May marked the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad that joined the east and west coasts of the United States. Heralded as the “moon landing” of its time, the railroad dramatically changed the country. While there were many positive outcomes of this achievement, building the railroad had high costs for Native Americans.
“In commemorating and celebrating the Transcontinental Railroad, you forget the uglier parts of history and you focus on the elitists and the progress of a new nation,” said Darren Parry, chairman of the Northwest Band of the Shoshone.
On Wednesday evening, Parry spoke about the impact of the railroad on Native Americans at the Cache County Historic Courthouse for the monthly meeting of the Cache Valley Historical Society. The room was filled to capacity with people of all ages, from children to college students to senior citizens.
“When President Lincoln signed the railroad act in 1862, he could not have imagined the tragic impact that the railroad would have, nor the speed that it would change the shape of America. In its wake, countless lives of Native Americans were destroyed,” Parry said.
During his presentation, Parry highlighted multiple reasons why the railroad was so devastating to Native Americans. First, it made it easier for the United States military to bring troops and supplies westward as they worked to exterminate the indigenous population.
Next, it enabled more rapid ecological change.
“By far, the greatest impact on Native Americans was the extinction of buffalo,” Parry said.
As the railroad was built, hunters came across the western part the country, killing millions of buffalo and often leaving the carcasses to rot. The destruction of this food source forced Native Americans to choose whether to starve or to move to reservations, Parry said. The indigenous people were replaced with ranchers; the buffalo were replaced with cattle.
“To many Americans at the time and since, it seemed that the Native American story was probably over. But I am here to tell you that is not,” Parry said.
Moving forward, Parry said there can be respect for the narrative of the Transcontinental Railroad as a great success story, but that there must be room for the other groups of people who were impacted differently.
“Sometimes history challenges us to think about an uglier past that we would rather not have,” Parry said. “But that is really the power and the benefit of history. It connects us to the past. It connects us to our humanity and our inhumanity and it offers us a way to move forward, especially in a circumstance like this.”