Indian Troubles During Construction of the Railroad


Union Pacific Train, late 1800s

Union Pacific Train, late 1800s

By William Francis Bailey in 1906

The 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, 1861

Railroad surveyors, 1861

The 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 a 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 Scouts

Pawnee Scouts

One 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 headdress 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 Kearny, Nebraska

Fort Kearny, Nebraska

As 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 gunshot 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 in 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 Sioux 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.

General Dodge, the Chief Engineer, with a number of men, train crew, discharged men, etc., was running special, returning from the front to Omaha when the news reached them, and to quote the General’s own words:

“They (the men on his special train) were all strangers to me. The excitement of the capture and the reports coming by telegraph brought all of them to the platform and when I called on them to fall in and go forward and retake the captured train, every man on the special went into line and by his position showed he had been a soldier. We ran down slowly until we came in sight of the train. I gave the order to deploy as skirmishers, and at the command, they went forward as steadily and in as good order as we had seen the old soldiers climb the face of the Kennesaw under fire.” The train was quickly recaptured.

Cheyenne on horses, Edward S. Curtis, 1910

Cheyenne on horses, Edward S. Curtis, 1910

Another incident occurred in the same locality, four miles west of Plum Creek, in July 1867. A band of Southern Cheyenne, under Chief Turkey Leg, took up the rails and ties over a dry ravine. It so happened that the train was preceded by a hand car with three section men—encountering the break, the car and men fell into the ravine and one of their men was captured and scalped. In his agony, he grabbed his scalp and got away in the darkness as had his two more fortunate companions. The engineer discovered the break by the light of his headlight, but not in time to stop his train, and the engine and two carloads of brick, immediately following it, toppled into the ravine with the balance of the train, boxcars loaded with miscellaneous freight, piled up and roundabout. The engineer and fireman were caught and killed in the wreck.

The conductor, discovering the presence of the savages, ran back and flagged the second section following, which was backed up to Plum Creek Station. In the morning the inhabitants of Plum Creek, together with the train crews, sallied out to give battle with the Indians but found they had departed. From the cars, they had thrown out boxes and bales, taking from them whatever had struck their fancy. Bolts of bright colored flannels and calicoes had been fastened to their ponies, which streamed in the wind or dragged over the prairies. Major North and his Pawnee were at the front scattered in small detachments between Sidney and Laramie; within twenty-four hours they arrived on the scene in a special train. Following the trail, in about ten days they fell upon the Cheyenne, 150 in number, and killed 15, taking two prisoners, one of them the nephew of Turkey Leg, their chief.

Another occurrence took place in April 1868, near Elm Creek Station, a band of Sioux attacked, killed and scalped a section gang of five, and on the same day attacked the station of Sidney, coming out on the bluff above it and firing down on the town. At the time of the attack, two conductors were fishing in Lodge Pole Creek, a little way below the station. They were discovered by the Indians, who charged on them and shot one who fell forward as if killed. The other happened to have a pistol on his person with which he kept them at a distance until he reached the station, where he arrived with four arrows sticking in him and some four or five other bullet and arrow wounds, none of which proved serious. His companion also recovered.

Another serious attack was made on a train near Ogallala Station in September 1868. The ends of two opposite rails were raised so as to penetrate the cylinders, the engine going over into the ditch and the cars piling up on top of it. The fireman was caught in the wreck and burned to death, the engineer and forward brakeman, riding on the engine, escaped unhurt. The train crew and passengers being armed, defended the train, keeping the Indians off until a wrecking train and crew arrived. Word being sent to Major North, who was at Willow Island, with one Company of his Indians and overtaking them, two were killed, the balance escaping. The following month the same party attacked a section gang near Potter Station, driving them in and running off a bunch of twenty horses and mules. About fifteen of Major North’s Pawnee started in pursuit, overtook and killed two and recovered the greater part of the stolen stock.

The great battle of construction days occurred near Julesburg in July 1869. The regulars, under General Carr, and the Pawnee (150); under Major North, had put in two months scouting for several bands of Cheyenne and Sioux that had been raiding through the Republican and Solomon Valleys, attacking settlements, burning houses, killing and scalping men, women, and children and raising Cain generally.

They ran them to earth near Summit Springs where they were encamped. On July 11th, they surprised and attacked the who were under the leadership of Tall Bull, a noted Cheyenne Chief. One hundred and sixty warriors were slain, among them Tall Bull.

He was seen as the attack was made, mounted upon his horse with his wife and child behind him trying to escape. Being headed off, he rode into a draw or pocket in the side of a ravine where some fifteen other warriors had taken refuge. He had been riding on a very fine horse, this he took to the mouth of the draw and shot. He then sent his wife and child out to give themselves up; this they did, the wife approaching Major North with hands raised in token of submission. She then advised the Major there were still seven warriors alive in the draw, entreating that their lives be spared.

Sioux Indians on horseback,

Sioux Indians on horseback, by Heyn, 1899

As the Indians were shooting at every man they caught sight of, it was impossible to save them and they were finally shot down. Among the prisoners taken was a white woman who had been captured by the on one of their raids. She had been appropriated by Tall Bull as his wife, and when the village had been attacked, he had shot her and left her in his tepee supposedly dead. Soon after the fight commenced, she was found by one of the officers who, entering the lodge, saw her in a sitting position with blood running down her waist. She was a German, unable to speak English, and up to this time had supposed the fight was between Indians. On realizing that white men were in the vicinity and thinking when he started to leave her, that she was about to be deserted, she clasped him around his legs and in the most pitiful manner, begged him by signs and with tears not to leave her to the savages. After the fight, she was taken to Fort Sedgwick where she recovered, and in a few months afterward married a soldier whose time had expired. During the fight, the troops captured nearly six hundred head of horses and mules, together with an immense amount of miscellaneous plunder, including nineteen hundred dollars in twenty dollar gold pieces that had been taken from the German woman’s father at the time he had been killed and she captured. Of this sum, nine hundred dollars was turned over to the woman; six hundred dollars by the Pawnee, and the balance by the regulars. Had the latter been as generous as the scouts when the appeal for its restoration was made, every dollar would have been returned.

The above incidents are but a few out of thousands that occurred during the stormy construction days. They illustrate the trials and dangers encountered by the hardy pioneers. It was not only at “the front” that trouble was incurred but after the building had proceeded, the section men, station employees, and train crews were in constant danger. At the stations, it was a rule to build sod forts connected by an underground passage with the living quarters to which retreat could be had in case of Indian attacks. For some time small squads of soldiers were stationed at every station and section house along the line, being quartered in sod barracks.

With the completion of the road and the establishment of regular train service, immigration soon poured into such an extent as to make the settlers numerous enough to protect themselves, and it was not long until “Lo,” like the buffalo, was only a memory.

Indian Attack by Charles Marion Russell

Indian Attack by Charles Marion Russell

William Francis Bailey, 1906. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated May 2020.

Author & Notes: This tale is adapted from a chapter of a book written by William Francis Bailey, entitled The Story of the First Trans-Continental Railroad: Its Projectors, Construction and History, published in 1906, by the Pittsburgh Printing Co. The tale is not 100% verbatim, as minor grammatical errors and spelling have been corrected.

Also See:

The Railroad Blasts Across America