This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Summer 2016, Volume 62, Number 3)

JAY COOKE’S GAMBLE - The Northern Pacific Railroad, the Sioux, and the Panic of 1873

By M. John Lubetkin, University of Oklahoma Press, 2006. Maps Illus. Endnotes. Bibliography. Index. 380 pp. $29.95.


By M. John Lubetkin, The Arthur H. Clark Co., 2013. Maps Illus. Footnotes. Bibliography. Index. 336 pp. $20.00.

The period between the signing of the Laramie Treaty in 1868 and Custer’s incursion into the Black Hills six years later has been generally ignored by historians of the American West in as far as they relate to the Northern Plains. No white man entered Sioux Country; Red Cloud apparently remained triumphantly in residence in the Powder River country and everything was tranquil. For the history of the West has tended to be a series of episodic events with no intervening narrative. In fact, the Laramie Treaty was broken on several occasions during this period and Red Cloud’s people migrated to the Agencies a few years after the signing of the Laramie Treaty, but other events were to transpire which were more fundamental.  The most significant of these were the expeditions to survey and construct the Northern Pacific Railroad, a railway to run between Duluth in the east, through Minnesota and the present state of North Dakota, then through Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. 

Work commenced in 1871, and surveying parties in Montana were protected by troops from Fort Ellis.  They encountered hostile Indians, Piegans, but moved east only as far along the Yellowstone as a point 20 miles west of Pompey’s Pillar. In the East the surveying parties moved west from Fort Rice as far as the Yellowstone but the Sioux Indians ignored them. The following year as the railroad moved westward through eastern north Dakota, more surveying parties were sent out, escorted by infantry in the east and cavalry in the west. These encountered hostile Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapahoe and several skirmishes took place, with some casualties. The militancy shown by the Sioux led to General Terry, who commanded the Department of Dakota, to request reinforcement by a regiment of cavalry – he had only one 4 company battalion of the 2nd in 1872 – and Custer’s 7th was ordered north in 1873.  That year was to see more serious fighting.

In parallel with this, the finance needed for the construction of the railroad abruptly terminated with the Panic of September 1873, which is why the railroad no longer featured in the history of the West until after the Sioux War was over. 

In his earlier book, the author competently relates the history of the Northern Pacific Railroad from its founding by Jay Cooke to its ultimate bankruptcy in 1873. The various expeditions are thoroughly described, together with the chief personalities involved.  It is surprising that there are few works on these matters, and those that do exist, such as the books by John M. Carroll and Dr. Lawrence Frost, tend to concentrate on Custer’s involvement in 1873. The only significant point with the author’s coverage where I have some reservations concerns the reason he attributes for the collapse of the Northern Pacific. It had less to do with the fights between Custer and the Sioux in August 1873 – there had, after all, been fights in 1872 – but in fact, quite simply, the U.S. ran out of cash.  There was also undoubtedly some interplay with a similar collapse throughout Europe, starting in Vienna in May 1873 and involving Germany and also in Great Britain, where it became known as the Great Depression, lasting until 1897. The events along the Yellowstone may have had some marginal impact on investor confidence, but many other factors impinged on this. One minor point: the statement on page 49 that the Department of Dakota contained about 1,700 men is contradicted on page 50 in a table showing that its correct strength was between 2,368 and 4,148 during the years 1869 – 1873.

The second book in effect buttresses the author’s coverage of the chapters in his earlier volume relating to the 1873 expedition by including first-hand accounts by participants and others. The accounts include despatches by the New York Tribune’s correspondent, Samuel J. Barrows, extracts from the diaries of Thomas L. Rosser, Luther P. Bradley and several others. The official reports by Custer, Stanley, and others are not included, however, the compiler concentrating on accounts with which most students are unlikely to be familiar.

Both volumes are recommended to students of the Indian Wars, the Little Bighorn campaign and Custer himself. The tactics he used in 1873 may well have been repeated three years later.

Francis B. Taunton



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