely that the original artist from around 1870 did the same. In both these cases the artist likely sought to preserve this vision of Santa Monica Canyon for future generations, as the landscape of the area would quickly change. 

The picture itself depicts a nearly completely empty beach. One can see unadulterated cliff faces (still untouched by humans), a clear, calm ocean, and beautiful mountains rising up in the background. This scenery would prompt words like beautiful, natural, scenic, calming, and unaltered to describe. This is the way Americans viewed the Pacific Coast at this point in history. They viewed it as a beautiful, unchanged place of natural beauty and aimed to make it their own. On the beach there are only two signs of human presence: a bathhouse--a long wooden structure-- and about a dozen people on the beach, some in the ocean and some standing on the sand. Aside from this, the scene is completely deserted and devoid of human involvement. The drawing highlights the natural beauty of the region. 

This view of the Pacific as being almost paradisiacal is a frequently held belief among Western explorers at the time, and this is touched on by Joyce Chaplin in her book Pacific Histories: Ocean, Land, People. In the chapter entitled “The Pacific Before Empire, c. 1500-1800”, she describes the attitudes and behaviors of European explorers voyaging into the Pacific in this time period before European powers began establishing empires there. In the chapter, she describes these explorers as being “like ghosts” or as “beachcombers” in that they were mystified by the natural beauty of the region and struggled to implement scientific explanations. While this does differ slightly from American settlers in the west in that they were more familiar with the region, the foreignness and astonishment at the natural beauty of the lands was no doubt a feeling experienced by both of these groups. However, Chaplin goes on to expand on her thesis to say that while Europeans in this time period did not conquer the lands nor build empires (yet), in many ways they did irreversible damage to the natural world through their incursion in the region, which may even outweigh the social damage they inflicted. In a similar way, the new white settlers on the west coast of the United States would go on to permanently alter the landscape they found so beautiful for the purpose of financial gain. 

Looking at modern pictures of this same place really illustrates this change over time more than anything else. They depict the same natural formations, but now the creations of humans dominate the landscape. Along the beach winds a 4 lane highway which separates it from the cliffs. Cliffs and mountains, which, far from the way they were some 130 years ago, are now populated by mcmansions owned by the California elite. The beach itself now features far more than just a lone bathhouse. Instead, it's filled with volleyball courts, lighthouses, lifeguard towers, and piers. Additionally, a row of palm trees now line up and down the coast--palm trees which were not present in a time before this development and which were planted by human hands in order to make the beach more physically appealing. Much has changed on Pacific Beaches in the past 130 years, so that the serenity and simplicity of this drawing, especially when juxtaposed with modern photographs, is nothing but a concept from a bygone era.

The way that outsiders shaped land that didn't belong to them is a theme that pops up frequently throughout history, especially when talking about the history of the pacific, a place where European powers and the United States showed little regard for indigenous peoples and the land that belonged to them when establishing the empires and trade routes. In many ways, this lack of regard exhibited by the newcomers to these regions was driven by capitalism and in pursuit of profits. However, while the American economy grew and the country stretched its borders, the Native peoples who inhabited this land first were subjected to horrific treatment from these American conquerors. 

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Los Angeles basin was inhabited by the Tongva people, which is an umbrella term for the people of as many as 100 villages who once inhabited this area. However, through conquest by Spain, Mexico, and the United States they were gradually assimilated and forced into slavery. By the time that this drawing was drawn, the majority of the inhabitants of the area were now white, anglo-Americans, who moved to California in the hopes of financial gain and escaping their old way of life. Long gone were the Tongva way of life and customs, with even their language albut vanishing by the early 20th century. Thus was the case for countless indigenous groups throughout the Americas and Pacific in this time period. Many of the last Tongva people were arrested and forced into legalized slavery in order to finance the development of the city of Los Angeles and surrounding areas for white Americans. The Tongva were only one of many Native American tribes and indigenous groups who met this fate. A driving reason for this was the American worldview that focused on the pursuit of their own financial endeavors, and saw the beautiful land of North America as exploitable and the people who inhabited it as a roadblock in the way of their “progress”. 

A similar phenomena of American expansionism motivated by capitalist endeavors is explored by author Kariann Akemi Yokota in her book Pacific America. In the chapter titled “Transatlantic and Transpacific Connections in Early American History”, she discusses how the allure of engaging with the large market of China as a potential trading partner prompted the young United States to kick its economic production into overdrive in the early 19th century. American companies scoured across the world in search of valuable commodities like sandalwood, pelts, birds’ nests, ginseng, and sea slugs. This resulted in a great boost to the young nation’s economy, but many moral standards were compromised to obtain these goods. Merchants often cooperated with indigenous peoples in order to obtain the goods, but they did so out of necessity, and often did not fairly compensate these people. Moreover, much in the same vein as the settlers and developers in Santa Monica, they showed no regard for the well being of the natural world. For them, the economic motivator was stronger than any moral standards. The exact same as could be said for many of the white settlers and business people on the pacific coast  In this anecdote, Yokota’s message is that the power and influence that trade with new markets can have is a potent economic incentive, but subtextually she also argues that economic factors can often lead to compromised moral standards, as demonstrated by the United States in this example. The conduct exhibited by these merchants in pursuit of their financial aspirations here is not too dissimilar to that of the settlers in Santa Monica. They did what they believed was necessary to turn a profit, and if the land or its indigenous peoples were negatively impacted, so be it. 

The United States is by no means alone among Western Powers in its lack of regard for the well-being of lands and peoples so long as they could turn a profit and have more land to live on. However, the United States is unique in that unlike European powers who exploited peoples and seized control of land across the sea, far away from their home countries, the land that the United States seized became part of the country, and while they were first kept separate, what remained of indigenous populations were expected to gleefully become American citizens. The colonies that European countries established far away from their homelands eventually declared their independence, but the colonial aspirations of the United States went largely unpunished, as the land that they seized through Manifest Destiny is now firmly American, and that's not likely to change. 

In these ways, the version of history of brave American settlers taking their rightful place on the West Coast that has been so long perpetuated is shown to be a gross mischaracterization of historical events for the purpose of masking wrongdoing. In reality, the rapid development of this region and many others was paved with the blood of indigenous peoples and resulted in irreversible changes to the natural landscape. This all stems from the American ideal at the time that the Pacific Coast was a blank canvas on which to build American aspirations, as though there weren’t already people living there and a beautiful natural world. In the end, what is most important is the understanding of this history and a view of what such a beautiful place looked like before its development offers a unique lens into this. 


Works Cited:

Chaplin, Joyce. Pacific Histories: Ocean, Land, People. Palgrave Macmillin, 2014.  

Yokota, Kariann Akemi. Pacific America: Histories of Transoceanic Crossings. University of Hawai’i Press, 2017. 


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