History, Department of


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A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: History, Under the Supervision of Professor William G. Thomas III. Lincoln, Nebraska: August, 2013

Copyright (c) 2013 Robert J. Voss


This dissertation examines the history of the interaction of railroads and coal during the end of the nineteenth century in what is today eastern Oklahoma. The Indian territory presented complex opportunities and challenges for railroad developers, coal operators, miners, railroad workers, and Native Americans. Using primary sources, such as published and unpublished accounts of both prominent and typical Native Americans and Euro-Americans, congressional debates, railroad company annual reports, railroad company correspondence, account books, treaties, court cases, and maps, this dissertation explores the process of railroad and coal company incursion in the region and the conflicts that resulted. All participants in the negotiations, contracts, treaties, strikes, and other legal actions between 1866 and 1907 sought to control the terms of energy production, market accessibility, and resource extraction. New approaches to the history of capitalism inform this dissertation, which stresses in particular the significance of the private contract as a tool of incursion and resistance.

Rather than living on federally dictated reservations or having only itinerant land access, the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Creek (Muskogee) possessed clear title and fee simple land rights to Indian territory. Their legal right to the coal deposits and to the rights of way necessary for railroad building proved surprisingly durable and highly contingent. In this setting Native Americans in the Indian territory used opportunities presented by railroads and coalmines to strengthen their economic and political position. Powerful Native Americans worked with and against weak railroads from a position of relative strength in the Indian territory.

This dissertation argues that railroad companies, endeavoring to build across Indian territory and gain access to its coal, faced considerable legal and political challenges. Complicated practical concerns over coal and railroads challenged managers, federal authorities, and Native American leaders attempting to balance access to coal, income from taxes and legal frameworks. This tenuous balance toppled at the end of the nineteenth century in the strike of 1894 when some Native American coal leaseholders, coal operators, and the railroads turned to the federal government to help break the strike.

Adviser: William G. Thomas III