In my last blog I covered the importance railroads played in the exploration and expansion of Kansas, the Great Plains, and subsequently, the American West. The thousands of miles of rail laid in the late 1800’s proved to be extremely useful to those intent on spreading West and facilated the rapid conquest, settlement and exploitation of the land. While all of this is extremely benefitial for the growing United States, it came at a great cost to the many tribes of Native People living in Kansas and the Great Plains.
For years Kansas had been regarded as a baron desert, incapable of producing worth. Yet, Native tribes had flourished in the region for centuries. There was some contact between Native tribes and settlers in the mid- 1800’s as many passed through the area on a handful of wagon trails leading West, but it was only a glimpse of what was to come. With increased interest in westward expansion and fulfilling Manifest Destiny, travel over Kansas increased. The tribes that had survived in the region for generations depended wholly on the ecosystem of the Plains– an ecosystem that was quickly being altered by white settlers. The dozens of tribes that lived on the plains had developed a lifestyle that revolved around the use of buffalo. The buffalo these people harvested was put to over 50 uses, from food, to tools and shelter. In contrast to this white hunters were hired to kill buffalo for their hides, to provide food for rail workers, and for mere sport. It is estimated that 15-60 million buffalo populated the Great Plains before the arrival of whites. Around the turn of the 20th century, that number had been decreased to only 1,000.
Along with the huge blow to the ecosystem (and Native tribes) that the near extinction of buffalo brought, it was further exploited by railroad and lumber companies. The land of Plains Indian tribes was a hot commodity for railroad companies and land speculators in the 19th century. A region once viewed as a worthless “American Desert” was now given value by the lucrative possibility of creating railroads to link the East and the West. All too often the treaties that allowed the companies to obtain this land were wrought with fraud. Treaties with the Deleware, Kickapoo and Osage in the 1850’s and ’60s were were all accomplished by some form of deceite or distortion. Even Kansas Senators James Lane and Samuel Pomeroy were involved in this period of land swindling. As land was continually taken from its Native inhabitants the rails of the East ventured farther and farther across Kansas.
All of these factors added up to be another crippling blow that white culture exacted on Native People. This loss of homeland and natural resources further changed the culture of Native Americans, forcing them further into the white world and the realization that their way of life would never be the same. With even more land gone and now surrounded by white Euro-Americans, Natives had to fight to maintain their soveriegnty and culture even harder.
Could all of this been avoided? Could the United States and its citizens have continued to expand West while co-existing with Native People in a more peaceful way? Most believe the answer to be “no.” The American dream and Manifest Destiny ran too deeply for Americans to choose to co-exist. With a huge number of white’s coming to the region bent on the spread of “freedom”, Christianity and the search of prosperity and wealth the attitude of colonialism ran too deep. Historian Thomas Le Duc was eloquently quoted in the book The End of Indian Kansas, “Americans seem to felt a greater need for ritualistic declaration of a moral code than for achieving even minimal adherence to it.”
Craig Miner and William E. Unrau. The End of Indian Kansas: A Study of Cultural Revolution, 1854-71. Lawrence, Ks: University Press of Kansas, 1990.
PBS. “Transcontinental Railroad: Native Americans.” Interview with Donald Fixico, PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/tcrr/sfeature/sf_interview.html. (accessed November 18, 2009).
Reed, Louis. “Early Railroad History in Kansas.” Kansas Heritage. http://www.kansasheritage.org/research/rr/rrhistory.html.(accessed November 18, 2009).