Friday, September 27, 2019

Native American Tribes & the Transcontinental Railroad by Zina Abbott

The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad created serious consequences for the native tribes of the Great Plains. As roadbeds and tracks cut across the land, it forever altered the landscape. Along with the increased arrival of white Americans, it caused the disappearance of once-reliable wild game.

Railroads began to undercut native independence before a single mile of track had been laid. Especially with the discovery of gold in California, the federal government felt a powerful need to bridge the distances between the bulk of the nation’s people east of the Missouri River and the rising populations on the Pacific Coast. During the 1850s, the army surveyed and improved more than twenty thousand miles of roads in the West, but the greatest hopes were pinned on a transcontinental railroad. Four possible routes were surveyed, each with its eastern advocates who hoped to benefit from the traffic. However, before a route could be considered, the government had to have clear, unopposed access to the land where the rails would run. That meant settling up with American Indian tribes and eliminating any of their claims to the country in question.

The result was a quarter century of vigorous efforts by railroad interests and their political allies to move Indians out of the way, part of the broader effort to confine and isolate them on reservations.

Although most of the Native Americans had signed away their rights to much of their land in treaties with the federal government, they still regarded it as their traditional hunting grounds. After acquiring horses, Indians had become heavily dependent on the plains bison for everything. The railroad was probably the single biggest contributor to the loss of the bison on which they had come to depend upon for everything from meat for food to skins and fur for clothing and shelter.

The railroad brought white homesteaders who farmed the grasslands that had been the home of bison for centuries. Not having the same understanding of land rights as the whites, the Indians regarded their coming and ownership claims on the land as an invasion. As the resources they depended upon for survival diminished, they fought back against the great beast—the railroad—who brought the intruders.

Native Americans sabotaged the railroad and attacked white settlements supported by the line. Working several days journey ahead of the end of the track, the union Pacific's Advance work parties were in considerable danger of Indian attacks. Near Plum Creek, Nebraska on the night of August 6, 1867, Cheyenne Warriors derailed a hand cart carrying a repair gang, and then a freight train. Eight men were killed. The only survivors were the train conductor, who escaped and ran for help, and an English-born track worker named William Thompson. Thompson feign death as a Cheyenne scalped him. In the confusion, he later managed to slip away and even carried his scalp with him. Many years later while living in England, Thompson mailed the scalp as a donation to the Omaha Public Library.

Warriors occasionally harassed surveyors. In addition to destroying railroad tracks and machinery, they stole the railroad livestock used to feed the rail workers. Some of the tribes attacked the railroad crews or their hunting parties directly, which necessitated guards being posted for the safety of the men, but overall, their direct attacks were relatively few.

In contrast, there was one tribe that welcomed the coming of the railroad. The Pawnees, with their traditional lands in Nebraska, had the greatest Indian presence on the line. They were friendly to the American government. Their traditional enemies were the Sioux. Their warriors often served as scouts for the military. The railroad offered the Pawnee people free passage on its work trains, which was gladly accepted. In exchange, they staged mock raids and battles for visiting dignitaries at Union Pacific’s lavish 100th Meridian Excursion party. Under army Major Frank North, a uniformed battalion of 800 Pawnee men patrolled the railroad to protect crews and livestock from Lakota and Cheyenne raiders. Their presence served as an effective deterrent to attacks by other tribes.

In the end, in spite of their struggle to drive away the railroad, tribes of the Plains were unsuccessful in preventing the loss of their territory and hunting resources. The Transcontinental Railroad ushered in a new way of life for many Americans, but the cost was the destruction of the traditional way of life of most Native Americans.

Just today, I introduced my cover reveal and pre-order link to my new Christmas novel, Two Sisters and the Christmas Groom. More about that book next month after it releases.

I have been pleased with the overwhelmingly positive reviews for my novel, Escape from Gold Mountain, which was released last month. It is now available on Kindle Unlimited. 
Please CLICK HERE for the book description on Amazon. The print version is also available on Barnes & Noble, which you can reach if you CLICK HERE.

“Linked by the Golden Spike: Building the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads”; History  of Railroads (Moorshead Magazines, Ltd.:Toronto, ON, Canada & Niagara Falls, NY, United States, 2013) pages 14-17.

1 comment:

Alicia Haney said...

I loved reading this article, it is so very, very interesting and the pictures are very nice also. Wow, people had to endure a lot for the railroads. I'm very glad that some Native Americans were friendly and helpful. Like usual, I loved reading your article Zinna, and I learned a lot. Your book sounds like a very good read, I will have to read it. Have a Great week. God Bless you.