Pacific Postcards

Ensuring a True Global Perspective of the Transcontinental Railroad (Fabiano Andrade)

            The history of the Transcontinental Railroad, often told through the biased perspective of white American historians, is one of disguising patriotism and praise. Widely considered as one of the most vital achievements towards American progress and success, this portrayal undermines the imperialist and colonialist tendencies during the movement that negatively affected the minority groups involved. These minorities included the Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans who provided the majority of the workforce, as well as the Native Americans whose lands intersected and interfered with the construction of these railroads. More contemporary writers were able to gain more holistic insight to the importance of railroads such as the Transcontinental Railroad. They agree that referring to it as a “continental” railroad downplays the goals of the companies, government, and people at the time. The term “Pacific railroads” more accurately describes the vision of these pioneers, and hints at the interconnectedness between railroad movements and the manifest destiny phenomenon. Both the elites and general public viewed Pacific railroads as doorways to the Pacific world, particularly China, and highways between Oriental and European industries. Yet, these contemporary writers also acknowledge and focus on the role of non-whites in the success of this industry. Gordon H. Chang’s chapter, “Chinese Railroad Workers and the US Transcontinental Railroad in Global Perspective,” of the book, The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad, introduces the idea that Chinese labor immigration movements, not only in the United States but across the world, were one of the first signs of globalization. Moreover, he argues that their labor was invaluable to the economic progress of nations such as the United States, a fact that cannot be disagreed with. However, Chang’s failure in his argument stems from the limited interpretation of railroad construction history as a binary interaction between white-American elites and Chinese laborers. By doing this, Chang disregards the Native experience within the contexts of his story. Although it is understood that Chang is focusing on the Chinese experience, omittance of the Indian perspective does a disservice to both his readers and argument. Not only would the inclusion provide a much more holistic account for his supposed “Global Perspective,” but comparisons could have been drawn between the treatment of Natives and Chinese that would have reinforced the notion of American imperialism. This illustration chosen portrays the Transcontinental Railroad in the picturesque setting of Cape Horn, with the purpose of providing a paradisiacal backdrop for a souvenir booklet. The illustration strategically includes the image of two Native Americans observing the railroad as a train passes by, an image with deep imperialistic meaning. Illustrations such as this one served colonial interests and shed light to the Indian struggle that is missing from Chang’s argument. Seeing as though writers such as Chang attempt to challenge the common nationalistic bias of previous historians, it seems illogical to leave out the stories of the original owners of this land.
In this chapter, Chang attacks the common narrative of the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad while still offering an incomplete alternative perspective. He begins by rejecting the “triumphal and celebratory” account through which previous historians described the feat. They viewed the accomplishment as evidence to the country’s greatness who, shortly after going through the devastating Civil War, was able to unite itself politically, socially, and economically. Chang on the other hand, takes an international approach. He puts the process into context with the world’s fascination with globalization at the time, as can be seen with the politics and pop culture of the time. More importantly, the flow of capital, trade, and labor alongside international railroad projects was physical evidence of the changing world. In terms of labor, Chang focuses on Chinese immigration movements and how they became part of the first international working class as they flocked to various parts of the world. Early migration cycles emerged where fathers left China to labor, provided for their family for some time. and came back home to retire while the son leaves. The conditions Chinese laborers faced during railroad construction were severe everywhere, although they did have more freedom in America. Chang introduces writer Daniel Cleveland’s account of the treatment Chinese immigrants under the credit ticket system. They were packed in crowded railroad boxcars where they could not escape and sent to construction sites where they had to work to pay their debt. They lived in migrant villages of tents, where they would participate in similar traditions and eat similar foods as they did back home. This movement established one of the most diverse places in the country, which ended up influencing American lifestyle as a whole. Yet, once the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad was finished, these labor groups were no longer deemed useful to American interests and faced blatant racism. Whites who benefitted off the economic gains that came with the construction of the railroad viewed the increasing Chinese population in America as a threat to their way of life. Despite championing America’s connection of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the public still had hate for the Chinese immigrants, which resulted in lynches, segregation, and later the Chinese Exclusion Acts. All these events left an understandable fear among the Chinese immigrants that resulted in the migration back to China for thousands of laborers. 
The treatment of Chinese minority groups is a recurring theme in American history and their treatment of the Pacific peoples. Similar to the European imperial powers of England, Spain, France, and Portugal before them, American imperialism thrives upon measuring the worth of a Pacific nation or tribe by the ways they can benefit off them, whether politically or economically, while disregarding the interests of the people themselves. Once they are no longer deemed useful or beneficial to American interests, they are betrayed and treated poorly once again. This can be seen in the way American merchants treated the Makah people of the Northwest; they depended on them for knowledge of the area and trade partnerships until they no longer needed them and took over their land. Similarly, the interests of the Native American tribes through which the Transcontinental Railroad and other Pacific railroads carved through were never accounted for. False promises of trade, government aid, and land were given by the elite to no resolve. Instead, illustrations such as the one in Cape Horn were spread to create the image of the American Native as an unsophisticated creature not worthy of respect. That is how American government and companies were able to take over the land and displace entire tribes with little to no protest from the public. Ultimately, discrimination and violence led to the Indian Appropriation Act in 1871 that established Native Americans as wards of the state and no longer recognized their tribes as sovereign nations, no longer being able to make treaties with them and making it easier to push them into reservations.
The illustration of the Transcontinental Railroad along Cape Horn was a common technique in garnering public support for American expansionist projects. In his article. “Native Americans, Military Science, and Ambivalence on the Pacific Railroad Surveys, 1853-1855” author Sean Fraga analyzes the importance of Railroad Surveyors for the Transcontinental Railroad and their varying portrayals of the Native Americans they encountered. Artists accompanied these surveyors to visually document the territories, specimens, and events experienced in the expeditions. They would depict Native Americans in the same way they would document an animal species, in a natural setting and usually in pairs (Fraga 334). This dehumanizing technique reinforced racial superiority ideas. Sometimes however, artists would deliberately exaggerate their pieces to fit the stereotypes of Natives at the time, usually with scenes of savagery, poverty, and violence. Other times, the peoples of these lands were left out from these artistic renditions or merely placed to establish some sort of scale within the landscapes (Fraga 331). This parallels the minimal inclusion of the two natives in the Cape Horn illustration, who look extremely small compared to the nature. Creating a sense of vast emptiness motivates the idea of westward settlement to the viewer (Fraga 332). In the case of the Cape Horn illustration, it creates a picturesque setting that invites the reader of the brochure to consider using the train. Some may also argue that the image of the Natives observing the train could represent Native acknowledgement of white superiority, a mistaken notion that was prevalent among surveyors and citizens alike. This notion would prove dangerous to Indian populations as it drove white settlers to feel entitlement to native ancestral and hunting lands. Conflict over these lands caused violence and destruction toward tribes. Overall, the Cape Horn illustration provides context to the future atrocities Natives experienced during and after the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad that Chang fails to consider.
Excluding the Native perspective for the history of the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, especially when the goal is to create a global perspective, is evidence of the hierarchical discrimination of minorities. Chang portrays Chinese immigrants as foreigners in the strange lands of the United States, influenced by as well as influencing white American culture. In reality however, white Americans were foreigners just as much as the Chinese laborers, exploring and taking over the ancestral territories of the Indians. Chang dismisses the impact of their experience because they do not fit conventional systems. Because Native Americans did not have the opportunity to travel the world like the Chinese labor movements, because their culture was oppressed and not allowed to spread like that of white American culture, their struggle is undermined. Even to the eyes of other minority groups who have suffered under American imperialism, they are not given the same respect. 
            Given the similarities between Chinese laborers and Native Americans’ experience with American imperialism, it is hard to understand why Chang did not find it valuable to include the Indian perspective. Although they are mentioned in this chapter, little idea is developed about them. Chang tries to establish a global context, where the Chinese laborers are foreigners experiencing the strange land of the Americans for the first time. However, the most accurate representation of the Transcontinental Railroad history is that where both the Chinese and white Americans are foreigners in the land of the Native tribes. The illustration of the railroad in Cape Horn reveals the problem with both the white nationalistic perspective championed by previous historians and the exclusive Chinese perspective developed by Chang.

Chang, Gordon H. The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad. Stanford University Press, 2019.
Fraga, Sean. “Native Americans, Military Science, and Ambivalence on the Pacific Railroad Surveys, 1853–1855.” The Princeton University Library Chronicle, vol. 75, no. 3, 2014, p. 317., doi:10.25290/prinunivlibrchro.75.3.0317.
Vong, Sam. “The Impact of the Transcontinental Railroad on Native Americans.” National Museum of American History, 4 Aug. 2020,,aspect%20of%20Cheyenne%20economic%20life.


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