historian, author, film producer

Railroads and the Shaping of the Great Plains: a “Digging into Data” talk at the Center for Great Plains Studies

Center for Great Plains Studies, Paul Olson Seminar
“Railroads, the Making of Modern America, and the Shaping of the Great Plains”
April 13, 2011

[The research, data, and visualizations for this talk have been made possible with a National Endowment for the Humanities Digging into Data Competition Grant, and with the collaborative work of Richard Healey, Ian Cottingham, Michael Johns, and Leslie Working. I will be posting the full visualizations later as we finalize them. The purpose here is to use “big data” to create new knowledge–whether about settlement patterns or worker mobility.]

On a day in mid June 1874 Andreas Mosser bought 80 acres of Nebraska land, near Crete, in Lancaster County. He paid $565.00, or about $7 per acre for the parcel. His purchase was on credit, and in that respect it was unremarkable, one of many thousands of purchases that the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad Land Office executed that year. But Mosser stands out, at least to me, and serves an example to get our bearings on how railroads made modern America and shaped the Great Plains. Mosser was from Hungary, Weiselburg according to his application, and when he walked into the Burlington Land Office in Lincoln, Nebraska, he had been in the United States for exactly 14 days. He had been in Nebraska 8 days when he signed his contract.

Such a journey would have been impossible a decade earlier–in 1864 the U.S. was at war, torn apart by sectional divisions. Mosser participated in the great compression of time and space of railroads inaugurated–but how did we get to this point? How was this able to happen and what did it mean for Americans?

I’m proposing here that the Great Plains as a region became the central place in the transformation of modern America (and that’s saying something–I’m a Southern historian by training and tend to think that everything important happened there; and I’m a Virginian by birth and tend to think that everything that ever happened at all happened there) for three reasons.

First, the Great Plains, particularly Kansas, became the site of displacement of Native peoples made possible with new forms of treaties–ones that were designed to enable specific railroad companies to profit from a process of severalty, indeed, experimenting with severalty long before the Dawes Act of 1887.

Second, workers came with the railroads and made the Great Plains a central region in the new industrial landscape taking shape in the U.S.

Third, the Plains became the site of a massive reconfiguration of landscape and the migration of millions, all structured around the expansion of the railroads.

The common experience in these years was a widely felt alteration that railroads, steamships, and telegraphs made possible in the relationship between space and time. This profound shift was something anyone experienced when traveling on the railroad as Andreas Mosser did, whether the individual was a company president, a general, a soldier, an emigrant, or a runaway slave. The 19th c. phrase for this was “annihilating space and time.” Time and space were not actually obliterated, of course, but they were rearranged, compressed and lengthened and warped.

Nineteenth-century Americans, in short, experienced something similar to our circumstances today when we say that the world is getting flatter. They confronted a rapidly developing set of technologies that made their world smaller, faster, and more intricately complicated. But they also participated in and witnessed the vast expansion of the nation across space and through time. To use today’s terminology, the railroad was a hardware and software system with “interfaces”, such as the time table, and, like the Internet, these interfaces performed all sorts of tasks for Americans, slowly altering how people saw themselves, their futures, and their opportunities. In this respect the initial burst of the railroad and telegraph era, from about 1840 to 1880, was one of the first transformative technological periods in American history. Henry Adams described this years later, when in The Education of Henry Adams, he noted that his generation was “mortgaged” to the railroads and that the railroads “absorbed the energies” of 60 million Americans. The people in the Great Plains region stood at the center of this energetic absorption.

To understand this, let’s start with a time table. The time table was an astonishingly complex innovation and perhaps the best example we have of an “interface” to the railroad system. At first, time tables were printed on small cards because local railroads, such as the Boston & Worcester, made just one or two runs a day over a short distance. But the 1850s marked a major shift as hundreds of new junctions came on line in the Midwest and South. Railroads in this period operated primarily as passenger lines, and time tables for longer lines became increasingly intricate. The time table presented Americans with an abstract geography, a chart of time, cost, place, and distance. Andreas Mosser would have consulted something like this–and in his journey he navigated this abstract geography.

But the 19th c. time table has proven very difficult to represent, even with computer technology, and especially difficult to reconstitute. This is true because of two essential, but often overlooked, truths: the railroad network was always changing, never the same at any given time or place, though people acted as if it were–and because when people read the time table, they brought their own experience and information to the table. A new history of the railroads in the Great Plains would need to take full account of these. These transformations were not inevitable, nor were they determined by the technology; instead, we need to reconstruct how people used the railroads, and the social changes they experienced.

At this point I should say that seeing the railroads as the transformative technology of the 19th century seemed especially relevant to me in the context of the digital revolution we have been living through. As a scholar working in the digital humanities, I was experiencing not only the exuberance (19th c. writers used the word “mania”) but also the uncertainty and anxiety of the digital age.

The goal of our team’s digital project on Railroads and the Making of Modern America has been to use the digital platform–the web site–to open up the research process, to make visible evidence otherwise obscure, to create models and visualizations about historical questions, and to attempt to uncover patterns in data and sources not otherwise apparent. To be able to understand the world of Andreas Mosser. A large part of what I’ll be talking about today was made possible by a National Endowment for the Humanities Digging into Data grant. We have attempted to use computational techniques, GIS mapping, and visualization strategies to re-examine the world of the Great Plains and the changes that came with the railroads.

So, how did the Great Plains became the central place in the transformation of modern America, the region where the compression of time and space, control of nature, and personal mobility–all key elements of modernity–came together in surprising and dramatic ways?

In fact, the centrality of the Plains was clear early in the process of railroad transformation. First, the region was contested territory in the section struggle of the 1850s, largely because of the intensity of the railroad growth in this period [see maps]. When Asa Whitney presented his ambitious plan for a transcontinental railroad to the American public and the United States Congress in 1849, he placed a giant map in the front page of his treatise, “A Project for a Railroad to the Pacific.” At the center of the page, and of the world, stood the United States, strategically poised to link Asia with Europe, and at the center of the United States stood the Great Plains, the great blank crossroads on nearly every map of the period. “The entire commerce of the world must be tributary” to the United States, Whitney asserted in his typically grandiose prose. “Nature” aligned the United States as the great middle nation of the world.

Whitney tried to persuade Congress to pay attention to “the geographical division formed by nature” that favored the United States. The world’s economies flowed, he pointed out, through the mountain barriers, river corridors, and desert spaces on the continent. Nature guided commerce, he argued, and only a massive industrial reconfiguration of these forces could alter natural patterns. By “forcing the commerce” through a shorter route, railroads would redirect the natural flow of goods and capital. Whitney’s point was meant to impress his readers: nature determined commercial position, but human progress in the steam age would reconfigure the globe and, indeed, defy nature. So, Whitney’s plan for the transcontinental meant to account for the reconfiguration of time and space that came with steam power by superimposing a “second nature” system on the landscape. And the critical place in this reconfiguration would be The Great Plains. His conclusion: “If the plan succeeds, it would make the whole world tributary to us.”

It should be mentioned that Whitney had nothing to say about slavery, about the South’s potential expansion, nor anything to say about Native peoples. He proposed that the land 30 miles on either side of the transcontinental be sold–but nothing about how the land would be acquired, it was left to the House committee to say that the whole plan depended on “the extinguishment of the Indian title.” Whitney’s views–that nature could be directed–that free labor could prosper in the West–were part of a much larger vision for the region. He proposed after all, as he put it, “an entirely new system of settlement.” Of white immigrants as independent farmers.

Railroads had not yet reached Nebraska in 1860 despite theses visions, yet still in Nebraska the compression of time and space was widely experienced and imagined. In Omaha, in September 1860 John McConihe was running pack trains for emigrants to Denver, when the completion of the telegraph to Omaha linked the city to New York. He wrote his business partner there, “In ‘America’ now, we read the same despatches [sic] at the breakfast table in the morning paper that you do.” Less than a month later, he reported, “The wire is being stretched on the poles between Omaha and Kearney, and soon the electric fluid will flash from Kearney on the Platte to New York.”

Railroads too elicited this sort of eager anticipation–and served to connect the distant, making places dramatically nearer. Sarah Sim, a Connecticut woman who moved with her husband Francis, to settle near Nebraska City, explained to her relatives in 1860, “There is a Rail road building on the east side of the Missouri that will come within 3 or 4 miles of us so we shall be able to hear the whistle of the locomotive once more. Then we can take the cars at Neb. City and run all the way home.”

This idea is terribly significant: that that the Conn. relatives could be reached–that you could run all the way home–the idea that two business partners 2,000 miles apart from one another could read the same news at the same time in their morning papers.

So, we can see three parts of this process unfolding on the Great Plains:

1. Great Plains as a site of a modern process of displacement as Native peoples land titles were put in service to the railroads and, to use the 19th c. white phrase, “extinguished.”

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. Then in 1861 some treaties were renegotiated on terms that gave railroads in the Plains special consideration. The language was strikingly similar about the value of railroads–here’s a sample from the 1861 treaty with the Pottawatomie:

“Article 5th: The Pottawatomies believing that the construction of the Leavenworth, Pawnee, and Western railroad from Leavenworth City to the western boundary of the former reserve of the Delawares is now rendered reasonably certain, and being desireous to have said railroad extended through their reserve, in the direction of Fort Riley, so that the value of the lands retained by them may be enhanced, . . . ” [the railroad gets the “privilege” of buying their lands that are not allotted at $1.25 per acre]

In each treaty there were massive irregularities and in many of them were little noticed provisions opening the lands for railroads. The railroads expropriated Native names and symbols, and the treaties orchestrated the transfer of hundreds of thousands of acres from Native groups directly to various Kansas railroad companies.

Kansas in this period, it seems, was a cauldron for fraudulent railroad schemes. Rumors flew that various railroad companies were consolidating large tracts of land, especially those with valuable timber, and swindling Indian nations into selling them. All of these deals took place in clear violation of the Intercourse Act restricting trade and limiting the purchase and sale of Indian lands to the U.S. government by treaty. Historian Don Fixico, a leading authority on Native American history, has indicated in the PBS American Experience film on the transcontinentals that “Although such treaties did not include railroad construction in their treaties in the West, the opening of more land to white interests certainly involved the route of the transcontinental railroads.” Fixico is no doubt correct. The railroad brought change “beyond comprehension” of both the whites and Native Americans.

The Kickapoo treaty in 1863 ceded 150,000 acres and used the same language: “The Kickapoo tribe of Indians, entertaining the opinion that it is the desire of the government and the people of the United States to extend railroad communication as far was as possible in the shortest possible time, and believing that it will greatly enhance the value of their lands reserved in severalty by having a railroad built, . . . ” The treaty went on to even include a clause that said the Kickapoo believed that the Atchison and Pike’s Peak Railroad Company “has advantages for travel and transportation over all other companies.”

A close look at these treaties suggests that the first efforts at “severalty” — the dividing up of Native lands — took place because of and in relation to railroad extension. Nebraska treaties did not contain these provisions regarding the railroads but they were broadly reservation treaties rather than severalty treaties.

Omaha, 1854–reserves right of way for railroad
Otoe, 1854–no mention of railroad
Pawnee, 1857–no mention of railroad
Ponca, 1858–no mention of railroad
Arapaho, 1861–no mention of railroad
Omaha, 1865–no mention of railroad

These treaties were not severalty treaties, but instead aimed at creating reservations. The eventual location of the Union Pacific, it seems, was greatly enhanced by these reservation treaties. The possible routes through Kansas, by contrast, were blocked, and after 1861 dependent on a new process of severalty and railroad expropriation of lands.

We need to change our mental map of the railroad land grant to include this displacement in Kansas, where lands were expropriated directly from Native peoples into several railroad companies well before the 1862 and 1864 Pacific Railroad Acts. The map of checkerboard lands granted to the Union Pacific and the Burlington, in other words, should be supplemented with a new map that represents the Kansas treaties and the taking of hundreds of thousands of acres through severalty.

2. The location of railroads brought new geography of work and mobility. And spatially shifted the center of the industry into the Great Plains West, as railroad workers concentrated in the region in a particularly significant way. Even in the Civil War–in 1864–there were 300 black freedmen, former slaves, and 1,200 Irish laborers working on the Union Pacific railroad in eastern Nebraska, the first laborers on the site.

Broadly we know that by 1880 there were over 419,000 railroad employees in the U.S.–by comparison there were some 17,000 U.S. Army soldiers, and 60,530 U.S. postal employees (1881 report of U.S. Postmaster). Railroad work as a class was substantial–other than “farmer” and “laborer” it was one of the largest occupational categories, the only industry for which all companies counted employees for the U.S. census records in 1880.

We know almost nothing about the spatial movements of the railroad workers, except in the broadest terms–the standard view is that railroad “boomers” worked their way west over the period, like a wave, receding in some places as others expanded. Few railroad payrolls and employment records remain for the mid-nineteenth century, and even fewer contain information about previous employment, birthplace, or ethnicity. U. S. census data on occupation has been imprecise and often failed to capture whether workers in generic trades, such as carpentry, were employed by railroad companies.

For shop men, such as machinists, tinners, and boilermakers, and probably for carpenters, blacksmiths, and helpers, the U.S. census coding breaks down, and individuals in these generic trades fail to show up as having railroad occupations in the 1880 census. Yet, our evidence shows that these trades comprised a huge proportion of the railroad work force in this period.

We decided to take a national view of places of highly concentrated railroad employment, using the records of 267,000 railroad employees in the census of 1880, for the first time we could map the numbers of railroad workers (railroad and shop men) in each county. Thirty-eight (38) counties can be determined as highly concentrated railroad centers or places.

And surprisingly, we see how quickly and substantially the railroads concentrated in parts of the Great Plains. The emergence of Omaha, Nebraska, and Council Bluffs, Iowa, as major railroad centers, along with Denver, Colorado, was part of a larger pattern of Western concentration and intensity, even as the overall weight of the railroad occupational structure remained located in the North East. By this measure five of the eleven most concentrated centers of railroad employment in the entire U.S. in 1880 were located in the Great Plains or West.

Railroad employment in the West differed from the East in several important ways. Railroads in the West were less densely interwoven and were separated by vast spaces. They could exert more control over where employment was offered and to whom. They possessed an unusually high degree of what we might call “spatial monopoly power.”

The Great Plains became the site of intensive concentration of railroad workers so much so that the region rivaled the East and Midwest, and it pulled workers from all over the world.

We have a snapshot of this process in the Burlington’s strike records of 188, which described how many men came on as replacements in 1888 and where they came from to replace strikers. Hundreds of men were recruited from the East, but many were hired locally, and some came from California and places farther west. The strike replacements possessed dozens of years of experience on over forty railroads. Several men worked on railroads in India, a few in London. The spatial histories of these workers indicate both the pull of workers into the Great Plains from all over the nation (and world) and the intensity of experience on the Great Plains.

3. Great Plains as the site of a massive reconfiguration of the landscape and the point of migration for millions, all structured around the railroads.

After the Civil War, railroads brought people into the Great Plains West in massive numbers. The population of Nebraska grew from 122,993 in 1870; to 452,402 in 1880; to 1,058,910 in 1890.

Let’s return to Andreas Mosser and his Burlington land purchase. Settlement patterns were remarkably diffuse within these areas, and migrants from all over the United States lived next to immigrants from numerous places in almost every 640 acre section of the land grant. This diversity was realized because the company had an opened-ended land-contract policy, and because settlers took up the technology the railroads made possible and used it to their own purposes. Indeed, the colonizers – wherever they started from — made a host of decisions and evaluations that shaped Nebraska and its landscape. At first glance, their purposes appear straightforward — to start a homestead, to own land, to speculate on lots. On closer inspection, however, a number of patterns become visible and reveal a more complex story.

[see map of Nebraska Land Sales of the Burlington Railroad, 1870-1880]

Ethnic clustering was spatially interwoven with modern market processes, and the pattern for movement was only possible to reconstruct with digital tools. These settlers were not lured to the Plains by duplicitous land agents or trapped in culturally restricted enclaves after arrival. Instead, those who purchased railroad lands took part in a modern process of mobility and movement, one that shaped the unique cultural pluralism of the Great Plains. Andreas Mosser of Hungary settled next to Caroline Kurz of Germany, and near sections bought by U.S., Bohemian, and German settlers. On the one hand, many individuals responded to recruitment literature that was distributed all over the eastern United States and most of Europe and purchased railroad acreage according to a “modern” settlement model. These immigrants primarily sought economic advantages in an increasingly commercialized agricultural society. They were informed of prospective business opportunities by “mass or public information.”

But as it turned out, agrarian entrepreneurs were joined by others that arrived using an older “community” pattern of settlement. These agriculturalists organized their movements around tried and true kinship networks, and they often moved as communities in a process that was relatively closed to outsiders. Their tendency during the 1870s and 1880s was to congregate in “ethnic islands” and migrant clusters. The confluence of these simultaneous and interrelated movements which the railroad made possible became one of the most surprising and defining characteristics of the land settlement process on the Great Plains.

The Great Plains, it turns out, was a central site in the global processes that the railroad inaugurated. The world of Andreas Mosser was a world of new Americans, made modern, for good and for ill. Mosser’s journey was enabled both by his own actions and the context of his times: of the great reconfiguration of time and space, the creation of a vast second nature system, and the interfaces that came with it. This was a transnational process–and modern Americans in the 19th c. found themselves dealing with a transformed world, and the consequences of this process.