How Railroads Took Native American Lands in Kansas

Although the Union Pacific was built across the Nebraska prairie in the late 1860s, there were other routes and plans competing for U.S. government and foreign investment in the 1850s. Across vast sections of the middle United States, Indian nations held title to hundreds of thousands of acres by treaty, and any railroad project through these lands would need to obtain a right of way or title. For years in the 1850’s all sorts of powerful interests campaigned for selection and funding as the first transcontinental railroad. In this complex jockeying for position, Northern investors and the U.S. government arranged to defraud the Indian nations of nearly all of their lands along the principal routes in Kansas.

In Kansas the expansion of the railroads in the 1850s jeopardized every treaty the U. S. government had struck with Indian nations. The roads were expanding so quickly that white settlement in Indian lands could not be held back. “Railroads built and building from the Atlantic and Gulf cities, not only reach the Mississippi river at about twenty different points,” Commissioner of Indian Affairs George Manypenny wrote in 1856, “but are extending west across Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Iowa. Roads of that character have also been commenced in Texas, looking to El Paso, and in Iowa, looking for the great bend in the Minnesota river for a present, and for Pembina for a future terminus. The railroad companies of Missouri and Iowa are even now seeking aid from Congress to enable them to extend their roads to New Mexico, Kansas, Nebraska, and Utah, and thence to California, Oregon, and Washington.”

Manypenny found it “impossible to avoid the conclusion” that “in a few years” the railroads lined up from New Orleans to the west shore of Lake Superior on their jumping off points would reach into the interior west. He also saw that “an active population will keep up with the advance of the railroads.” Manypenny thought that if the country were “favored with peace and prosperity” the railroads would cross the plains and link up the nation within “ten years.” Indeed, he considered the “physical changes impending” to be “at our very door.”

Tens of thousands of Euro-Americans took the Overland Trail west in the 1850s, settled on the Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota prairies, and crossed into Native lands. For Native Americans Manypenny’s observations abounded in ironies. Between 1853 and 1856, the U.S. government initiated and signed over fifty-two treaties with Native groups and each of these legal documents duly recorded vast cessions of lands. Indian agents and the Bureau of Indian Affairs inaugurated a series of policies aimed at bringing Native Americans onto reservations and clearing corridors for white settlement and travel. The agency’s reports were couched in the guise of “civilization” and littered with the language of progress. Much of their efforts were aimed at restricting the mobility of all of the Indian tribes, fixing them on a reservation, out of the way for railroad development on the prairies.

The Delaware, the Kickapoo, and the Shoshone struck treaties allowing railroad development across their reservations, but each treaty was filled with fraudulent loopholes. Each treaty asserted in a key provision that the Delaware, Kickapoo, and Shoshone held “the belief that the value of their lands will be enhanced by having a railroad passing through their present reservation.” Ostensibly, in the case of the Delaware, their lands were to be appraised by commissioners appointed by the Secretary of the Interior and then sold for a minimum of $1.25 per acre to the Leavenworth, Pawnee and Western Railroad Company. In addition, the railroad company would pay for surveying the land, and only by completing several twenty-five mile stretches of railroad would the company obtain official title to the lands. “By this treaty fifty miles of railroad are secured to the Territory of Kansas, without one dollar being paid from the territorial treasury or by the general government,” the conniving and manipulative agent Thomas B. Sykes boasted.

The connections the railroad would make were self-evident to Sykes: “It will connect at Leavenworth with the Platte country and St. Joseph railroad, and thence on by the way of Chicago to New York; also at Leavenworth with the St. Louis and Pacific railroad, and at St. Louis with all the eastern and southern roads. This is the first and greatest link in the great Pacific railway, west of the state of Missouri. It is another step toward the Pacific shores. It is another link in the iron chain that is to bind the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

Throughout these negotiations, the Leavenworth, Pawnee, and Western Railroad Company was represented by Thomas Ewing, Jr., a young aspiring attorney who had moved to Kansas in 1856 to set up his law practice. A well-placed Republican from Ohio, Ewing was also step-brother and brother-in-law of William T. Sherman.  A few years later a set of similar treaties with the Pottowatomie and the Kickapoo in Kansas opened the way for further extension of the railroads. These treaties divested 576,000 acres from the former nation and 150,000 acres from the latter. Both treaties asserted that the “civilization” of the Indians would be advanced by dividing their common lands up into sections for individual Indian settlement, a process called “severalty.” The treaties further stipulated that only when the President was “satisfied” that these individuals were “sufficiently intelligent and prudent to control their affairs and interests” would he allow them to possess full title to the land in “fee simple.” Furthermore, in its key provisions each treaty authorized Ewing’s railroad company, the Fort Leavenworth, Pawnee, and Western, to have the “the privilege of buying the remainder of their lands.” In other words, the railroad was to be “extended through their reserve” and only the railroad company had the right to purchase the leftover sections that were not taken in severalty by individual Indians. The company could make this move “within six months after the tracts herein otherwise disposed of shall have been selected and set apart.” The Kickapoo in Kansas struck a similar arrangement but with the Atchison and Pike’s Peak Railroad Company.

In each treaty there were massive irregularities. The Delaware maintained that the four chiefs who signed their treaty were drunk and bribed by special lifelong salary provisions. Their agent, Thomas B. Sykes, was thought to have provided them with copious amounts of liquor on signing day. But the defrauding of the Delaware had two additional, more significant injustices. The first was that the treaty provided for the appointment of independent appraisers to assign a value to the lands left over after allotment. There were over 223,000 acres appraised and they extended across much of the richest prairie soil in Kansas. The railroad had to pay a minimum of $1.25 an acre but the lands were worth much more than that. When the commissioners came back with a value of $1.28 an acre, just above the minimum and far below what the lands were worth, the Delaware had little recourse for appeal. Second, the railroad company was supposed to pay $286,742.15 for the land in “gold or silver coin” but the company paid in bonds secured by 100,000 acres of the land, and then offered the remaining 123,000 acres for sale at prices from $20 to $50 an acre. Pocketing the difference, the railroad company directors put up no cash in the deal.

Kansas in this period was a cauldron for fraudulent railroad schemes, but not all agents were as corrupt and irresponsible as Sykes. The Neosho’s Agent, Andrew J. Dorn, caught wind of a land deal that a railroad company independently struck with the Osage Indians and he reported the incident to the Commissioner on Indian Affairs and the Secretary of the Interior in 1858. Rumors flew that various railroad companies were consolidating large tracts of land, especially those with valuable timber, and swindling the Indian groups whenever necessary into selling them. All of these deals took place in clear violation of the Intercourse Act restricting trade with Native Americans and limiting the purchase and sale of Indian lands to the U.S. government by treaty. But, as in the case of the Delaware, Pottowatomie, Shoshone, and Kickapoo, the U.S. government’s administered treaties contained within them plenty of opportunity for duplicity and fraud.

Sources: Annual Report of the Secretary of the Interior, 1856 (Washington: A. O. P. Nicholson Printers, 1857): 22-23, Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, November 22, 1856. Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Annual Report of the Secretary of the Interior, 1860 (Washington: A. O. P. Nicholson Printers, 1860): 103. Report of Thomas B. Sykes, Delaware Agency, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory, September 16, 1860. For copies of the original treaties, see Ayer collection, Volume 3. oE 95 .U69 1825, Newberry Library. Clinton Alfred Wesieger, The Delaware Indians: A History (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1972): 414. Andrew J. Dorn to Charles E. Mix, January 14, 1858; J. Thompson to Charles E. Mix, February 9, 1858; R. S. Stevens to Hon. J. W. Denver, April 14, 1858, University of Kansas, Territorial Kansas Online. A balanced account of the treaties and the possible advantages of the railroads for Indian groups is H. Craig Miner and William E. Unrau, The End of Indian Kansas: A Study of Cultural Revolution, 1854-1871 (Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1978), chapter 2. Also for a critical account, see Paul Wallace Gates, Fifty Million Acres: Conflicts over Kansas Land Policy, 1854-1890 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1954). And Francis Paul Prucha, American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 235-287.

About William Thomas

William G. Thomas III is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities. He teaches digital humanities and digital history, 19th century U.S. history, the Civil War, and the history of slavery.
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One Response to How Railroads Took Native American Lands in Kansas

  1. Great article about the railroad expansion!

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