10 Important Pictures That Shaped America

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The first permanent photograph was produced in 1826 by French inventor Nicéphore Niépce. The picture is named View from the Window at Le Gras and it took over 8 hours to expose. The first photograph of a person was taken in 1838 by French chemist Louis Daguerre. The picture is named Boulevard du Temple and it shows a busy street in Paris. The exposure time on the image took over ten minutes, but a man that was sitting down and getting his boots polished is visible.

In the year 1776, the United States formally declared independence as one new nation, claiming their sovereignty and rejecting any allegiance to the British monarchy. The declaration resulted in an explosion of fighting in the American Revolutionary War, which had started the previous year, in 1775. The war pitted Great Britain against the U.S. colonies and their allies, including France, Spain, and the Dutch Republic.

Since the time of the Declaration of Independence and the invention of photography, hundreds of legendary pictures have been published, pictures that define an era in United States history and represent the struggles of a nation. This article will document important moments in U.S. history and describe ten lasting images. All of the photographs represent what America underwent in order to achieve the world status held today:

10. Little Round Top to Devil’s Den

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In 1846, the Mexican-American war began in the wake of the annexation of Texas. The conflict was the first war in history to be captured on camera. During the U.S. presidential election of 1860, the Republican Party, led by Abraham Lincoln, campaigned against the expansion of slavery. In response to Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 election, seven U.S. states declared their secession from the Union. On April 12, 1861, hostilities erupted when Confederate forces attacked a U.S. military installation at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Lincoln responded by forming the Union Army. Fighting quickly spread and the U.S. Civil War was in full swing, with a total of 15 states seceding from the United States. By the end of the conflict, over 620,000 American soldiers were killed. The Union victory meant the end of the Confederate Army and it abolished slavery in the U.S. The war strengthened the role of the federal government and shaped the reconstruction era in the United States that lasted until 1877.

The Photograph

The American Civil War (1861–1865) was the fourth war in history to be captured on camera. It was the most extensively covered conflict of the 19th century and hundreds of photojournalists emerged during the war. Countless famous images have survived from this era in U.S. history. After the 1863 Confederate success at Chancellorsville in Virginia, Robert E. Lee led his soldiers through the Shenandoah Valley to begin his second invasion of the North, labeled the Gettysburg Campaign. By July 1, 1863, Lee had concentrated his forces near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with the objective of engaging the entire Union army and destroying it. The Battle of Gettysburg was fought from July 1–3, 1863. The decisive battle produced the largest number of casualties in the American Civil War. On the second day of the conflict, both armies had completely assembled. Robert E. Lee understood that he could greatly damage the Union forces if his troops could capture Little Round Top, which was a hill located on the far left side of the Union line.

Little Round Top was an extremely important hill in the military defense of the Union Army. For this reason, Robert E. Lee arranged and launched a heavy assault on the Union left flank. Union General K. Warren realized the importance of the area and dispatched Vincent’s brigade and the 140th New York to occupy and defend Little Round Top. The defense of Little Round Top with a bayonet charge by the 20th Maine is one of the most fabled episodes in the Civil War. The ground surrounding Little Round Top has witnessed unimaginable events and more bloodshed than any other place in the United States. One of the most famous areas is a patch of land known as Devil’s Den, which is a rocky expanse of shrubs and trees located directly west of Little Round Top, across the Plum Run Valley. Devil’s Den is peppered with an outcropping of massive boulders and rocks. These geological formations gave the Confederate Army problems when trying to conquer the hill. The image that I have selected shows a famous statue of Union General Gouverneur K. Warren looking down from Little Round Top to Devil’s Den.  The picture documents the most deadly battlefield in United States history.  The image was taken circa 1910 and is a bit blurry, but the steep angles and large rock formations can easily be made out.”

9. The First Transcontinental Railroad

golden-spike-transcontinental-railroad-photograph

After the end of the American Civil War, the United States went through a series of political changes. Government officials established laws on land ownership and focused on national expansion. In the 1840s, the U.S. media coined the phrase manifest destiny, which is the belief that the United States was pre-ordained by God to expand from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast. The government enacted this concept by establishing treaties with foreign nations and native peoples. Many forms of political compromise were enacted, as well as military conquest. In some cases, this expansion was accomplished regardless of social and legal consequences for Native Americans. On January 24, 1848, James Marshall discovered gold in the tailrace of a mill near present day Sacramento, California.

After preliminary digging, it was revealed that this area of California held enormous gold deposits. Word of the discovery quickly spread across the United States, even reaching experienced miners in South America and Europe, who quickly traveled to the area. Between the years 1848-1852, thousands of Forty-Niners embarked on California, increasing the state’s population from 14,000 people to 200,000. During this time in American history, in securing and managing the west, the U.S. federal government greatly expanded its powers, and by the end of the 19th century, the nation evolved from an agrarian society into an industrialized power. One of the largest steps in this expansion was the development of the First Transcontinental Railroad, which was completed in 1869.

The Photograph

By 1862, a number of rail lines had been constructed in the United States, extending as far westward as Omaha, Nebraska. In the west, railroad lines were pushing eastwards, starting in Sacramento, California. The U.S. government understood the need for a Transcontinental Railroad, so they developed a project to link the two tracks, forming one large railway line. The construction of the railroad required six main activities. The job was highly labor intensive and the workers averaged about two miles (3 km) of new track per day. The two separate work crews finally met at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869. To commemorate the event, Leland Stanford, one of the prime backers of the Central Pacific, hammered the final golden spike in triumph, linking the two lines. It was a major stepping point in the history of the United States and many photojournalists documented the event. The picture I have selected shows workers from the railroad crews meeting and celebrating the First Transcontinental Railroad. After the completion of the line, a cross-country trip in the U.S. was reduced from about four months to one week.

8. Dodge City Peace Commission

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By the 1870s, a new code of behavior was becoming acceptable in the United States. People no longer had a duty to retreat when threatened. This was a departure from British common law that said you must have your back to the wall before you could protect yourself with deadly force. The code of the West dictated that a man did not have to back away from a fight. He could also pursue an adversary even if it resulted in death. At the same time, most justices of the peace were poorly schooled in law, politically corrupt, and depended on assessing fees and fines to make a living. It was an era characterized by disorganization in law and order. Some of the criminal activity was carried out by Mexican and Indian populations living along the U.S. border; however, infamous American outlaws also emerged, including Jesse James, Billy the Kid, the Dalton Gang, Black Bart, Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch. Some of the outlaws, such as Jesse James, were products of the violence of the Civil War.

The Photograph

Wyatt Earp was an American peace officer who worked in various Western frontier towns during the late 1800s. He is most well known for his participation in the 1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. The immediate cause of the gunfight was the arrest of a group of cowboys by deputy federal marshal Virgil Earp. The following day, family and friends of the cowboys entered Tombstone. However, the men would not turn over their weapons, which was the town’s law. Tensions quickly elevated and three of the men were shot dead by Wyatt Earp, Morgan Earp, Virgil Earp, and Doc Holliday. The three Earp brothers and Doc Holliday were eventually exonerated of the killings, but the men faced assassination attempts in the months following the event. The attacks led to a series of retributions killings and battles, known as the Earp Vendetta Ride. Wyatt Earp quickly gained the reputation for being a deadly and talented gunfighter.

In 1883, Wyatt Earp was contacted by his friend Luke Short who told him of corruption in the town of Dodge City, Kansas. At this time, Dodge City had a reputation for criminal gangs and was often called “the Wickedest City in America.” In response to Short’s claims, Earp assembled a skilled army, including legendary figures Bat Masterson and Charlie Bassett. Dodge City Mayor Alonzo B. Webster negotiated peace with Wyatt Earp. He let Luke Short return to his place of business in return for a promise that there would be no violence. Earp and his friends moved to Dodge City and formed the Dodge City Peace Commission. In June of 1883, one of the most famous images from the Old West was taken. It shows Wyatt Earp and the Dodge City Peace Commission, including members, from left to right, standing: W.H. Harris, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, W.F. Petillon; and seated: Charlie Bassett, Wyatt Earp, Frank McLain and Neal Brown. This photograph has been scrutinized by many people, as three separate versions exist. In some copies, famed lawman Bill Tilghman appears, while in others W.F. Petillon is missing entirely.

7. Looking Down Sacramento Street

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The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was a major disaster that struck the city of San Francisco, California and the coast of Northern California. The quake ruptured along the San Andreas Fault northward and southwards for a total of 296 miles (477 km) and caused major damage in the western United States. The earthquake and resulting fire in San Francisco is remembered as one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the country, alongside the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. The Galveston Hurricane made landfall in the U.S. state of Texas, on September 8, 1900. The hurricane produced winds of 135 miles per hour (217 km/h) and devastated the city of Galveston, causing between 8,000-12,000 deaths. In comparison, the resulting death toll from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was estimated to be around 3,000 people.

At the time of the quake, only 375 deaths were reported. The figure was fabricated by government officials who felt that publishing the true death toll would hurt real estate prices and efforts to rebuild the city. The disaster left between 227,000 and 300,000 people homeless, out of a population of about 410,000. The San Francisco earthquake and fire left a long-standing and significant impression on the development of California. The city of San Francisco was rebuilt quickly, but the disaster would divert trade, industry and population growth to Los Angeles. This mass migration is still evident today, with Los Angeles growing into the most important and populated urban area in the western United States. The overall cost of the damage from the earthquake was estimated to be around US$400 million, which is $9.5 billion in 2010 dollars.

The Photograph

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake was the first natural disaster of its magnitude to be documented by photography. On the morning of the earthquake, dozens of professional photographers covered the burning city. Among the crowd was famed photographer Arnold Genthe, who captured over 180 surviving pictures of San Francisco as it burned. Genthe used only a hand held camera. His most famous image is titled Looking Down Sacramento Street and shows a view from Nob Hill. In the distance, enormous clouds of smoke ominously approach, buildings’ facades have collapsed from the quake, and residents stand and sit in the street, calmly watching the approaching fire. The photograph shows “the results of the earthquake, the beginning of the fire, and the attitude of the people.” Many famous images were captured on the morning of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but Genthe’s picture has been praised for showing the attitude of the people at a time when they were faced with a true natural disaster. After the fire destroyed San Francisco, many famous photographers captured chilling panoramic views of the damage.


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28 Comments

  1. This list should be titled “Photos of situations that shaped america”. None of these photos (possibly No.6) shaped the USA, it’s the situation that is captured that changed your country.

  2. You forgot the picture of the naked little girl running down the streets during the Vietnam War. That picture should be in the top ten somewhere. Other than that, good job!!

  3. Great list. There are so many photographs that could be on here. I’d have given myself an anuerism if I tried to do this list.

  4. Benny the Icepick on

    I, too, am surprised there aren’t any Vietnam War photos. Either Eddie Adams’s “General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Viet Cong Prisoner in Saigon” or, as mentioned previously, Nick Ut’s photo of Phan Thá»? Kim Phúc running from the napalm attack on Trang Bang.

  5. I was thinking the Iwo Jima as well. Also none from the Oklahoma bombing. The one with the fire fighter carrying the baby out of the rubble.

  6. This was obviously hastily done, this wasnt about photos that shaped America so much as events. The photos shown of some events arent the iconic ones recognized by Americans. Also, how the flag raising on Iwo Jima is not in the top three I dont know, seeing as how it immediately became the icon for American victory everywhere.

  7. From Entry 4
    “The three most referenced images include the Conference of the Big Three at Yalta, which shows Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Premier Josef Stalin in February of 1945. The Flag Raising on Iwo Jima is probably the most well known American photo in existence, while the picture taken of a happy couple celebrating the end of the war with a kiss in New York City is iconic. For this article, I have selected a war photo that was captured on June 6, 1944 (D-Day), as American soldiers swarmed the beaches of Normandy.”

    One thing this article is not is hastly done. In selecting the photographs, I wanted to use pictures that might be unknown to some Americans. Everyone has seen the Iwo Jima photo hundreds of times, but the other live action shot of D-Day is less known, but as influential in the long run. I mentioned the other photographs throughout the text because I understood that people would want them recognized. For those people who say that these pictures didn’t shape America, I disagree. If I wanted to I could make an article showing the most recognizable images in American history.

  8. ‘One thing this article is not is hastly done. In selecting the photographs, I wanted to use pictures that might be unknown to some Americans. Everyone has seen the Iwo Jima photo hundreds of times, but the other live action shot of D-Day is less known, but as influential in the long run. I mentioned the other photographs throughout the text because I understood that people would want them recognized. For those people who say that these pictures didn’t shape America, I disagree. If I wanted to I could make an article showing the most recognizable images in American history.’

    ok, then you should have titled this article ’10 Pictures that you may not have seen, that shaped America’ The live action shot of D-Day has nothing on the Raising of the flag at Iwo Jima.

  9. I enjoyed reading this, I’m British, alot of people over here are abit snobby about America but I think it’s a brilliant place and American history is fascinating, you should all be proud to be American. The 9/11 photos still give me goosebumps and make me feel sick, it’s so tragic, RIP to all those poor people who lost their lives on that horrific day!

  10. The Little Round Top to Devil’s Den doesn’t show a Union soldier looking down at Devil’s Den, as explained in the entry. That’s a statue of General Gouverneur K. Warren, which is still there. The photograph even shows the little sign that’s still there telling people not to climb up on the rock.

  11. The Dorothea Lange picture was staged. She asked the children to look away. Many of the pictures taken during that time were staged. A shame for the people so badly affected by the Depression.

  12. The first permanent photograph was indeed created by Joseph Nicephore Niepce in about 1826, but it was called “View from the Window at Le Gras” and was just a bunch of roofs outside his window. “Boulevard du Temple” is generally considered the first photograph of a person, and was made by Louis Daguerre in about 1838.

  13. Neat list, here’s a few I felt should’ve at least been mentioned: some affected us directly, others came back to haunt us

    The infamous Colonel Loan and a Viet Cong Prisoner photo:
    http://www.cs.brown.edu/courses/cs024/images/canon/06.jpg

    The Afghani Girl:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sharbat_Gula.jpg

    Couple embracing on V-J Day:
    http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/VJ-Day.jpg

    Separate Drinking Fountains:
    http://whereintheworldispatty.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/black-and-colored-drinking-water1.jpg

    Aftermath of Gettysburg (first widely distributed U.S. war photos):
    http://freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~historyofmarlborough/gettysburg.jpg

    Mushroom Cloud over Hiroshima:
    http://www.laprogressive.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/HiroshimaAtomicBomb_02.gif

    The Falling Man(9/11):
    http://www.channel4.com/assets/programmes/images/911-the-falling-man/911-the-falling-man-20090515123420_625x352.jpg

  14. Kents State? Earth rise from Apollo 8? Firefighters and police officers carrying Fr. Michael Judge from the ruins on 9/11?

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