The Impact of Transcontinental Railroad Construction on Indigenous People (Rafael Perez)
The construction of the transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869, was immensely important in connecting trade between the east coast of the United States and Asia. This is illuminated by author Gordon Chang in the first chapter of his book, The Chinese and the Iron Road, where he discusses how impactful and influential it was. However, in the book he fails to focus on a huge aspect of the construction of the transcontinental railroad: the effect it had on Native Americans. Contrast that with a painting by Jakob Gogolin titled, “Cheyenne Indians tearing up the tracks of the Union Pacific R.R”,in which the artist depicts a scene where Native Americans are retaliating for their land being taken. The painting helps highlight the hardships that Native Americans went through during and after the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Seeing Gogolin’s work really clarifies the fact that although Chang’s message is valid, leaving out the impact that the construction of the railroad had on Native Americans is an oversight that cannot be overlooked.
Although the image of the Cheyenne Indians was painted in 1930, it depicts events that occurred during the construction of the railroad more than 60 years earlier. The painting by Gogolin is very graphic, showing many Cheyenne men using pickaxes and other primitive tools to dismantle and destroy the railroad. In the painting there are a large number of Cheyenne men and their horses, with pieces of the dismantled railroad scattered around. Along with that there is smoke billowing from the railroad tracks, symbolizing its destruction. For the most part, Native Americans wouldn’t bother their surrounding white neighbors unless they were provoked in some way. The event depicted in the painting is in the aftermath of such a provocation, and was in retaliation for their land being taken away from them without any say in the matter, something that happened to many different native tribes throughout the construction of the railroad. The fact that the Cheyenne were treated so poorly and didn’t have their people’s land taken into consideration, and the extreme response of destroying part of the railroad, illustrates how much Native Americans were affected by the construction of the transcontinental railroad.
Chang argues in his book that the transcontinental railroad was a great invention that fueled commerce and helped America’s economy boom. This is shown when he writes, “the railroad helped change fundamentally the way people thought about the world” (Chang 32). Although this may be true, it does not change the fact that the railroad displaced and tore apart the communities of countless Native groups across the U.S.. Along with his focus on the transcontinental railroad being important for world travel and commerce, Chang’s reading talks a lot about the contribution that Chinese workers made to the construction of the railroad. He writes that “labor migration from China was essential to the construction of the line and other railroad projects” (Chang 29). After Chang establishes the importance of the Chinese in the construction of the railroad, he discusses in depth how they were treated very poorly during and after the project was completed. This point is very important and should not be overlooked in any way. Along with this negative aspect of the railroad’s construction, Chang should have also added information about how Native Americans were affected because they were similarly treated poorly and taken advantage of. The fact that he does not also go into detail about the treatment of Native Americans diminishes the validity of his argument.
Most people at the time of construction viewed the transcontinental railroad as a way to make the United States more prosperous. It was viewed as a way to connect the two coasts of America, which would boost the country’s economy. But this promise of prosperity and progress did not apply to everyone. For many Native Americans, it instead meant displacement and regression for their societies. The only way to fight that was with force, which is exactly what is depicted in Gogolin’s painting. As opposed to Chang, Gogolin does a great job of portraying the frustration and the negative effect that the railroad had on Native Americans.
The concept of colonialism is very relevant to the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Colonialism is the process of a government taking control over an area, and then exploiting it for economic gain. That is exactly what occurred with the railroad, when the entities building it would take over Native land and use it to expand the railroad, thus exploiting the area for profit. The railroad attracted companies that wanted to build their production facilities near it for easy transportation of goods. However the land that was needed for construction of these facilities was sometimes controlled by Native peoples. When this was the case, often white people who financed the railroad project would settle in those areas, pushing out the Native inhabitants already living there. Obviously this would cause some backlash. This backlash would cause conflict, as Native communities fought against imperialism. Imperialism is defined as expanding a country's power through force, which is exactly how much of the land used to build the transcontinental railroad was obtained. Oftentimes the “easiest” way to obtain land was to steal it from Native people, who could not put up a fight. However in a few cases the Natives did stand up and try to fight back. One of these cases is depicted in the painting, when the Cheyenne tried to fight to get their land back. The tribes only attacked out of self defense, because their land was being taken by force and they did not have any other means of getting it back. But despite having a legitimate basis for fighting the railroad, they were painted as savages for simply trying to protect their land that was being forcefully taken away from them.
The justification for the theft of land from Native groups was the American idea of “manifest destiny”. The main idea behind manifest destiny was that Americans were “destined” to expand westward, and create a developed nation that spanned all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This idea was put into the head of many Americans as their natural right, which led them to have little sympathy for people being negatively affected by westward expansion. In the minds of most white Americans at the time, the displacement of Native groups was a small price to pay for the expansion of the United States. In reality, the displacement of these Native peoples would go on to affect their civilizations for years to come. In many cases the displacement of Natives either severely set back their societies, or pushed them to extinction, both directly diminishing Native culture. The fact that Native Americans struggled due to the construction of the transatlantic railroad for years after the completion of the project is another reason why Chang should have included much more about them in his writing.
To this day, Native Americans are a struggling population. Native Americans have the highest poverty rate of any ethnic group in the United States, with over 25% of all Native Americans living in poverty (NCRC). This poverty partly stems from their ancestors' displacement, due to events like the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Even today Native Americans are still being displaced and negatively impacted because of economic activities like fracking, coal mining, and pipeline construction. This is essentially the same thing that happened with the railroad construction, because in both instances Native American land is being exploited for monetary gain, without giving their communities much say in the matter.
The destruction of the railroad shown in Gogolin’s image was a protest for change. All the Cheyenne Indians wanted was to not be treated as though they were inferior and had no control over their own land. After a period of being pushed around and treated unfairly, they decided that there wouldn’t be change without conflict and pressure. That idea is similar to what is happening today in the U.S. with Black Lives Matter and anti-police protests. After years of systemic racism with little change, Black Americans were fed up, and many felt that the only way to instigate change was to create conflict. This led to protests and marches across the country, sometimes escalating into riots. Among many people of color In the U.S. today, as with the Cheyenne back in the nineteenth century, the belief underlying these protests is that there is no other way to promote true change. The relevance today of the protest portrayed in the painting from the 1930s just goes to show that the struggle of marginalized communities has been part of American “progress” for many generations, and is likely to continue far into the future.
Although the conflict portrayed in the painting paints the Natives’ relationship with the railroad and its creators in a bad light, there were a few tribes who benefited from the construction of the railroad. For some Native groups, the railroad didn’t displace them, and instead brought opportunity. It allowed for new trade relations to be made and helped some Native groups achieve progress. However, the prosperity and progress that Chang associates with the transcontinental railroad is only one side of the story, and his argument is incomplete without showing both sides.
Despite his lack of focus on the effects the construction of the transcontinental railroad had on Native groups, Chang’s shortcomings in his writing can be easily refined. Throughout the first chapter, Chang goes into detail about the exploitation of the Chinese railroad workers and how they were treated poorly during and after the construction. This exploitation and poor treatment of the Chinese portrayed in Chang’s writing directly parallels the exploitation of Native Americans that predates the conflict in the painting. To make his argument stronger, Chang could have used vivid imagery, like the imagery shown in Gogolin’s painting, as a segue to show the relationship between the hardships that both Native Americans and Chinese immigrants went through because of the railroad construction. This would have added another level to Chang’s writing, which in turn would increase the validity and relevance of his argument.
Despite the inconsistencies I have pointed out, Chang does do a good job of portraying how most people in the U.S. thought of the westward expansion as justifying the creation of the railroad. He paints a picture in the reader's mind of progress and hopefulness through anecdotes, like when he tells a story about a group of wealthy Bostonians who brought a bottle filled with water from the Atlantic all the way to the Pacific on the newly constructed railroad, just to mix it with water from the Pacific ocean. After the water was mixed, everyone cheered and were amazed by the lack of cloudiness in the bottle. This story he tells is symbolic of how excited most Americans were about the railroad, and the new connection that allowed people to travel from a beach on one side of the continent to one on the opposite end of the country. Chang’s portrayal is effective, but as revealed in Gogolin’s work, there are other narratives behind the construction of the transcontinental railroad that need to be told as well.
All this being said, I am not attempting to argue that the railroad was not a revolutionary and necessary infrastructure for the development of the United States. I am simply saying that Chang’s book failed to highlight a key part of the history behind the construction of the railroad. Gogolin’s painting, on the other hand, revealed Chang’s oversight, by shedding light on the significant impact on the many Native American communities affected by the project.
Muhammad, Dedrick Asante. “Racial Wealth Snapshot: American Indians/ Native Americans " NCRC.” NCRC, 4 Dec. 2019, ncrc.org/racial-wealth-snapshot-american-indians-native-americans/#:~:text=Based%20on%20the%20data%20from,national%20poverty%20rate%20was%2017.6%25.
The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad, by Gordon H. Chang, Stanford University Press, 2019, pp. 27–41.