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The preoccupation of those who occupied the White House for most of the nineteenth century was settlement of the West. Like most Americans, presidents by the 1840s saw the West as a place of romance, distant, impossibly different, a resource to exploit. Kit Carson, Seth Eastman and other rugged pioneers came to the East Room to shake hands with the presidents. Chiefs of Native American tribes called with their entourages. President Ulysses S. Grant’s fascination with the West was constantly rekindled by his longtime friend General Edward Beale, who lived across the square in the old Decatur House but whose vast Tejon Ranch in California is only today being broken up into smaller parcels.

The great sequoia trees of California were a particular favorite of President Richard M. Nixon, who selected the species to plant in the White House grounds to commemorate his presidency. Washington's climate did not suit the specimens originally planted. This engraving, published in the 1860s, shows the native sequoia, happily at home in California.

Library of Congress

In the White House today the West is a constant presence in art and history. This issue of White House History addresses the subject in various ways. Richard W. Stephenson shows with historic maps the various possibilities that the capital itself might have been moved westward; George Washington’s participation in laying out the city helped preserve it. Estill Pennington walks through the White House, selecting western art hanging on the walls to illustrate the tug of the West that has always been there. Peter Waddell imagines in watercolor Thomas Jefferson’s museum of the west. John James Audubon’s portrait is given context by Danny Heitman. And Nenette Arroyo shows how Helen Herron Taft’s love for Asia and the Pacific inspired her to imitate the cherry groves of Japan along the Potomac River.

Rocky Mountain Landscape by Albert Bierstadt, 1870, oil on canvas, hangs in the Red Room of the White House, 2010.

The White House Historical Association

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