Native Americans

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“Blackfeet Native North Americans Leaving the Browning Train Station for Hollywood,” 1937. Courtesy of the Montana State University Library via Big Sky Country Digital Network.

Although, by the 1860s, Native Americans had signed away the rights to much of their land in treaties with the federal government, they likely never imagined that a disruptive and massive system like the railroad would be constructed through their traditional hunting grounds. The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad had dire consequences for the native tribes of the Great Plains, forever altering the landscape and causing the disappearance of once-reliable wild game. The railroad was probably the single biggest contributor to the loss of the bison, which was particularly traumatic to the Plains tribes who depended on it for everything from meat for food to skins and fur for clothing, and more.

Tribes increasingly came into conflict with the railroad as they attempted to defend their diminishing resources. Additionally, the railroad brought white homesteaders who farmed the newly tamed land that had been the bison’s domain. Tribes of the Plains found themselves at cultural odds with the whites building the railroad and settlers claiming ownership over land that had previously never been owned. In response, Native Americans sabotaged the railroad and attacked white settlements supported by the line, in an attempt to reclaim the way of life that was being taken from them. If they were not taking aim at the railroad tracks and machinery, they would attack the workers and abscond with their livestock. Ultimately the tribes of the Plains were unsuccessful in preventing the loss of their territory and hunting resources. Their struggle serves as a poignant example of how the Transcontinental Railroad could simultaneously destroy one way of life as it ushered in another.