Recently I listened to the first episode of the podcast City of the Rails.1 About 30 minutes in, the author Danelle Morton interviews the historian Richard White about what actually happened when railroads were built across the North American continent in the 1860′ and ’70s. 2(opens the podcast at the interview) White briefly describes that the US government gave away land that was occupied by Indian tribes for thousands of years. The US gave away lands that it did not own to private corporations to exploit. The usual narrative of the railroads helping to populate the West is false.
The real narrative is that the railroads helped to displace and eradicate the Indians living there and replace them with European Americans, the colonizers and conquerors. White estimates that if you totaled up the land given by the US government to the railroads, it would be the size of Alaska. In 1862 President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act3 that gave land, 10 square miles along each mile of track to railroads and provided government bonds to subsidize the construction. White describes how the term “lobbying” derived from the practice of railroad men hanging around lobbies of hotels in Washington and the lobby of the Capitol with bags of money to buy votes for their projects.
If we are to come to grips with how we came to have a global empire, with a global military and global financial machine, not to mention global corporations, we need to look at our history from its very beginnings with a clear view of its premises. Northern European white people arriving in the Americas to claim land occupied for thousands of years by other human beings. There is no other way of interpreting this reality.
Also, we must take note of how this development of a lynchpin capitalist industry was directly supported and funded by government. Despite the free-market right’s visceral dislike of anything involving government the development of capitalism is interlocked with the participation of government.4
BTW – Richard White’s book on railroads is: Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (W. W. Norton & Company, 2011)
- from the podcast series description: When journalist Danelle Morton’s daughter skips town to hop trains, she follows her into the train yard, and across America. Join Danelle as she travels the country to understand what drew her daughter into the hidden world of the railroads.
- Richard White (historian). (2022, October 18). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_White_(historian)
- the podcast inaccurately describes this as the Transcontinental Railway Act
- for a global view of a quintessential capitalist industry, cotton, see Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History, First Edition (New York: Knopf, 2014)
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