When most think of slavery and the Civil War in the U.S., they think of the South. However a new exhibit opening April 25 at the Autry Natural Center of the American West, illustrates how multi-faceted and tangled the Western expansion and slavery issues were. Entitled Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West, the Autry museum exhibit shows how complex the saga was.
Using the Autry’s style of telling stories about the American West with voices of people involved to personalize the events, the show looks at the juxtaposition of Westward expansion and the Civil War. The growth of the U.S., starting as early as the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, raised questions about citizenship and slavery that grew with each new territory and state. The objects on display and compelling individual stories take visitors through the troubled period, war years, reconstruction and beyond.
The Autry Empire and Liberty exhibit illustrates the complex saga of the West and the Civil War “as a struggle of freedom and struggle for Westward expansion,” noted co-curator Virginia Scharff, PhD, who is a history professor at University of New Mexico. “You need to understand them together. There were many people seeking their autonomy, and their rights on their own terms.”
“We hold that you cannot understand the Civil War without addressing the significant of the West to the creation and development of the United States, and you cannot understand the West without taking into account the causes, contingencies, and consequences of the nation’s cataclysmic Civil War,” according to Carolyn Brucken, PhD, the Autry’s curator of Western Women’s History.
In examining slavery in the West, the Autry takes a wide view, looking at three types: chattel, debt or indentured servitude, and captive. It looks at historical things like the Gold Rush, the Transcontinental Railroad, and the Trail of Tears in terms of the forced labor employed. The Lewis and Clark party included a black slave and Sacagawea, who had been previously kidnapped from the Shoshone; John Sutter of Sutter’s Mill trafficked in Native American women and children; and the fact that many Indians owned slaves.
According to Scharff, one-fifth of the Cherokees held slaves, which was comparable to the ratio in the South. While some Indians had issues with an alliance to the Confederate areas that kicked them out, others sided with them to keep their slaves. One Cherokee leader, Stand Watie, even became a Confederate general, and was actually the last one to surrender.
The Empire and Liberty show includes information and artifacts on the increased tensions of the antebellum period (Texas’ entry into the Union, John Fremont’s Free Soil, Free Men campaign and flag his wife made, John Brown’s anti-slavery militia and lawsuits about slaves taken into free states). One California case highlighted involved Mississippi-born slave Bridget “Biddy” Moses, who sued in 1856 when her “owner” who had traveled with his slaves to the West wanted to move back to Texas and take Mason and her 13 family members. The court ruled that Moses was free in California and did not have to go back to Texas.
The Autry exhibit features over 200 artifacts. These include an iron slave collar, a Civil War amputation kit, Jefferson Davis’s pistol, General Ulysses S. Grant’s revolver, a “Beecher’s Bible” rife (the ones smuggled to Brown’s forces in Kansas as bibles), paintings throughout the era, and more.
The complex Empire and Liberty exhibit on the story of the old West and the American Civil War will be on view at the Autry through Jan. 3, 2016. The museum is located in Griffith Park, next to the Los Angeles Zoo.
By Dyanne Weiss
Autry National Center
Preview visit to the exhibit on April 23, 2015
Photo courtesy of the Autry National Center