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Trans Mississippi West Essay Writing

The Transportation Frontier: Trans-Mississippi West, 1865-1890. By Oscar Osburn Winther. [Histories of the American Frontier. Edited by Ray Allen Billington.] (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. Pp. xiv, 224. Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliographical notes, index. $4.50.)

This is a well-balanced, fact-filled, and thoughtful book which digests in lucid and readable fashion information that has hitherto been available only in articles or monographs. Winther's primary contribution is his intelligent assembling of these details into a cohesive, logical pattern that reveals conclusively the crucial impact of transportation on the final transformation of the Trans-Mississippi West from a trackless wilderness into an inter-connected, albeit sprawling, community. Hardly less commendable is the fact that the book loses not one whit of the flavor of the West with all its contrasts of high tragedy, low comedy, and irrepressible vigor.

The Transportation Frontier is part of the Histories of the American Frontier series, but this volume is, as series editor Billington promises, a complete story in itself. Winther deals with all forms of transport: wagons carrying both freight and people, steamboats, railways, bicycles, and autos. In doing so, he corrects many an inaccurate notion about western transportation. He shows, for example, that wagon freighting and travel by stage lingered well into the current century; that steamboats plied not only the great rivers but countless tributary streams as well, and that cyclists, rather than motorists, put underway the first sustained movement for good roads. Of course, during the period discussed the railways in increasing tempo took over the bulk of the West's transportation job. Winther tells this familiar tale well, spicing it with aptly-chosen descriptions of just what it was like to finance, build, maintain, and improve an ever-growing network where the extremes of physiography and the perils first of Indians and then of gunmen made railroading a matter of high adventure. Throughout the volume the author systematically pauses to describe how the growth of transport determined the fate of the great cities of the West. He does far less in tracing the impact of transportation on the regional economies involved.

In the light of the many positive contributions of this compact volume, its shortcomings are few and relatively minor. The proposition stated on page 7 that the Civil War failed "to curb significantly the westward march" is not convincingly supported, and indeed is virtually (and, in this reviewer's opinion, properly) contradicted on pages 15, 96, 105-06. Winther is a bit wobbly in describing the well-known story of the federal land grants (and land-grant rates) on pages 99-103, and gives "over 150 million acres" rather than the correct 131 million as the net acreage involved. The Burlington did not reach Omaha in 1868 (p. 185); and, of course, the Hannibal and St. Joseph became a part of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, not the "Burlington and Quincy" as appears on pages 93, 212, and 216. Although most direct quotations are clearly documented in individual footnotes, there are numerous "bundle footnotes" (for example, nos. 3 and 4, p. 165 and no. 23, p. 168) which needlessly leave the reader guessing. In view of the thorough and more recent works of Frederick Merk, Solon J. Buck, and I. Leo Sharfman (to mention only three) on the "grievances against the railroads" one may well question whether William Larrabee's dated and partial The Railroad Question (1893) is "one of the better accounts" (p. 183). And, as Wallace Farnham has convincingly demonstrated, Grenville Dodge's "How we Built the Union Pacific Railway" must be used with extreme caution. The map of stage coach routes on pages 62-63 hardly illustrates adequately what the text describes, while the railroad map on pages 118-19 suffers from being labelled "circa 1890," is difficult to read, and is downright misleading in several details. Although the Bibliographical Notes are extremely helpful as to articles and archival materials, a great many solid monographs are omitted. The index is adequate for specific names and places but almost wholly lacking in functional headings.

These shortcomings, however, may be casualties of speed and space. If this handy book goes into later editions, as it richly deserves to do, such details can and should be corrected. Winther has certainly done a solid and much-needed piece of work; his book is without question a "must" for the topic and period it covers.

The University of Western Ontario

Richard C. Overton

Background Essay on Iron Horses and Indians

This essay discusses the impact of the transcontinental railroad on Native American life. It focuses on the role of buffalo hunters in the federal government's policy of Indian removal. This essay, and the related Iron Horse vs. the Buffalo activity, can be used as a companion to the 1877: The Grand Army of Starvationdocumentary.

Railroads transformed the West and forever changed the lives of Native Americans. 

The first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Over the next twenty years, railroads carried farmers and ranchers who settled on the Great Plains, soldiers who fought Indians wars, and hunters who killed buffalo for sport and profit. The farmers, ranchers, soldiers, and buffalo hunters, together with businessmen who came to develop the West's mineral and lumber resources, spelled destruction for the Great Plains Indians and their way of life. 

Union generals who had won fame in the Civil War, like William Tecumseh Sherman and Phil Sheridan, went west to mobilize U.S. troops against Native Americans. While it encountered fierce resistance and sometimes heavy losses, the U.S. army ultimately succeeded in removing Indians from their traditional lands and onto reservations. 

The policy of Indian removal succeeded in part because of superior U.S. firepower. But just as crucial was the annihilation of buffalo herds. Central to the religion, culture, and sustenance of Indian hunters, the buffalo served many purposes. It yielded meat for food while its hides provided robes for clothing and tepees for shelter. But by the 1880s, the buffalo was near extinction. Powerful, steam-belching railroad locomotives, or iron horses as the Indians called them, now rode the Plains where buffalo once roamed. 

Railroad companies organized buffalo hunts for eastern sportsmen. In just two years, from 1872 to 1874, hunters using high-powered rifles with telescopic scopes, some never leaving the comfort of their railroad cars, slaughtered 3,550,000 buffalo. 

Urging the hunters, General Phil Sheridan exhorted: "Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated, as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance." 

By destroying the Indian's subsistence in food, clothing, and shelter, Sheridan explained in 1874, the buffalo hunters "have done more in the last two years, and will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question [removing tribes to reservations] than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years." 

As the trans-Mississippi West opened for white settlement, the federal government denied Indians on the Plains traditional rights and access to much of the land where herds of buffalo roamed. Tribes were pushed further westward onto smaller and smaller reservations. The plan was to discourage an economy based on hunting and to encourage agricultural settlement. 

The flip side of the policy of Indian removal was the distribution of cheap land by federal, state, and local governments. Some lands went to pioneering family farmers. Much more land came under the control of big corporations. The biggest land give-away was to railroads. After the Civil War, Congress, state legislatures and town councils distributed 180 million free acres to railroad companies to encourage construction. The free acreage was equivalent in size to the entire land mass of Texas and Oklahoma. 

With free land from the government, the transcontinental railroads created a transportation network from the Atlantic to the Pacific. By doing so, they joined the west to a worldwide marketplace and transformed nature, work, culture and economic relations on the Great Plains. 

The settlers brought by the railroads came with a culture and economy very different than that of Native American hunters on the Plains. These new farmers and entrepreneurs believed in property rights, which put them in conflict with the Indians. Title, or proof of ownership, is important to anyone who farms, develops, buys, or sells land. But property ownership is meaningless to hunting and gathering economies. What good is a title if the buffalo you hunt never crosses your property. A hunter must go where the buffalo goes, which means that out of necessity hunting tribes have little respect for boundaries, fences, titles or property.  

By 1890 the iron horse had replaced the buffalo and U.S. soldiers, settlers, adventurers, prospectors, miners, lumbermen, ranchers, farmers, merchants, investors, and government officials populated the West where Indians in the millions once lived.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media & Learning, 2005.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media & Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media & Learning, “Background Essay on Iron Horses and Indians,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed March 10, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1914.

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