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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 Starvation documentary.

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.Creative Commons License
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media & Learning, “Background Essay on Iron Horses and Indians,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 1, 2023,

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