The Plains Indians and the Railroad

Michigan's Saginaw Trail
Michigan's Saginaw Trail

The invention and expansion of the railroad changed the American landscape and economy in revolutionary ways. In the years after the Civil War, the country was ripe for expansion and sought out new lands and opportunities.

The problem with this unstoppable movement is that the people were moving too fast and were taking control of lands that had been home to the Native Indians for thousands of years.

Often called the “iron horse,” the trains that traveled the railroad transformed and dispossessed entire cultures and races in its race for progress.

  • Building a railroad across America began in the 1830s and it took until around 1840 before a couple of thousand miles of track had been built. It should be noted that by 1880 115,000 miles of track had been built and most of it was crossing the plains and heading from east to west. This expansion fueled the movement to westward expansion while it destroyed the lands and homes of the Native Indian tribes.
  • Plans for the railroad across the country originally had four potential routes. When the government surveyors had completed their work that knew that a lot of it would be across the part of the country of the Plains Native Indians. Political plans were made to get the Native Indians out of the way and relocate them to isolated and confining reservations. The start of this came into effect with the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 in pre-Civil War days. The law used treaties to dispossess Kansas Native Indians so that they could create a rail route along the Great Overland Trail.
  • Some tribes such as the Shawnee had previously given up their homeland in Ohio and relocated to eastern Kansas. However, the goal was to open up Kansas to the settlers and now they had to relocate again. Each Native Indian tribe was systematically uprooted until it affected all of the tribes all the way to the Pacific Northwest. Many of the states were eager to have the railway come through their state and the white politicians bullied their way to clearing out the Native Indians.
  • The railroad was bringing settlers to some of the interior areas of the country that they had never before entered. It was also expanding the ability to trade as farmers could send their crops across the country and ranchers could load up their cattle and get them to market anywhere. The railway was an encouragement for immigrants to continue to show up and expand westward.
  • As new communities began to spring up to support the railroad, the Native Indian homes and hunting grounds continued to shrink. The tensions between the settlers and the Natives increased and caused many disputes and problems. However, with the government supporting the settlers, the Native Indians always seemed to lose.
  • In 1869, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior referred to the Native Indians as “the wild tribes” and he knew that the former slow settlement movement was now picking up pace due to the railroad. He stated that “the very center [of Indian country] had been pierced.”
  • The Great Plains Native Indians had historically relied on hunting bison for clothing, food, shelter and trade. However, once the white settlers found out how valuable the bison hide was that hunted and slaughtered them to near extinction. This would not have happened had it not been for easy access with the railroad as the settlers could now ship the hides off to the rest of the country and make a profit.
  • When the bison were gone the Native Indians were left with no choice by to go to the reservations and now have to depend on the government for support. The railroad and the white settlers had destroyed people, land, and animals.

     Political Map of the United States 1856
    Political Map of the United States 1856

Q&A:

How many miles of railroad track had been built by 1880?
115,000

What did the Secretary of the Interior call the Native Indians?
The wild tribes

What caused some of the Plains Indians to finally have to move to reservations?
The near extinction of the bison by white settlers

What expansion did the railroads encourage?
Westward movement/westward settling

What benefits did the railroad bring to farmers and ranchers?
The could get their products to market across the country

What did the Native Indians rely on bison hunting for?
Food, hides, shelter, clothing