The westward expansion of the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century generated explosive growth in the Minnesota Territories. Once the preserve of French voyageurs and fur traders who had forged collaborative working relationships with the native population, this region of seemingly limitless natural resources, of fertile prairies and virgin timberland, beckoned waves of settlers seeking a new life and economic opportunity.
A need for geographic and topographic information, together with an overarching curiosity about the region and its inhabitants, propelled a succession of adventurous draftsmen and artists eager to be the region's first visual interpreters. The first to arrive (most notably George Catlin, Charles Bodmer, Seth Eastman, John Mix Stanley, Edward Thomas, and Frank B. Mayer) rushed to document the native peoples and their customs. Each realized it was only a matter of time—a very short time—until life as the native people knew it would be irretrievably lost.
By midcentury, Minnesota was caught up in rapid transition on several levels, particularly sociological and economic. Clearly, the commercial harvesting of lumber was the chief cause of such accelerated change. The region offered stands of virgin forest and a waterway—the Mississippi—that made lumber's conveyance to mill and market economically efficient. Inevitably, the service industries that grew up to support logging transformed the unspoiled settings adjacent to the river. Settlement on the west bank of St. Anthony Falls went from one house in 1850 to a whole town (Minneapolis) by 1859, and sawmills, foundries, shingle machines, and lath factories operated at full tilt. Such rapid changes fascinated artists, photographers, and the public alike in the second half of the century—as evidence of a march toward progress through the civilization of untamed land and the harnessing of nature's seemingly limitless power.