The Transcontinental Railroad associated East and also West—and increased the devastation of what had been in the facility of phibìc America


The telegram come in new York from Promontory Summit, Utah, in ~ 3:05 p.m. On may 10, 1869, announcing one of the best engineering achievements of the century:

The critical rail is laid; the critical spike driven; the Pacific railroad is completed. The point of junction is 1086 mile west the the Missouri river and 690 miles east of Sacramento City.

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The telegram was signed, “Leland Stanford, central Pacific Railroad. T. P. Durant, Sidney Dillon, john Duff, Union Pacific Railroad,” and also trumpeted news that the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. After much more than 6 years the backbreaking labor, eastern officially met west with the driving of a ceremonial golden spike. In City hall Park in Manhattan, the notice was greeted v the shooting of 100 guns. Bells were rung throughout the country, indigenous Washington, D.C., to san Francisco. Organization was suspended in Chicago as civilization rushed come the streets, celebrate to the sound of heavy steam whistles and cannons booming.

Back in Utah, railroad officials and politicians posed for photos aboard locomotives, shiver hands and also breaking party of champagne on the engines together Chinese laborers native the West and also Irish, German and Italian laborers indigenous the east were budged from view.


Celebration of the perfect of the Transcontinental Railroad, may 10, 1869. Photo: Wikipedia

Not long after president Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway plot of 1862, rail financier George Francis Train proclaimed, “The an excellent Pacific Railway is commenced.… immigrant will quickly pour right into these valleys. Ten countless emigrants will work out in this golden land in twenty years.… This is the grandest enterprise under God!” however while Train may have actually envisioned every the glory and also the possibilities of linking the East and the West coastlines by “a solid band of iron,” he can not imagine the full and also tragic impact of the Transcontinental Railroad, no one the rate at i m sorry it adjusted the form of the American West. Because that in its wake, the resides of numerous Native Americans were destroyed, and also tens of numerous buffalo, which had roamed easily upon the an excellent Plains because the critical ice period 10,000 years ago, were nearly driven come extinction in a massive slaughter made possible by the railroad.

Following the civil War, after deadly european diseases and hundreds of wars with the white man had currently wiped the end untold numbers of aboriginal Americans, the U.S. Federal government had ratified virtually 400 treaties through the plains Indians. But as the yellow Rush, the pressure of Manifest Destiny, and land grants for railroad construction led come greater growth in the West, the majority of these treaties were broken. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s first postwar command (Military division of the Mississippi) extended the region west that the Mississippi and also east that the Rocky Mountains, and also his top priority was to safeguard the building of the railroads. In 1867, he wrote to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, “we room not going come let thieving, ragged ind check and stop the progress” of the railroads. Overcome by the battle of the hundreds Slain, whereby Lakota and Cheyenne warrior ambushed a convoy of the U.S. Mounties in Wyoming, scalping and also mutilating the body of all 81 soldiers and also officers, Sherman told give the year before, “we should act through vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, also to their extermination, men, women and children.” When grant assumed the presidency in 1869, the appointed Sherman Commanding basic of the Army, and also Sherman was responsible because that U.S. Engagement in the Indian Wars. Top top the soil in the West, Gen. Philip Henry Sheridan, suspect Sherman’s command, took to his task much as he had actually done in the Shenandoah Valley during the civil War, once he ordered the “scorched earth” techniques that presaged Sherman’s March come the Sea.

Early on, Sheridan bemoaned a absence of troops: “No other nation in the people would have actually attempted reduction of this wild tribes and also occupation of their nation with much less than 60,000 to 70,000 men, when the totality force employed and also scattered end the massive region…never numbered much more than 14,000 men. The repercussion was that every engagement was a hope hope.”

The Army’s troops to be well fitted for fighting against conventional enemies, however the guerrilla techniques of the plains tribes confounded them at every turn. As the railways expanded, they allowed the fast transport that troops and also supplies to areas where battles were being waged. Sheridan was soon able to mountain the kind of offensive he desired. In the Winter project of 1868-69 versus Cheyenne encampments, Sheridan set about destroying the Indians’ food, shelter and livestock with overwhelming force, leaving women and children at the mercy that the Army and also Indian warrior little an option but come surrender or threat starvation. In one such surprised raid at dawn during a November snowstorm in Indian Territory, Sheridan ordered the nearly 700 guys of the saturday Cavalry, commanded by George Armstrong Custer, to “destroy villages and also ponies, to kill or hang all warriors, and also to bring ago all women and also children.” Custer’s males charged right into a Cheyenne town on the Washita River, cutting under the Indians as they fled native lodges. Women and children to be taken together hostages as component of Custer’s strategy to usage them as person shields, but Cavalry scouts reported seeing women and also children pursued and killed “without mercy” in what came to be known as the Washita Massacre. Custer later on reported an ext than 100 Indian deaths, consisting of that of Chief black color Kettle and his wife, medicine Woman Later, shoot in the ago as lock attempted to ride far on a pony. Cheyenne estimates of Indian deaths in the raid to be about fifty percent of Custer’s total, and the Cheyenne did regulate to death 21 mounties troops while defending the attack. “If a town is attacked and women and also children killed,” Sheridan when remarked, “the obligation is not through the soldiers however with the civilization whose crimes required the attack.”

Gen. Philip Sheridan photographed through Matthew Brady. Photo: Library the Congress

The Transcontinental rail made Sheridan’s strategy that “total war” much an ext effective. In the mid-19th century, that was estimated that 30 milion come 60 million buffalo roamed the plains. In massive and also majestic herds, lock rumbled by the hundreds of thousands, developing the sound the earned lock the nickname “Thunder the the Plains.” The bison’s lifespan of 25 years, rapid reproduction and resiliency in your environment allowed the varieties to flourish, as indigenous Americans were mindful not to overhunt, and also even men like william “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who was hired by the Kansas Pacific railroad to hunting the bison come feed hundreds of rail laborers because that years, could not make much of a dent in the buffalo population. In mid-century, trappers who had depleted the beaver populations of the Midwest started trading in buffalo robes and tongues; an estimated 200,000 buffalo were eliminated annually. Then the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad increased the decimation of the species.

Massive searching parties began to arrive in the West through train, with thousands of men packing .50 caliber rifles, and also leaving a trace of buffalo carnage in their wake. Unequal the aboriginal Americans or Buffalo Bill, who eliminated for food, clothing and also shelter, the hunters native the east killed greatly for sport. Native Americans looked on with horror together landscapes and also prairies to be littered through rotting buffalo carcasses. The railroads began to advertisement excursions because that “hunting by rail,” where trains encountered massive herds alongside or crossing the tracks. Thousands of men plank the trains climbed come the roofs and took aim, or fired from your windows, leaving numerous 1,500-pound pets where lock died.Harper’s Weekly described these searching excursions:

Nearly every railroad train which leaves or arrives at ft Hays on the Kansas Pacific Railroad has its race through these herds of buffalo; and a many interesting and also exciting scene is the result. The train is “slowed” to a price of speed around equal to that of the herd; the passengers acquire out fire-arms i m sorry are detailed for the defense the the train versus the Indians, and open from the windows and platforms that the dare a fire that resembles a brisk skirmish. Commonly a young bull will turn at bay because that a moment. His exhibition of vessel is typically his death-warrant, because that the totality fire the the train is turned ~ above him, one of two people killing the or some member that the herd in his prompt vicinity.

Hunters started killing buffalo through the hundreds of thousands in the winter months. One hunter, Orlando Brown carried down nearly 6,000 buffalo by himself and lost hear in one ear native the consistent firing of his .50 caliber rifle. The Texas legislature, sensing the buffalo to be in peril of being wiped out, proposed a bill to protect the species. Basic Sheridan opposed it, stating, ”These men have actually done more in the last 2 years, and will do much more in the following year, to resolve the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has excellent in the last forty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary. And also it is a well known reality that an military losing its basic of gives is placed at a great disadvantage. Send lock powder and lead, if friend will; yet for a lasting peace, let them kill, skin and also sell till the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle.”


Chief black Kettle, leader of the southern Cheyenne. Photo: Wikipedia

The devastation of the buffalo populace signaled the end of the Indian Wars, and also Native Americans were pushed into reservations. In 1869, the Comanche chief Tosawi to be reported to have actually told Sheridan, “Me Tosawi. Me good Indian,” and Sheridan allegedly replied, “The only great Indians I ever saw were dead.” The phrase was later misquoted, through Sheridan supposedly stating, “The only an excellent Indian is a dead Indian.” Sheridan refuse he had ever said such a thing.

By the finish of the 19th century, just 300 buffalo to be left in the wild. Congress ultimately took action, outlawing the death of any type of birds or animals in Yellowstone national Park, where the just surviving buffalo herd can be protected. Conservationists established more wildlife preserves, and also the varieties slowly rebounded. Today, there are more than 200,000 bison in phibìc America.

Sheridan identified the duty of the rail in changing the challenge of the American West, and in his Annual Report the the general of the U.S. Army in 1878, he identified that the native Americans were scuttled to appointments with no compensation past the promise of religious instruction and an easy supplies the food and clothing—promises, the wrote, which were never fulfilled.

“We took away their country and also their means of support, damaged up their mode of living, their actions of life, introduced disease and decay amongst them, and it was for this and versus this they do war. Could any one mean less? Then, why wonder at Indian difficulties?”


Books: Annual Report of the general of the U.S. Military to the Secretary the War, The Year 1878, Washington federal government Printing Office, 1878. Robert G. Angevine, The Railroad and also the State: War, national politics and modern technology in Nineteenth-Century America, Stanford University press 2004. John D. McDermott, A guide to the Indian battles of the West, university of Nebraska Press, 1998. Ballard C. Campbell, Disasters, Accidents, and also Crises in American History: A Reference guide to the Nation’s many Catastrophic Events, truth on File, Inc., 2008. Bobby Bridger, Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull: Inventing the Wild West, college of Texas Press, 2002. Paul Andrew Hutton, Phil Sheridan & His Army, university of Nebraska push 1985. A People and a Nation: A history of the joined States due to the fact that 1865, Vol. 2, Wadsworth, 2010.

Articles: “Transcontinental Railroad,” American Experience,, ”Buffalo Hunting: shooting Buffalo indigenous the Trains of the Kansas Pacific Railroad,” Harper’s Weekly, December 14, 1867. : “Black Kettle,” New Perspectives ~ above the West, PBS: The West, ”Old West Legends: Buffalo Hunters,” Legends of America, “Completion that the Pacific Railroad,” Hartford Courant, may 11, 1869.

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Gilbert King is a contributing writer in background for His publication Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and also the Dawn of a new America won the Pulitzer compensation in 2013.