Here is another article that I had written for Prairie Fans a couple of years ago. With any luck, I will continue along with this series next month.
Following the Railroad: How the Iron Horse Changed the American Landscape (Part 1) Indian Country By Cheryl C. Malandrinos
In Donald Zochert’s biography titled Laura, he tells of a visit Charles Ingalls received from his sister Docia. Her husband, Hiriam was working for the railroad and Docia asked if Charles would be interested in moving to Dakota Territory to work with him. Even though his wife, Caroline was reluctant to leave Walnut Grove, she agreed to go.
The family settled into the Silver Lake Camp in 1879. According to William Anderson’s book The Story of the Ingalls, Charles performed clerical work for the railroad. During the winter, his family stayed in the Surveyor’s House and Charles traveled to Brookings in early 1880 to take a homestead, which would become the Ingalls farm. Charles had also been purchasing town lots in De Smet and in the fall of 1887 Charles, Caroline, Carrie and Grace settled permanently in De Smet, making it — as promised to his wife — their last move. Mary was away from home during this time, studying at the Iowa College for the Blind.
The railroad played a substantial role in the events that unfolded for the Ingalls family in the late 1800’s. Towns like Brookings and De Smet popped up across the country as the railroad worked feverishly to connect the East and West Coasts. Let’s take a look at how the railroad changed the American landscape.
There were many obstacles to building a transcontinental railroad — financing, selecting the most practical and economical routes, and the Civil War to name a few. But perhaps the greatest challenge to connecting the East and the West was Indian Country. This part of the United States was the only portion left unorganized after the Compromise of 1850. Indian Country ran from Texas to Canada and from the Missouri border to the Rockies. And it was obvious the U.S. Government intended to remove this obstacle to make way for the railroad.
In March of 1853, Congress authorized surveys to find which was the “most practical and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.” And in August of the same year, President Franklin Pierce sent the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, George Maypenny to Indian Country to see if the tribes would agree to a territorial government which would relinquish their title to some or all of the land. Interestingly enough, Maypenny did not visit with the tribes located in the areas that were favored for the transcontinental railroad routes. Instead he spoke to the Omaha who resided between the Missouri and the Platte; and then moved south to speak with the Oto and Missouri, the Sauk and Fox, the Kickapoo, and the Delawares who were north of the Kansas River. Most of these tribes had been pushed across the Mississippi a few years earlier and were promised by the White Father that these new lands would be theirs “as long as the grass shall grow or the waters run.”
Most of the tribes signed the treaties Maypenny offered them, but about half of the nations refused to acquiesce to the pressure from the U.S. Government and instead accepted reduced reserves. Maypenny sometimes accepted partial cessions when tribes were especially stubborn. He also agreed that the ceded lands would be “administered by the United States in trust for the ceding nations; that the acres should be sold at public sale to the highest bidder and that they should not be offered at the usual minimum price of $1.25 until after the lapse of three years.”
Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois had a strong interest in the transcontinental railroad and he wanted the route to run through Chicago, which he saw as a great economic advantage for his State and home town. But this meant the railroad would have to run through Indian Country. To solve the problem, Douglas introduced a bill in January of 1854, calling for the organization of a huge new territory, known as Nebraska — west of Iowa and Missouri — which would open this portion of the country up to white settlement.
As Douglas suspected, the South opposed the bill because it made way for another free state. This new territory would be north of the Missouri Compromise line and therefore, closed to slavery. But Douglas added a provision to the bill stating that whether Nebraska was free or slave would be decided by the territorial legislature – a policy known as popular sovereignty. But Southern Democrats wanted more, so Douglas wrote an additional clause which withdrew the antislavery provision of the Missouri Compromise and also created two territories out of the area — Kansas and Nebraska. Few believed Nebraska would be open to slavery, but by having two territories instead of one, there was still hope that Kansas would become a slave state. The final draft of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was signed into law in May 1854 with the full support of the South and partial support from the Northern Democrats. The only portion of Indian Country left untouched was the section between Texas and the thirty-seventh parallel.
White settlement into the territories of Kansas and Nebraska was slow, and when the decade ended, only 107,206 people resided in Kansas and in Nebraska there were a scant 28,841. The Kansas-Nebraska Act did not put an end to the slavery question, nor did it promote emigration. But it was successful in removing the obstacle created by Indian Country. It seemed a railroad to the Pacific was inevitable.