Indian Country and the Railroad

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

Missouri, at the exposed edge of the South with freedom on two sides and oddball demographics, disposed of its more atypical senator, Thomas Hart Benton, at the instigation of his nearly as atypical fellow senator, David Rice Atchison. For the moment, rather white, rather free, almost Northern Missouri cast its lot with the Lower South extremists. The apparent paradox of such a lightly enslaved state throwing in with the deeply enslaved states further south makes a certain amount of sense. Knowing Missouri slavery vulnerable, its advocates would naturally make themselves extremely vigilant and sensibly adopt the most extreme proslavery politics to deter their opponents and so both put themselves and their opposites on notice against hidden subversion like that which might hide behind Benton’s stand for silence on slavery.

But Benton’s almost free Missouri did not evaporate. He returned to Washington in 1853, representing St. Louis in the House. His supporters worked, without success, to repeal the Missouri legislature’s resolutions against him. But their efforts signaled that Benton had not closed the book on holding higher office again. Atchison would stand for reelection in 1855 and few things would please Old Bullion more than taking the seat of the man who took his away.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Benton and Atchison both favored a central route for the transcontinental railroad, and there the grudge match between them joins with the great sectional crisis that undid the Armistice’s finality after a mere four years. With the demise of the southern route, disposed of by Lewis Cass, Stephen Douglas, and Benton’s replacement Henry S. Geyer, any route chosen had to run through not Texas and organized New Mexico or Utah territory, but through Indian country. Per the Non-Intercourse Act of 1834, whites could not settle there. They couldn’t even trade there without a special license. They could not buy or hold land. They could only pass through on their way to the coast. All of that had to change for the railroad’s construction and, deeply connected in the minds of nineteenth century Americans, for the white race to fulfill its destiny by filling the continent.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Douglas had worked on organizing Indian country as Nebraska Territory since he first entered the House. He didn’t care one way or the other about slavery. Douglas wanted his railroad, his profits, and the advancement of his race. But where Douglas in the House failed, Douglas in the Senate could succeed. In 1852, on his third try, the Little Giant submitted a bill to recruit a volunteer military force to build a series of forts across Indian country, string a telegraph line, and support itself through farming. After three years, each man in the force would get a section of land on the route. The law did not pass, says something about both Douglas’ ingenuity and how badly he wanted the land settled.

Douglas had good reason to think the time ripe. By the fall of 1853, two groups of whites had ignored the prohibitions of the Non-Intercourse Act and settled in the area. A group of Missourians settled around Fort Leavenworth, amid the very army charged under the law to evict them. To signal their enthusiasm, they elected a slaveholding Atchison man as their delegate to Congress. They had no authority to do any such thing, of course. Nor did the Iowans who settled across the river from Council Bluffs and elected a free soil man to send to Congress. Both groups stood in blatant defiance of the law, but like the filibusters they took what they wanted and dared Congress to make them give it back.

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