A Treaty to End All Treaties: The Contested Nature of Railroad Expansion in Osage Country, 1866–71

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 11:10 AM
Gramercy East (New York Hilton)
Alessandra Link, Indiana University Southeast
Historians of the American West have long considered the critical role that railroads—both their physical forms and their corporate backers—have played in the conquest and dispossession of Indigenous peoples in the region. With an insatiable demand for land and resources, railroad barons—with their attending armies of construction workers, lobbyists, and attorneys—found themselves involved in the messy business of U.S. settler colonization.

For all the talk of railroads as agents of U.S. empire, it is easy to overlook a critical moment in the evolution of the corporate–U.S. relationship. The federal financing scheme for railroad corporations meant that railroad lobbyists relied heavily on political support and government legislation that placed Indigenous lands under corporate control. The U.S. government viewed railroads as an arm attached to a larger body of settlement schemes in the West, schemes that relied on the mass movement of hundreds of thousands of newcomers to the region. And yet, by granting large tracts of land to railroads, U.S. government officials risked creating situations where settlers could not afford the prices corporations demanded for land. While all three parties promoted western expansion and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples, their collective appetite for Indigenous homelands and resources occasionally put them at odds. Nowhere were these tensions more salient than in the Kansas lands of Osage Country, where they led to the dissolution of U.S. government’s treaty-making relationship with Native nations in 1871. Osage tribal leaders, cognizant of these tensions, had their own motivations for signing the Sturges Treaty in 1868. In railroad agreements that followed Sturges, Native Nations continued to protest and negotiate the nature of railroad expansion and the corporate-U.S. partnership forged in the Railroad Age.