complete its transcontinental route, the Northern Pacific Railroad set
out in 1872 to survey the Yellowstone Valley. An emissary from the
Lakota chief Sitting Bull had warned the two surveying expeditions
(eastern and western) not to enter the valley. But no
one—certainly no Northern Pacific investor—was worried
about taking the Indian threat seriously.
|As it turned out, the Indians
were deadly serious—and successful. The firsthand accounts
compiled here by M. John Lubetkin document the survey’s
three-month struggle with the Lakotas and other Plains Indian people. Before Custer:
Surveying the Yellowstone, 1872 tells the story of a military
and public relations disaster.
Much to the surprised dismay of U.S. Army strategists and railroad
executives, the Indians repeatedly harrassed army forces of nearly a
thousand men. One surveying party turned back, without meeting its
objectives, after a determined attack led by Sitting Bull. The other
also retreated, and one ambush it encountered resulted in the death of
a member of President Ulysses S. Grant’s family and the narrow
escape of the railroad’s lead engineer.
previously unpublished documents that Lubetkin has collected and
annotated also tell a parallel story: that of the dire consequences of
the railroad’s problems for the country. When the Northern
Pacific’s expansion plans were thwarted, the nation’s
largest private banking house failed, leading to the Panic of 1873. The
fighting brought Sitting Bull to national attention and led directly to
George Armstrong Custer’s transfer to the Department of Dakota.