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Reviewed by:
  • Empire's Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad by Manu Karuka
  • Robert G. Angevine
Empire's Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad. By Manu Karuka (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2019) 318 pp. $85.00 cloth $29.95 paper

Throughout the nineteenth century, many Americans regarded the railroad as a potentially valuable tool of empire. Early advocates claimed that the railroads would be useful in suppressing Native American uprisings. Heads of the frontier army worked closely with railroad companies to impose their vision of civilization across the plains. Yet few railroad histories have looked in any depth at the effects of railroads on Native Americans and other cultural groups. In his broad, well-researched, but overly strident work, Karuka corrects this omission by detailing the impact of the transcontinental railroad on the Lakota, Pawnee, and Cheyenne nations and the Chinese workers who helped build the railroad.

Karuka organizes the book into three sections. The first section includes three chapters, each of which introduces one of the major themes of the book—counter-sovereignty, modes of relationship, and railroad colonialism. The second section contains four chapters, each of which focuses on how the transcontinental railroad affected the groups listed above. The third section consists of two chapters that examine concepts—shareholder whiteness and continental imperialism—that, according to Karuka, apply to the history of both the transcontinental railroad and, more broadly, the United States.

Karuka claims that, contrary to triumphalist accounts that portray the transcontinental railroad as a unique symbol of vibrant American capitalism, it was an unexceptional manifestation of railroad colonialism. Government, military, and business leaders, who collectively formed what Karuka calls "the war-finance nexus," ignored indigenous land claims as they built the railroad and transformed the interior of the United States into a capitalist empire (173). The railroad was not, according to Karuka, an infrastructure of connection joining the people of the United States together, but a core infrastructure of continental imperialism used to oppress Native Americans and exclude Chinese workers who helped to build it.

The book is extraordinarily well researched, incorporating a wide range of rarely used sources, including indigenous oral histories, ethnographic and anthropological studies, archaeological reports, indigenous art, and written histories of indigenous Nations, as well as more traditional sources, such as government documents, daily newspapers, corporate reports, and personal papers. The indigenous sources provide a perspective frequently missing from more traditional accounts. [End Page 616]

The book is also broadly conceived. Although it focuses on the period of the transcontinental railroad's greatest activity, 1862 to 1869, it also examines the history of indigenous peoples on the plains before the railroad, the evolution of legal thought regarding corporations in the antebellum era, the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, and mobilization for the Spanish–American War. Its geographical coverage extends to not only the American West but also the American South during Reconstruction, as well as to Africa, Australia, Brazil, China, India, and the Ottoman Empire during the colonial era. The book's breadth, however, sometimes interferes with narrative coherence. The early chapters that lay out key themes and serve as a literature review posit broad generalities but provide little discussion of people, places, or things. Karuka argues that rumors can serve as valuable historical evidence but never explains the rumors in question. In later chapters, he often presents so much background material that the transcontinental railroad itself receives little attention.

More troublesome is that the book's forceful and repetitious advocacy of a Marxist interpretation of the transcontinental railroad and U.S. history interferes with rigorous analysis and raises doubts about its objectivity. The chapter on railroad colonialism jumps from country to country in describing the phenomenon and declaring it imperialist without explaining the underlying mechanisms that could account for similarities and differences in the character and timing of events. The frequent use of the term "war-finance nexus" substitutes for more thoughtful discussion of how changes in the relationships between the government, the military, and the private sector affected the transcontinental railroad. The epilogue argues that capitalism is synonymous with imperialism and that imperialism has increased since the dissolution of the...


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pp. 616-617
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