Professor talks about how railroad expansion of the late 1800s affected Native Americans

The California Limited of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe passes through Apache Canyon near Santa Fe around 1930. (Palace of the Governors Photo Archives)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Richard Frost is out to puncture the romantic image of railroads, contending that their westward expansion was more a matter of conquest, trampling on the rights and lands of Native peoples in the steel-railed version of manifest destiny.

As an example, the emeritus professor of history from Colgate University in New York told some stories about the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad (or Railway, after the owners declared bankruptcy and resold the line to themselves under a slightly altered name in 1893) in front of a filled auditorium earlier this week at the New Mexico History Museum.

An aside here: Frost called the turnout “totally awesome” and “so Santa Fe” to have a couple of hundred people – almost 10 times what he would have expected – turn out for a noon-time lecture by the author of a scholarly book with about 1,000 footnotes.

He found out, though, that it’s also “so Santa Fe” to have impatient audience members interrupt his rambling discourse on the process of putting the book together and demand that he get to the meat of the content. Folks here are rarely shy about speaking out.

So, back to the content.

Frost, who has studied Pueblo Indians for 40 to 45 years, said he found himself wondering if the railroad channeled through the residential areas of Santo Domingo Pueblo had anything to do with the conservative nature of that tribe.

Looking into the history, he characterized the construction of the AT&SF line in 1880 as an invasion of that pueblo’s lands, with construction crews laying rail through farmland and pastures without any advance notice or legal agreements worked out with tribal officials.

Two miles northeast of the village, on pueblo land, the railroad also built an outpost to repair and service the railroad. Included were housing for employees, machine shops, a roundhouse, engine house, and associated stores, saloons and billiard parlors, he said.

“In 1882, the population of Wallace (named after Gov. Lew) was 300 people,” Frost said.

Understandably, that kind of land takeover, coupled with the damage to crops and livestock, not to mention injuries and deaths to human beings walking the tracks or riding the freight cars, didn’t endear the white man or the railroad to the tribal residents, he noted.

Remnants of that town still exist, but it now is called Domingo, according to Cynthia Aguilar, who identified herself as a tribal librarian and made some comments during the question-and-answer session.

She added that the old town’s historic trading post, situated right by what is now the Rail Runner station there, has been restored and is slated for a soft opening this summer.

Santo Domingo wasn’t the only tribal land to suffer in the early days of the railroad. Frost said the AT&SF started out in Kansas in 1859, getting a charter, but having no money to launch construction.

Under duress, the Potawatomi Indians made a deal with the railroad, selling 340,000 acres near Topeka, with the railroad making no down payment and paying only 6 percent interest for the early years after the sale. In turn, the railroad then sold off land at a profit near which its line would run, raising enough money to start laying rails.

Incidentally, Frost said, it was the Atchison and Topeka Railroad for the first four years of its existence. After getting a land grant to continue the line through southwestern Kansas, the owners were looking to add a little cachet to its image, so added in the Santa Fe name. The old town at a terminus of the Santa Fe Trail added romance and glamour to the railroad’s image – even though, Frost said, its officials had no plans to actually run the rail line into Santa Fe.

“They built the line through Glorieta Pass that missed Santa Fe by 15 miles,” he said. The train could have gone into Santa Fe and backed down again to the main line, but operators of a rail line to the coast weren’t interested in that. Instead, the city of Santa Fe borrowed $150,000 to build the branch line we still see running from Lamy. “Later, they couldn’t pay the debt,” Frost said of city officials.

While members of pueblos that the train powered through were known to throw rocks at its passenger cars, Frost said not every tribe had as bad an experience as Santo Domingo.

At Laguna Pueblo, west of Albuquerque, tribal and railroad officials worked out an agreement beforehand in which tribal members got jobs, both in constructing the railroad, and in running coal chutes and other activities servicing it, he said.

That negotiation might have come about partly because, by that time, rail officials were seeing some wisdom in working with the tribes, and partly because Presbyterian missionaries had intermarried and reached positions of trust in the tribe, helping accustom its members to dealing with Anglos, he said.

But railroad workers didn’t have to worry only about conflicts with tribes along their path. Frost said rival railroads often came to blows over critical rights-of-way.

The AT&SF was in competition with the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad over access to the silver and coal mines in Colorado. Workers for the two lines actually built stone forts and were shooting at each other as they scrambled to build the first crossing over the Arkansas River, he said.

And while historians have said the two railroads were in a deathly race to see who would reach Raton Pass first, Frost dismisses that story. “The Denver and Rio Grande knew going into New Mexico was not worthwhile,” he said.

By taking its path into the Southwest, though, the AT&SF lucked out with its route to Los Angeles, he added. Not even worth considering as a destination when the railroads first were being built into the West – they all headed to San Francisco – Los Angeles developed into quite a lucrative market.

Frost’s new book is “The Railroad and Pueblo Indians: The Impact of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe on the Pueblos of the Rio Grande, 1880-1930” (University of Utah Press, 2016).

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