"No enterprise," Poor's Manual of Railroads declared at the dawn of the twentieth century, "is so seductive as a railroad for the influence it exerts, the power it gives, and the hope of gain it offers." By 1865 railroads heavily crisscrossed the eastern United States and, following the Civil War, pushed West ahead of the frontier line and entered the Great Plains. State legislatures, assisted by federal funding, passed more than eight hundred statutes encouraging railroad construction between 1866 and 1873. Prior to the Civil War, the Great Plains and Mountain West contained 960 miles of track. By the turn of the century, rail mileage exceeded 90,000 miles. The extension of rail networks transformed the country's economy and politics, but especially influenced law. Many late nineteenth-century administrative, corporate, and tort law developed from legislative attempts to encourage or regulate railroads. Within a generation after the Civil War, five transcontinental railroad lines crossed the United States to the Pacific coast.
The westward surge met opposition from American Indian tribes who sought to halt American expansion into western territories. Between 1870 and 1907 railroads collectively contributed to the erosion of tribal legal culture and sovereignty in Indian Territory, a region of land in present-day Oklahoma set aside for American Indians in 1834. Following the Civil War, railroads sought to cross Indian Territory and connect rail routes in the West that led to southern and western markets. By 1907 more than fourteen railroads, including the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas (the Katy) and the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway (Frisco), crossed Indian Territory. The desire for economic expansion and territorial development drove railroads into the American West where they met opposition from American Indian tribes resisting the loss of land and autonomy.
The Cherokee Nation engaged a legal remedy to railroad expansion in 1887 when it sued the Southern Kansas Railway Company, which constructed two lines through the Cherokee Outlet without tribal consent. Challenging the authority of Congress to grant the railroad a right-of-way, the Cherokees sought to maintain sovereignty over their land. The concept of sovereignty means more than political authority or autonomy, but also encompasses cultural significance. Standing Rock Sioux scholar Vine Deloria Jr. identified sovereignty as "continued cultural integrity" rather than "political powers," concluding that "to the degree that a nation loses its sense of cultural identity, to that degree it suffers a loss of sovereignty." The Cherokee Nation argued they maintained similar political status as the United States, but also spoke in terms of cultural integrity. The refused to speak of themselves as "tribes" occupying "reservations," but rather a "nation" governing their own "territory." The legal battle between the Cherokee Nation and Southern Kansas Railway culminated in a transitional episode as an ever-expanding federal judiciary and executive over the western United States threatened Cherokee identity, legal culture, and sovereignty.
"This Great and Sovereign Right" will serve two goals. The first is to provide access to relevant documents related to the court case and the construction of the railroad. Machine-readable digital texts can be searched, browsed, and manipulated by readers. Maps and other visualizations will document key issues surrounding the construction of the railroad. Furthermore, this project seeks to utilize digital tools to explore the issues surrounding the court case and how the railroad's expansion brought profound economic, social, and political changes to the Cherokee Nation.