Sioux Opposition to Railroads in Montana in 1872

The westward expansion of the United States during the nineteenth century was guided by a quasi-religious philosophy of Manifest Destiny: America had been ordained by God to spread its territory across the continent. Americans generally felt that Indians, who supposedly owned the land, were, as an inferior race, destined to be pushed out of the way of progress and become extinct.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, it was clearly evident railroads would have to play a key role in carrying out Manifest Destiny. It was the railroads which would transport raw materials (minerals, timber, cattle, grain) from the west to the east and manufactured goods from the east to the west. It was envisioned that at least three rail lines—one across the northern portion of the Great Plains, one across the central portion, and one across the southern portion—would be required.

It was not unfettered capitalism that drove the railroads across the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean, but capitalism nurtured and supported by the federal government. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation which granted “funds to aid the construction of a railroad and telegraph line from Lake Superior to Puget Sound.” Jay Cooke and Company, a Philadelphia banking house, became the financial agents for the railroad in 1869. They broke ground for the new railroad near present-day Carlton, Minnesota in 1870 and soon began grading and track-laying. In 1871, they started construction in the west at Kalama, Washington.

With regard to Indians through whose territories the northern rail line would run, in 1872 William Welsh, the former chairman of the Board of Indian Commissioners, supported the creation of the Northern Pacific Railroad as it would  “bring the lawless Indians of the North into subjection, and thus aid effectively the religious bodies charged with bringing Christian civilization.”

In 1872, surveyors were sent out from Fort Rice and from Fort Ellis under military escort to survey the placement of the railroad through the Yellowstone country. This was a direct affront to the Sioux and their allies

In Montana, about 2,000 Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho gathered at the big bend of the Powder River for a traditional Sun Dance. Following the Sun Dance they launched a major raid against the Crow. More than 1,000 warriors began their invasion of Crow territory when they discovered an American railroad survey party. The survey party of 20 men was protected by about 500 soldiers under the command of Major Baker. The Americans were camped at Arrow Creek (now called Pryor Creek) near present-day Billings.

A group of young warriors attacked the sleeping American camp, scattering the army livestock. The following day, a larger force under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse took a position on the bluffs above the American’s well-fortified site. Some of the warriors fired down at the soldiers and engineers. Sitting Bull walked down from the promontory and sat down within firing distance of the soldiers. There he opened his pipe bag, loaded the pipe with tobacco, and smoked it with the four warriors who had accompanied him. With bullets kicking up dust around them, Sitting Bull calmly and serenely smoked the pipe and passed it to the others. Historian Robert Larson, in his biography Gall: Lakota War Chief, writes:  “After each man had taken his puff, Sitting Bull, wearing only two simple feathers and carrying his bow, quiver of arrows, and gun, carefully cleaned out the bowl of the pipe. He then got up and slowly led his anxious comrades back to the main Indian lines.”

The Battle of Arrow Creek (also called the Baker Battle) was more of a skirmish than a battle and there were few casualties.  The leader of the surveyors, however, insisted on returning to Fort Ellis and refused to work in the Yellowstone area. This caused the survey efforts to move north to the Musselshell River.

In Montana, a small party of 20 to 30 Sioux warriors under the leadership of Gall encountered a railroad survey party from Fort Buford near the confluence of the Powder and Yellowstone Rivers. Gall’s warriors surprised the sleeping American camp before dawn, but failed to stampede their livestock. The Americans managed to retreat to the west bank of the Powder River.

Gall walked down to the riverbed opposite from the Americans. He placed his rifle on the ground and asked to speak to the leader of the trespassers. Colonel Stanley laid down his pistol and walked to the opposite bank. He asked Gall to meet him on a sandbar in the middle of the river, but Gall refused. Stanley then broke off the talks and there was an immediate exchange of gunfire.

At this point, Sitting Bull arrived with a large war party. However, the Americans were equipped with Gatling guns and easily drove the Sioux warriors back.

In spite of Indian opposition to the intrusion of the railroad, work continued. By 1873, the track from the east had reached Bismarck, North Dakota. However, Jay Cooke and Company went bankrupt with a 1,500 mile gap between the two ends of the track. In 1875, the Northern Pacific Railroad was organized under the leadership of Frederick Billings and by 1878 construction had begun again.

In 1881, the Northern Pacific reached the Yellowstone River at Miles City, Montana. This allowed for the direct shipment of buffalo hides to the east and increased commercial buffalo hunting. In 1883, the last spike of the Northern Pacific Railroad was driven at Independence (now Gold) Creek in Montana, marking the completion of the first of the northern transcontinental railroads.

The Katy and the Indians in the 19th Century

Following the Civil War, the Indian nations located in Indian Territory (an area which would later become the state of Oklahoma) faced two massive forces. First, the federal government wanted to impose new treaties on them, treaties which were intended to punish them for their role in the Civil War. The federal government either forgot or ignored the fact that the Civil War had divided these nations and that many had supported the Union during the war.

The second, and perhaps more powerful force, was the concept of manifest destiny which was being carefully nurtured by the corporate news media and the school systems. It was America’s destiny to occupy and develop the western wilderness, ignoring any interests which the aboriginal inhabitants of the area might have. One of the corporate sponsors of manifest destiny was the railroad. If the West was to be developed, then the railroads would have to connect them to American and global markets. The railroads lobbied Congress to obtain favored status and superior rights.  

Cherokee chief John Ross had been a Union supporter during the Civil War and had spent much of the war in Washington, D.C. In spite of Ross’s personal charisma and his influence among government officials, a new treaty was imposed upon the Cherokee. When John Ross died in Washington in 1866, his nephew Will Ross was named principal chief to fill the unexpired term of his uncle. John Ross had groomed him for this position and had paid for his education at Princeton, where he had graduated with honors at the top of his class. With regard to the new treaty with the United States, Will Ross said:

“Whatever may be our opinion as to the justice and wisdom of some of the stipulations it imposes, we have full assurance that the delegation obtained the most favorable terms they could, and it is our duty to comply in good faith with all its provisions.”

However, Chief Ross indicated that there were some troublesome articles in the treaty. One of these, Article 11, granted a right of way through Cherokee land for a railroad.

In addition to forcing the Cherokee to grant a railroad right-of-way through their territory, the federal government required the same of the other nations. In the 1866 treaty imposed upon the Creek, for example, the treaty called for the Creek to give up rights-of-way for two railroads: one north-south and one east-west.

In order to take advantage of manifest destiny, the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad was incorporated in 1870. It was generally called the K-T, which soon became the Katy. The newly formed railroad soon crossed the border into Cherokee territory and then veered southwest into the Creek Nation, the Choctaw Nation, and the Chickasaw Nation. This opened the way for the corporate invasion of Indian lands that would divest the tribes of their natural resources, land, and sovereignty. The Katy did not pay for its right-of-way. It also had an exemption from taxes and it bought raw materials from individuals in direct violation of tribal laws. In other words, the Katy ran roughshod over the Indian nations, seeking to extract as much wealth as it could while giving as little as possible in return.

In building the railroad, the steel rails had to be imported, but the ties upon which they rested could be obtained locally. The cedar forests which were abundant in Indian Territory seemed to be ideal for the ties. The railroad construction used up 2,700 ties per mile which resulted in much deforestation. Both the Choctaw and Chickasaw governments passed legislation to limit the exploitation of tribal resources to its tribal members. While many tribal members cut timber for the railroads, there was a great deal of poaching by non-Indians. Since the tribal courts had no jurisdiction over non-Indians, there was little that the Indian nations could do to enforce laws that regulated timber cutting.

Like other corporate interests of the time, the Katy felt that it was wrong for “unproductive” Indians to claim a rich and productive land while there were thousands of non-Indians who would be willing to take over the land and “develop” it. Of course, these non-Indians would make better use of the resources and in doing so would have to use the railroad’s services. In order to discourage Indian development, the Katy often refused to carry Indian freight and to stop at Indian towns.

In 1870, the first of a series of intertribal meetings known as the Okulgee Convention was held. Delegates from many Indian nations attended: Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, Ottawa, Eastern Shawnee, Quapaw, Seneca, Wyandotte, Peoria, Sac and Fox, Wea, Osage, and Absentee Shawnee. The delegates drew up a memorial to President Ulysses S. Grant, asking him to uphold the treaties of 1866-1867, to prevent the creation of a territorial government, and to deny access to the territory to any new railroads.

In 1871, Cherokee entrepreneur E.C. Bodinot, knowing where the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas (Katy) and the Atlantic and Pacific (A & P) railroads would intersect in the Cherokee Nation, constructed a hotel at the site. He then staked off the rest of the land into lots and named the new town Vinita. However, Boudinot’s actions were illegal under Cherokee law. Cherokee law at this time decreed that all land within one square mile of any railroad station was under the control of the Cherokee Nation. No one could make improvements on it without authorization from the Cherokee government. The Cherokee, in order to avoid a legal battle with Boudinot, convinced the A & P to move the intersection three miles north. In response Boudinot moved his hotel, and the new town of Vinita, north to the new site. The hotel, a two-story building, was named the Railroad Hotel.

In 1871, the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad built an illegal rail line through Choctaw territory in order to obtain coal.

In 1872, the Katy was completed through Creek territory. The completion of the railroad connected the Creek nation economically with the outside world. This encouraged more non-Indian agricultural settlement.

By 1876, railroads were often touted as important for economic development of the tribes and the tribes were encouraged to provide economic support for the railroads passing through their lands. In Oklahoma, however, the Cherokee found that passengers were being charged 12 cents a mile in their nation as compared with 3-4 cents in the neighboring off-reservation states. Freight rates on the reservation were high and in some instances the train would not stop on the reservation to even pick up the mail. When the tribes complained about this lack of service, the railroad lobbyists simply used this to bolster their case that so long as the tribes remained, profitable corporate enterprise would not be possible.

The Choctaw appointed a tax collector to exercise their right as a sovereign nation to tax the railroad. If the Choctaw had the power to grant rights-of-way, they reasoned, then they should have the power to tax the railroads. The Katy ignored this.

One of the lobbyists for the railroads was Elias Boudinot, a Cherokee from a prominent family. In 1879 he published an article in the Chicago Times that identified 14 million acres of Indian Territory as available for homesteading. This was land that had been set aside for the future settlement of Indians and had not yet been utilized. Boudinot’s article was widely republished in neighboring states. The Secretary of the Interior was soon receiving inquiries about homesteading the land. In addition, prospective settlers began camping out along the borders. Army patrols attempted to keep the intruders out. The Secretary of the Interior hinted to the tribes that the federal government might not be able to stem the tide of non-Indian settlement and advised them to give up holding land in common. They should instead prepare for the inevitable arrival of the homesteaders.

Alarmed at the pressure being exerted by the railroads to open up Indian country in Oklahoma, a group of non-Indian women in the east gathered signatures on a petition. In 1880 they presented a roll of signatures more than 300 feet long to President Rutherford Hayes and to Congress. They then gathered more than 100,000 signatures on a second petition.

In 1882, Congress granted a railroad a right-of-way through the Choctaw Nation in Indian Territory, thus setting the precedent that Congress might authorize corporations to exercise privileges upon Indian lands without consulting the tribes.

Overall, all of the railroads, and particularly the Katy, in Indian Territory set the stage for the destruction of tribal governments, the loss of Indian land and resources, and the increase in poverty among Indians. It shows that corporate interests, at least during the late nineteenth century, were greater than those of either the Indian people (most of whom could not vote) and the sovereign Indian nations for whom the United States had a fiduciary responsibility.