- The Tracks of Settler Colonialism
The early twenty-first century has witnessed a surge of scholarly interests in the dominant technology of nineteenth-century American expansion: the railroad. Over the past decade, railway histories have reinvigorated debates about the incorporation of America, the growth of the federal government, and the conquest of Native America. As a growing cadre of historians of American infrastructure have identified, railways helped to drive and determine U.S. state formation.
Abraham Lincoln's presidency not only figures prominently in this infrastructural turn but also provides a potent periodization for the rapid changes attending such expansion. For example, both of Richard White's recent nineteenth-century overviews, Railroaded (2011) and The Republic for Which It Stands (2017) begin with Lincoln on a train, respectively, his 1860 journey east for his famous address at Cooper Union and his final memorial ride west.
Each work views these journeys emblematically as embodiments of a changing republic. Because of the lack of standardized gauges, nearly half a dozen different railway lines were needed to carry Lincoln in 1860. By the time of his return on April 21, 1865, his body traversed a reshaped land. "The train was to run at a maximum speed of twenty miles an hour, with a preferred speed of only five miles an hour," its slow, inexorable travel visible to thousands of mourners as well as representative of the broader transformations that the nation and its infrastructure had undergone. (The Republic, p. 16) By contrast, Lincoln's 1860 travel to New York "involved five trains, two ferries, four days, and three nights . . . . Like the Union itself, American railroads (in 1860) did not quite cohere." (Railroaded, p. 2)
Historians of the American West have a long-standing familiarity with the historiography of the American railway. Railroads, more so than the lariat or six-shooter, chart rather than follow the course of empire. Along its paths of iron, railways connect as well as often spawn settlements, towns, reservations, [End Page 564] mines, ports, and cities. They also shaped migratory patterns, understandings of time and space, as well as economies of scale. In works such as George Sanchez's Becoming Mexican American (1993), railroads connect rural villages throughout Mexico with southwestern cities, such as Los Angeles. In Cole Harris's Resettlement of British Columbia (1997), railways follow the telegraph and conquer spatial and temporal distances to connect western Canada and other parts of the British Empire. In William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis (1991), railroads ferry tons of timber, wheat, pigs, cattle, corn, and other resources to Chicago in preparation for global markets.
Despite the rise of such "New Western Histories" and the proliferation of borderlands studies, many nineteenth-century U.S. histories continue to diminish the significance of such expansion. Accordingly, in The Republic for Which It Stands, White traces Lincoln's mournful train ride west in order to center much of post-1865 U.S. history in its wake. While Lincoln's funeral procession on April 19 "down Pennsylvania Ave had displayed military organization and the technology of war . . . the journey home to Springfield displayed equally formidable American organization . . . the age of steam, iron, and coal had arrived" (The Republic, p. 13). Moreover, Lincoln's regional home—the Midwest—would harness the many advantages of this new age and redefine the nation in the process. Its growing networks of interconnected farms, manufacturing centers and industries, and surging populace soon came, according to White, to "dominate American culture and politics." Indeed, "(t)he rest of the century would in many ways belong to the Midwest . . . the region that Americans then usually called the West" (The Republic, p. 16).
Manu Karuka's Empire's Tracks joins this historiographical development and seeks to expand it. In a book less about railroads than the ideologies and labor systems undergirding them, Karuka argues that railways provided the tracks of national as well as capitalist expansion. "Railway building," he writes, "augured the introduction of new...