by lyle e davis
I see over my own continent the Pacific railroad surmounting every barrier.
I see continual trains of cars winding along the Platte,
carrying freight and passengers.
I hear the locomotives rushing and roaring...
Every single one of us has played Cowboys ‘n Injuns at one time or another in our life (some of us adults still play at it). If we’re gonna play the game it is a good idea to know what the game really was all about. Let us start at the beginning:
After the bloodshed and sacrifice of the Civil War the nation slowly began to reunite. Now that the war was over, however, Americans set out with equal determination to explore and settle the great western frontier.
To do it, they would build a railroad. Its completion would be one of the greatest technological achievements of the age -- signaling at last, as nothing else ever had, that the United States was not only a continental nation, but on its way to becoming a world power. And when the railroad was finally built, the pace of change would shift from the steady gait of a team of oxen, to the powerful surge of a steam locomotive. The West would be transformed.
Overnight, the railroad would turn barren spots of earth into raucous boom towns -- North Platte and Julesburg, Abilene, Bear River, Wichita and Dodge.
The railroad would allow Civil War veterans, poor farmers from the East and landless peasants from Europe to have a farm they could call their own. There they planted foreign strains of wheat in rich, matted prairie soil that had never known anything but grass.
Railroads would carry hundreds of thousands of western longhorns to eastern markets -- and turn the dusty, saddle-sore men who herded them into the idols of every eastern schoolboy. They were called cowboys.
In a sense, railroads were what created cowboys. Railroads created a lot of things . . . towns and cities . . . expanded commerce . . . travel, adventure.
Railroads would bring onto the Great Plains the buffalo hunters -- who would drive a magnificent animal that symbolized the West to the brink of extinction -- and with it a way of life with roots reaching back before recorded history.
The railroad would do all of that. But first, someone would have to build it.
Railroads had already transformed life in the East, but at the end of the Civil War they still stopped at the Missouri River. For a quarter of a century, men had dreamed of building a line from coast to coast. Now they would attempt it -- one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five miles of track from Omaha to Sacramento.
It would have to be cut through mountains higher than any railroad-builder had ever faced; span deserts where there was no water anywhere; and cross treeless prairies where anxious and defiant Indians would resist their passage. They knew from the start that if it could be completed, Americans would have accomplished something no other people had ever even attempted.
In the ripeness of time the hope of humanity is realized ... This continental railway... will bind the two seaboards to this one continental union like ears to the human head; to plant the foundations of the Union so broad and deep ... that no possible force or stratagem can shake its permanence.
The West couldn't be settled without railroads. And a railroad across the West couldn't be built without the government. The distances were too great, the costs too staggering, the risks too high for any group of businessmen.
"It was only through the Government's help that anything this gargantuan in size could be accomplished, much as landing on the Moon. It was not rugged individualists who built the railroad, it was rugged corporations who formed and financed themselves as entities. It was the rugged federal government that came up with the federal loans, and the land grants, that enabled it to be built. Amid all the romance of building the railroad we tend to forget that it was one of the major industrial enterprises of its age."
T. H. Watkins
In 1862, Congress gave charters to two companies to build it. The Central Pacific was to push eastward from Sacramento, over the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Union Pacific was to start from the Missouri, cross the great plains and cut through the Rockies. Both companies were to receive vast loans from the treasury as they went along -- $16,000 per mile of level track, $32,000 in the plateaus, and $48,000 in the mountains. Lobbyists got the rates doubled within a year.
Leland Stanford, governor of California and president of the Central Pacific Railroad, persuaded a malleable geologist, Professor Josiah Whitney, to declare the gently sloping Sacramento Valley a mountainous region so that the Central Pacific could collect the highest possible rate for laying track across it. A grateful California legislature later named its highest peak Mount Whitney in the professor's honor.
Congress also promised each company 6,400 acres of federal land for every mile of track it laid.
"The railroads got the right of way and along the right of way miles and miles of what was then the government's land. When you added it all together it was a gift of roughly the size of California plus most of Montana. It was incredible."
The Union Pacific and Central Pacific were soon locked in a race to see who could lay the most track -- and therefore get the most land and money. Somewhere in the West -- no one knew exactly where -- the two lines were supposed to meet.
It is a Grand Anvil Chorus that these sturdy sledges are playing across the plains. It is in triple time, three strokes to a spike ... Twenty-one million times are they to come down with their sharp punctuation before the great work of modern America is complete.
Dr. William A. Bell
In Nebraska, some 10,000 men were at work on the Union Pacific -- heading west. Most were immigrants from Ireland. But there were also Mexicans and Germans, Englishmen, ex-soldiers and former slaves -- an army of workmen moving across the plains with military precision.
There was no time for rest. A twenty-car work-train housed and fed the men, who rose at dawn. A supply train carried everything needed that day -- rails, ties, spikes, rods -- all of which had to be loaded onto flatcars and run up to the railhead where the "iron men" were already waiting.
Each rail weighed 700 pounds. It took five men to lift it into place. Two or three miles a day. Every day. Six days a week. Week in and week out.
As the Union Pacific crews worked their way westward across the prairie, hundreds of prostitutes, pimps, gamblers, saloon-keepers, gunmen followed right behind -- "a carnivorous horde," one man recalled, "hungrier than the native grasshoppers," and eager to devour the men's weekly pay.
Julesburg, August 23rd, 1867
Gambling was carried on extensively, and the saloons were full ... mostly every one seemed bent on debauchery and dissipation ... There appears to be plenty of money here, and plenty of fools to squander it ... I verily believe that there are men here who would murder a fellow-creature for five dollars ...
Henry Morton Stanley
The succession of base camps the Union Pacific built roughly seventy miles apart all had different names -- Elk Horn, Fremont, Oglalla, Laramie, Green River, and Cheyenne.
"Say you're in Wyoming, say you're at Citadel Rock on the Green River in Wyoming, and you're looking into the distance and there's nothing -- and behind you there is track going all the way to Omaha. The donkey engines coming in and getting out, hauling in materials, the clatter and the bustle and the work around you at all times, the clanging, the clanging of the sledgehammers on the rails echoing in the wilderness that had never known anything like this, ever. The sounds of the locomotives belching smoke into a previously pristine sky. There had never been a sound like this ever before."
T. H. Watkins
The Advent of Cowboys
“Here was all these cheap long-horned steers over-running Texas; here was the rest of the country crying out for beef -- and no railroads in Texas to get them out. So they trailed them out, across hundreds of miles of wild country."
Teddy Blue Abbott
From the southernmost tip of Texas, cattle trails pointed north -- the Shawnee, the Chisholm, the Western, the Goodnight-Loving. They all led to railheads, where the cattle were loaded into freight cars bound for eastern markets.
In less than two decades six million steers and cows were moved along them; so many, one trail driver said, that in places the dust was knee-deep to the cattle. The men who brought them to the railroads were given a new name "cowboys."
They were a mixed group: former Confederate cavalry men and immigrants who had only recently learned to ride; there were Indian cowboys and African-Americans -- and Mexican vaqueros, whose ancestors had introduced cattle to the West centuries earlier. A cowboy, one westerner observed, is "just a plain bowlegged human who smelled very horsey at times."
"In person the cowboys were mostly medium-sized men... quick and wiry, and as a rule very good-natured; in fact, it did not pay to be anything else. In character, their like never was or will be again."
Teddy Blue Abbott
Edward C. Abbott was born in Cranwich, England, and brought to the West by his parents as a boy. Hoping the open air would improve his frail health, his father let him help drive a herd of cattle from Texas to Nebraska when he was just 10 years old. The experience, Abbott said later, "made a cowboy out of me. Nothing could have changed me after that."
"My family and I went separate ways, and they stayed separate forever after. My father was all for farming ... and all my brothers turned out farmers except one, and he ended up the worst of the lot -- a sheep-man, and a Republican."
Teddy Blue Abbott
The cowboys' average age was 24. They were paid so badly, and worked so hard, that two-thirds of them made only one trail drive before finding something better to do. They owned their saddle, but not the horse they rode -- and they rode it day and night.
For a man to be stove up at thirty may sound strange to some people, but many a cowboy has been so bunged up that he has to quit riding that early in life ... My advice to any young man or boy is to stay at home and not be a rambler, as it won't buy you anything.
James Emmit McCauley
"If a storm come and the cattle started running -- you'd hear that low rumbling noise along the ground... then you'd jump for your horse and get out there in the lead, trying to head them and get them into a mill before they scattered to hell and gone. It was riding at a dead run in the dark, with cut banks and prairie dog holes all around you, not knowing if the next jump would land you in a shallow grave." - "The singing was supposed to soothe the cattle and it did ... The two men on guard would circle around with their horses on a walk, if it was a clear night and the cattle was bedded down and quiet, and one man would sing a verse of a song, and his partner on the other side of the herd would sing another verse; and you'd go through a whole song that way ... I had a crackerjack of a partner in '79. I'd sing and he'd answer, and we'd keep it up like that for two hours. But he was killed by lightning."
Teddy Blue Abbott
After up to four straight months in the saddle, often in the same clothes every day, eating every meal at the chuck wagon, drinking nothing but coffee and water, the cowboy's job was finally done -- he was paid for his work, and turned loose in town.
"I bought some new clothes and got my picture taken... I had a new white Stetson hat that I paid ten dollars for, and new pants that cost twelve dollars, and a good shirt and fancy boots. Lord, I was proud of those clothes! When my sister saw me, she said: "Take your pants out of your boots and put your coat on. You look like an outlaw." I told her to go to hell. And I never did like her after that."
Teddy Blue Abbott
Cowboys were big spenders, but while businesses profited, all the cowtowns soon became wilder than their permanent residents liked.
The Marshal has posted up printed notices, informing all persons that the ordinance against carrying firearms or other weapons in Abilene will be enforced. That's right. There's no bravery in carrying revolvers in a civilized community.
Gun control ordinances were common; cowboys who insisted on carrying their six-shooters in town risked fines and imprisonment. To make sure the laws were obeyed, some cowtowns resorted to hiring notorious gunmen -- Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and Wild Bill Hickok -- to keep the peace.
Morally, as a class, cowboys are foulmouthed, blasphemous, drunken, lecherous, utterly corrupt. Usually harmless on the plains when sober, they are dreaded in towns, for then liquor has an ascendancy over them.
Cheyenne Daily Leader
"Then I went home. After I got home my father said to me one night: 'You can take old Morgan ... and plow the west ridge tomorrow.' Like hell I'd plow the west ridge. And when he woke up next morning, Teddy was gone."
Teddy Blue Abbott
White Man's Pipe
Everything the Kiowas had came from the buffalo. Their tipis were made of buffalo hides, so were their clothes and moccassins. They ate buffalo meat ... Most of all, the buffalo was part of the Kiowa religion ... The buffalo were the life of the Kiowas.
Old Lady Horse
Of all the West's natural wonders, none surpassed the huge herds of buffalo that blanketed the Plains -- perhaps once as many as 30 million of them. They had frightened Coronado's horses by their smell, and astonished Lewis and Clark by their sheer numbers. One wagon train of pioneers was blocked for hours by a herd three miles wide and ten miles long. But for the native peoples of the Plains, they represented existence itself.
By the late 1860s, their numbers had already declined -- reduced by disease, competition from horse herds, and by the buffalo robe trade that encouraged some Indian bands to kill more than they needed.
And now the Union Pacific hired men to hunt buffalo to feed the hungry railroad crews as they built their iron road across Indian lands.
We saw the first train of cars that any of us had seen. We looked at it from a high ridge. Far off it was very small, but it kept coming and growing larger all the time, puffing out smoke and steam; and as it came on, we said to each other that it looked like a white man's pipe when he was smoking.
The Cheyenne and Arapaho and Lakota resented the railroad's intrusion. They de-railed trains, ransacked freight cars, fired on surveying crews. The Union Pacific fell behind schedule.
On June 26th, 1867, an Army detail was overtaken by a war party. One of those killed was Frederick Wyllyams who had come all the way from England in search of adventure. Another Englishman, an amateur ethnologist, photographed his countryman's corpse:
The muscles of the right arm, hacked to the bone, speak of the Cheyennes, or "Cut arms;" the nose slit denoted the "Smeller tribe," or Arapahos; and the throat cut bears witness that the Sioux were also present ... it was evident, from the number of different devices, that warriors from several tribes had each purposely left one in the dead man's body.
Dr. William Bell
Finally, five thousand troops were sent west to provide the railroad workers with protection. The crews went back to work.
And thus the railroad, and the west, grew. There are still trains, still cowbows, though fewer in number . . . and the West? Well, we’re still here. And we’ve got lots of memories.
Sources: PBS: The Grandest Enterprise Under God