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Indian Troubles During Construction

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By William Francis Bailey in 1906

Union Pacific Train, late 1800sThe country through which the Union Pacific Railroad was built was the hunting grounds of the Pawnee, Sioux, Arapaho, Crow, Blackfoot, Bannock, Snake and Shoshone, the first three on the plains and the others to the west. These were among the most warlike tribes of the West, and during the construction of the road they were the occasion of serious trouble, not to speak of the annoyance and delay as well as the extra expense occasioned.

The following summarizes the conditions existing on the plains during the time the road was under construction.

During the summer of 1864, the whole line of the Overland Stage from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Salt Lake City, was subject to Indian depredations, so much so, that Ben Holladay, its proprietor, asked the Government for five soldiers at each of the stage stations, and two to accompany each coach. Without these, he stated, he would discontinue the line.

The year 1865 was known as "The Bloody Year on the Plains," and its history is one constant account of attacks, skirmishes, depredations and murders by the Indians.

Notwithstanding the Peace Conference at Laramie in May, the year 1866, was not much better and the relations between the whites and the Indians were kept at a fighting point, culminating in the massacre by the Indians at Fort Phil Kearny of eighty-one regular soldiers.

The year 1867 opened with troubles all along the line. The Government inspectors reported "Indian depredations have caused serious embarrassment to the locating, construction and operation of the line. Constant and persistent attacks have occasioned great delay and expense." The Government aroused to the dangers of temporizing, pushed a large number of troops into the field, restored old and built many new posts. This, together with the ease of communication resulting from the rapidly extending railroad, had a deterrent effect on the Indians.

1868 was a repetition of the preceding year. A Peace Conference at Fort Laramie called for April was not attended by the Indians until November. Numerous attacks were made by them on the whites and the country kept in a turmoil. During the fall there was desperate fighting and the army assisted by citizens soldiers punished the Indians as they had never been punished before, resulting in a much better condition of affairs during 1869 and thereafter. Nearly all the Indian troubles occurred on the plains and east of Cheyenne. West thereof, either owing to better organization on the part of the railroad and military, or else to the intimidation of the tribes, there was but little annoyance from this source.

Railroad surveyors, 1861The surveying parties were as a rule accompanied by a small detachment of regulars and to this fact may be attributed their comparative small loss of life. While they lost but few of their number, still they were compelled to work at great disadvantage and frequently brought to a full stop by the presence of war parties in numbers too great to be ignored.


They, the surveying and engineering parties, were not so strong numerically as the grading outfits and did not have their resources. The different parties not only were frequently driven in but a number of them were obliged to fight for their lives. The station Hilldale, Wyoming, perpetuates the name of one engineer, Mr. Hill, who was killed near this place by the Indians while locating the road.


 Another victim of the Indians was Colonel Percy in charge of an engineering party on the preliminary survey. He was surprised by a party of them twenty-four miles west of Medicine Bow, Wyoming  —retreating to a cabin he stood them off for three days, at the end of which time they managed to set fire to the building and when the roof fell in he was compelled to get out, whereupon he was attacked and killed. This took place near Hanna Station, Wyoming, which was originally called Percy in memory of the Colonel.




Realizing the necessity of military to protect the construction forces, the Government established numerous forts or posts along the line, viz:


Fort McPherson, Nebraska (originally called Cantonment McKeon, then Cottonwood Springs Cantonment). Established February, 1866.


Fort Sedgwick, Colorado, about four miles from the town of Julesburg, Colorado.


Fort Mitchell, near Scotts Bluffs, Nebraska, a temporary proposition occupied only during the construction period.


Fort Morgan, Wyoming, not far from Sidney, Wyoming, established May, 1865, abandoned May, 1868.


Fort D.A..Russell, near Cheyenne, Wyoming, established July, 1867, still occupied as an army post.


Fort Sanders, Wyoming, near Laramie, established June, 1866.


Fort Fred Steele, fifteen miles east of Rawlins, Wyoming established June, 1868.


Fort Halleck, twenty-two miles west of Medicine Bow, Wyoming, abandoned 1866.


General Sherman had prophesied that the influx of graders, teamsters, with their following would bring enough whiskey into the country to kill off all the Indians, and that the only good Indians were the dead ones.


Pawnee ScoutsOne of the most valuable forces during the building of the road was a battalion of four companies of Pawnee Indians mustered into the United States' service under the command of Major Frank J. North, January 13th, 1865, this action being taken at the instance of George Custer. They proved most effective, notwithstanding their somewhat ludicrous appearance. They were furnished the regular soldiers' uniform which they were permitted to modify to suit their individual ideas and taste. As a rule their head dress was the customary Indian one of feathers. Their arms were the regulation carbine and revolver of the cavalry to which they added on their own accord, hatchet, knife, spear, etc., and when fighting was to be done they would strip down to the buff or rather the copper skin.


The construction forces at this time were being annoyed by the Cheyenne and Sioux, both of whom were the bitter foes of the Pawnee. Fort Kearny was the headquarters of Major North and his Pawnee warriors and their duty was to protect the construction forces while at work.


Fort KearnyAs illustrating conditions existing, the following is of interest: A large body of Indians appeared on the scene near Julesburg, Major North and 40 of his Pawnee started from Fort Kearny to the scene of the anticipated trouble. On the way he found the bodies of fourteen white men who had been killed by the  Indians and their bodies mutilated beyond recognition, their scalps torn off, tongues cut out, legs and arms hacked off and their bodies full of arrows. On arriving at Julesburg, he found the place besieged. Falling on the Sioux, he put the whole band to fight, killing twenty-eight in the transaction. This party of Indians had but a few days before surprised a party of fourteen soldiers, killing them all. Soon after this trouble broke out with the Cheyenne. Major North and a party of twenty of his Pawnee started to look into the matter, and while out, struck a band of 12 Cheyenne. Taking after them, the Major was the only one who could get near them on account of his men's horses being tired out, but being better mounted, he was able to get within gun shot and killed one of the Cheyenne. Seeing his Pawnee were some distance in the rear, the whole party turned on Major North. He shot his horse, and using its body for a breastwork, fought the whole party, killing or wounding nine of them and held them at bay until his men were able to come up. This fight was considered one of the most daring on the Plains and added greatly to the fame of the Major and his Pawnee. After the completion of the road, Major North retired, and in company with W. F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) went into the cattle business near North Platte.


As has been stated, many of the officers and men engaged on the work were ex-soldiers accustomed to the use of arms. The construction trains and in fact all of the workers were liberally supplied with arms, principally rifles, and it was the boast that ten any time was long enough to transform a gang of graders or track layers into a battalion of infantry. Every man on the work was armed, and it was the custom for the graders to carry their guns to and from their work, keeping them stacked within easy distance while at actual work.


"The front" was seldom bothered. As a rule there were too many at hand to make an attack attractive. It was the little detached parties or single individuals that were most often molested. After the rails were down, the trains passing to and from the front and the employees at the isolated stations and most especially the section gangs were in constant danger.


Among the first serious experiences was that of a construction train near Ogallala, Nebraska. A party of Sioux decided to capture it and compel it to stop; they massed their ponies on the track, with the result that there were some twenty or more dead horses, without damage of any consequence to the train. The trainmen used their guns and pistols to good advantage, resulting in a number of the Indians being killed. Later on, one of the Sious of the party, on being interviewed, said, "Smoke wagon, big chief, ugh, no good."


At another time, the Indians succeeded in capturing a freight train near Plum Creek and held it and its crew in their possession.




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