Native Americans and the Transcontinental Railroad
As a new Park Ranger at a Historical Site, I was excited to finally be in my niche. I decided since I had a very strong interest and some knowledge of Native American ways, that I would research the Native American history around the first Transcontinental Rail Road and on the present site that commemorates this remarkable achievement. To begin with I talked to others about the possibilities and was quite discouraged. I was told that they didn't believe there was much out there. However that was the story I wanted to tell and so I went to researching. WOW! was I ever surprised. As I began to study I found more and more, and the story was interesting, fascinating, sad, happy and unbelievable with many twists and turns. So now, after four years as a Ranger at Golden Spike, let me tell you some of that story.

As the first white men come into the west their stories became larger than life to those in the east and around the Anglo world. They told of a "Great Desert" that was almost impossible to cross. They said impossible to live in, but would mention that it was inhabited by Native Americans and that they were perplexed in how the Native Americans could survive in the "Great Desert".

As early as the 1830s' men were asking for a transcontinental Railroad but no one could believe that rails could cross the "Great Desert". Those who believed in a railroad from the east to the west were considered by most as "crazy".

I think that it is most interesting that it took a civil war to get the idea of linking a country to become a reality. As men in the North fought with their brothers in the South to free the slave, the government was also at war with the Native American fighting to take away their rights.

With the railroad act of 1862 it was written that Native Americans right to lands along the route must be taken away as quickly as possible to make way for a railroad. At about the same time Col. Connor and 700 Volunteers would be sent from California to Utah to clear the way. They killed many Native Americans along the way. The same month that the Central Pacific would break ground would also be one of the Darkest incident in Native American History. It would take place on Jan 29, 1863, when Col. Connor and his California Volunteers surrounded a Shoshone tribe and massacred over 368 men, women and children.

Promoted to a General, Connor was sent to the east, to clear the way for the Union Pacific. He continued to try his tactics in massacring and killing Native Americans. However the mobil plains tribes kept his killing from ever becoming another large massacre. Now Col. Connor, in Union Pacific territory, tried to bring the tribes under control but never obtained the hold he wanted.

That summer furthur west, Indian Superintendent Doty went out and signed 5 treaties with what he hoped would cover the whole Shoshone Nation (this would cover railroad lands west through most of Nevada, all of Utah and into western Wyoming). Three of the 1863 treaties': "Treaty with the Shoshone-Goship, Treaty with the Eastern Shoshone, and Treaty with the Western Shoshone all had the same Article #3. It reads: "...And further, it being understood that provision has been made by the Government of the United States for the construction of a railway from the plains west to the Pacific Ocean, it is stipulated by said bands that the said railway or its branches may be located, constructed, and operated, and without molestation from them, through any portion of the country claimed or occupied by them."

The Union Pacific would be first to hire Native Americans and Women with their first gangs in late 1863. With the Civil War their was a shortage of man power. We are told that the average Union Pacific work crew was made up of 100 men and 15 Native American Women. The Native American Women were hired to do the backbreaking work of grading at the very low wage of 15 cents a day, while all other workers made close to a dollar or more a day.

Although it wasn't written what tribe these women came from, it was known that the first 150 miles was Pawnee territory and that the Union Pacific had relative safety through this area because the Pawnee were peaceful with white society.

The Union Pacific knew it was headed out of Pawnee territory into enemies of the Pawnee and the Railroad: The Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne, who had after the Sand Creek Massacre (Colorado, 1864) become a confederacy. They banded together to stop emigrants from coming from the East to the West. Also in the plains were the Kiowa and Comanche who were also a threat to the railroad. At times the Native Americans almost brought the railroad to a stop (and did stop it for short periods). Most of the deaths of railroad workers and trains being derailed by Native Americans was kept quiet. They were afraid easterners would not invest or travel the railroad if they thought they might be attacked by Native Americans on their trip to the west. The Union Pacific was given a small detachment of U.S. troops to help protect the railroad. However they were not enough and the U.P. kept asking the U.S. Government to send more troops. The army had been trying out Pawnee scouts so they asked a Captain North (who had been working with the Pawnee) to make up a regiment of Pawnee men to help with security on the railroad line. These Pawnee troops proved to be very valuable and had a 10 year career as U.S. soldiers. When I spoke with Tom Knife Chief, a Pawnee representitve, I could feel his pride in these men as he told me that in their 10 year service they never lost a man. It was their job to keep the Union Pacific safe. Although the workers wrote about how well these scouts performed their duties and seemed fearless against their traditional enemies, those now enemies to the Union Pacific, it was said their was just not enough to keep back the much stronger Sioux, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche and Kiowa. In the fall of 1866, the Union Pacific decided to take dignitaries and their families to end of the track. The UP knew the guests would want to see life on the plains. So the Pawnee tribe was paid to be there at their first night stop. That night the men put on a war dance, and as the dancers jumped at the guests many were frightened. It was said that the UP officials had to go around and assure the guests that the Pawnee were putting on a show and they wouldn't harm anyone. The next day the guests were awakened by the blood curdling yells of the Pawnee, once again giving the guests a terrible scare as they thought they were being attacked. Later as they were moving along the plains, they stopped to watch a battle between the Pawnee and Sioux. Of course, the guests were not told that the battle was a show. The Native Americans were all Pawnee some dressed as Sioux (being paid for their performance). The Union Pacific knew people from the East would want to see life in the Plains. The trip was a success and brought much attention to the new railroad as well as much new investment.

The Central Pacific railroad was offered Army support for protection but turned it down. They had their own ideas on how to deal with the Native Americans. When the railroad came out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains into the Nevada flat land they started running into Paiute tribes. Central Pacific Dignitaries would meet with the Chiefs and offer them treaties. They were offered free passage on the trains, and jobs. They were also told if they gave the railroad problems that the railroad had a great army of men and would defeat them. The Central Pacific at that time started using Paiutes to work on the railroad. As they moved into Shoshone territory they began to use Shoshone workers. The Central Pacific used both their men and women. It was written by an observer of that day that those Native American women were stronger than the men in back breaking work. The C.P. also hired Chief Winnemucca and his tribe to be tourist attractions. People traveling on the rails could see a traditional Native American tribe. Many travelers later would write about Native Americans working and riding the railroad in the Nevada area. They either criticized the practice or talked about how it added to the romanticism they felt they would see in the west.

The Paiute and Shoshone would work along side the Chinese workers. One of the most interesting stories of this association was a trick played on the Chinese by the Native Americans. The Native American workers told the Chinese that in the Nevada Desert were great Lizards large enough to swallow a man whole. The next day when the foremen got up the Chinese were gone. They had left in the night. The foremen had to chase down the Chinese on their horses. It took the foremen some time to convince the Chinese there were no dragons in North America before they could get them back to work. The Native Americans also tell stories of the Chinese. Leland Pubigee, Shoshone Elder, told me of stories about gambling and bronco busting meetings with the Chinese. Also the Shoshone of this area talk about grandparents who worked on the railroad and at Corrine, calling the Chinese the "Yellow Ant People" and most impressed with their industry. The Chinese also have stories to tell. Bill Chew and Johnny Yee have told me about a young Lee Sing orphaned, when his father was killed while working on the Central Pacific railroad. He was adopted into a Shoshone tribe and became known as "Sharp eyes". Murry Lee wrote of his grandfather Lee Yik-Gim, who was nick named "The Elephant" because of his size. He was captured by an Native American tribe and became a part of the tribe living with them for two years and becoming a minor chief of the tribe.

Of all the people impacted by the building of a Transcontinental railroad, the Native Americans would be the most affected. There were those fighting to stop the flow of outsiders, while others fought to protect the rails to bring in outsiders. Others worked on the railroad, their women being the only women I know of that would work on the construction, maybe hoping these jobs would help them to become a part of this new civilization. The building of this railroad would help the new civilization on its road to becoming the greatest nation on earth. However that great push to make America a single nation would begin the extermination of the Native Culture and give the government the means to force Native Americans onto reservations, whether they be enemy, friend, soldier, tourist attraction or worker.

Kerry Brinkerhoff -Park Ranger, Golden Spike National Historic Site - President, The Friends of the Native Americans of Northern Utah

Friends of the Native Americans of Northern Utah
Date Last Modified: 4/21/99