“Pacific Railroads will Settle the Indian Question”: the explicit militarism of the Northern Pacific Railroad, 1864–83

(map: “Map of the country from Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean. From the latest explorations and surveys to accompany the report of the New York Chamber of Commerce, April 1868,” Library of Congress)

The transcontinental railroads completely transformed the American west in the nineteenth century, for white European immigrants in search of land or gold and for the Native Americans who had been steadily pushed westward by those immigrants. Sometimes the consequences of the railroads on Native Americans have been portrayed as “unfortunate and unintended consequences.” As white Americans advanced across the continent, they brought technological advances, like the railroad, and the ultimate effect was that it destroyed the Native way of life. This was unfortunate, and perhaps even tragic (depending on the narrator), but really, these are just the inevitable side-effects of “progress.”

In looking carefully at the Northern Pacific Railroad (bidding to be the second transcontinental railroad, it eventually was the third) one finds a very different story. Primary source documents of U.S. government and military officials, as well as the proponents of railroad (trustees, engineers) repeatedly emphasize that one of the main benefits of the railroad is that it would enable the U.S. military to better fight against Native Americans; it would divide Native tribes north and south and keep them from banding together; as settlers came it would push them out and replace a “savage” population with a “civilized” and “Christian” one. Rather than “unintended consequences,” the effects of the railroad on Native Americans was very much intended–it was actively promoted as among the main reasons to build the road.

The following is a compilation of such primary sources, including Ulysses S. Grant, Generals Sherman, Sheridan, and Sanborn, Representative William Windom from Minnesota, and several other Northern Pacific reports expressing the militaristic purpose of the railroad.

WARNING: as these sources are all representative of the dominant white perspective, Native Americans are consistently discussed in derogatory language (“savages,” “inferior,” etc.). Much of this material is very hard to read, but important for grappling with true motivations of those who promoted these railroads.

Here are a few choice quotes:

The United States shall extinguish as rapidly as may be consistent with public policy and the welfare of the said Indians, the Indian titles to all lands falling under the operations of this Act”

Northern Pacific and Indian Question
Charter of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, Approved July 2nd, 1864.

Situated upon an extended and unprotected frontier, contiguous to a country now under the dominion of one of the most powerful and warlike nations of the world; traversing a territory occupied or overrun by numerous tribes of Indians, often hostile, never entirely trustworthy, it will be invaluable in times of danger, for the rapid transmission of troops and munitions of war.”

Northern Pacific and Indian Question
Northern Pacific Board of Directors (1867)

for the present the military establishment between the lines designated must be maintained at a great cost per man. The completion of the railroads to the Pacific will materially reduce this cost, as well as the number of men to be kept there. The completion of these roads will also go far toward a permanent settlement of our Indian difficulties.

Ulysses S. Grant (1867)

To construct this road will change the whole order of things at the West. It will, in an inconceivably short space of time, convert these vast plains, now laying waste and unproductive, into fruitful fields ; it will supplant the herds of buffalo, elk, and deer, with countless flocks and herds of domestic animals; it will occupy the streams of water now running waste with manufactories and mechanics’ shops, giving comfort and remunerative employment to thousands on thousands of intelligent citizens; it will extract from the mountains untold millions of the precious metals ; it will raise and utilize vast amounts of coal that now lie buried and useless in the mines; it will convert the iron and copper ores now reposing in the earth into implements for the use of man, or commodities for commerce; it will change the forests into thousands of new forms for the use, comfort, and profit of our people ; it will fill the channels of commerce with merchandise, and give additional employment and increased wealth to the busy throng that now crowd our commercial centres ; it will induce an increased emigration of the industrial classes from the Old World, and furnish them cheap and comfortable homes ; IT WILL TERMINATE INDIAN WARS, and supplant the savage Indian, who now roams over these fertile plains and rich mountains, by an intelligent, industrious, civilized population ; and, finally, it will add, almost beyond the power of computation, to the wealth and taxable property of the country

The Northern Pacific Railroad: Statement of its Resources and Merits (1868)

Can the Government afford to have the territory between the 45th and 49th parallels remain as it has done for centuries, occupied only by the Indian and buffalo? Will the people consent to have it shut out from settlement and remain a waste, for want of means of communication and facilities to reach it, when it can be made so accessible, and furnish happy homes for millions now struggling in the old world for a mere subsistence, and thus be productive of so much happiness to the human race?

Report of a Special Committee of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York on the Northern Pacific Rail-Road (1868)

The effect of the construction of this road will be… to terminate our Indian wars, and supplant the savage with a civilized and Christian population ; to increase our taxable property almost beyond computation or estimation, and thereby contribute directly and largely to the payment of the national debt, and the relief of our people.”

Report of a Special Committee of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York on the Northern Pacific Rail-Road (1868)

This road is a military necessity, and will very much stimulate the settlement of that region of our public domain.”

General Sherman (1868)

“I know that pecuniarily it would be to the advantage of the Government to help this road.” * * * “But, in addition, it almost substantially ends our Indian troubles by the moral effect which it exercises over the Indians, and the facility which it gives to the military in controlling them.” * * * “No one, unless he has personally visited this country, can well appreciate the great assistance which this railroad gives to economy, security, and effectiveness in the administration of military affairs in this department.” 

General Sheridan (1868)

“Railroads, more than all other things, extend our civilization [25] over men and remote regions, and will do more in a single decade to civilize Indians, and to compel them to abandon nomadic habits, than could be done in a century without them. The members of the commission, so far as I know, are all advocates of two more lines of road to the Pacific.”

General Sanborn (1868)

Pacific Railroads will settle the Indian Question: They can only be permanently conquered by railroads. The locomotive is the sole solution of the Indian question, unless the government changes its system of warfare and fights the savages the winter through as well as in summer… As the thorough and final solution of the Indian question, by taking the buffalo range out from under the savage, and putting a vast stock and grain farm in its place, the railroads to the Pacific surely are a military necessity. As avenues of sudden approach to Indians on the war-path, and of cheap and quick movement of supplies to troops, they are equally a military necessity.”

Report of the Majority of the Senate Committee on Pacific Railroad, February 19, 1869

Suggested Resources:

Northern Pacific Railroad Company: Pamphlets (1864–1875). (FREE on Google Books)

Angevine, Robert G. The Railroad and the State: War, Politics, and Technology in Nineteenth-Century America. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004. Chapter 9: “The Fruits of Symbiotic Exchange, 1870–1898.”

Cozzens, Peter. The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. Chapter 11: “Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.”

Lubetkin, M. John. Jay Cooke’s Gamble: The Northern Pacific Railroad, the Sioux, and the Panic of 1873. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.

Smalley, Eugene V. History of the Northern Pacific Railroad. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1883. (FREE on Google Books)

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