TWENTY TWO Tokens of an Omnipotent Civilisation

The rule for our voyage is to keep ever onwards – to sail always in new waters – so inevitably we named our yacht Heraclitus after the philosopher from Ephesus who famously observed some 2,500 years ago that you cannot step into the same river twice. Heraclitus was a man obsessed with change – “all life is in flux” – and had he been here on the foredeck sipping an Ephesisian coffee on this sunny morning in 1863, he would have seen change in a major way. Off our starboard bow is a noisy flotilla of paddle steamers tasked with hauling equipment up the Sacramento River to the Central Pacific Railroad’s staging grounds.

In these early days of California’s development, there was no heavy engineering, so all the tools and machinery, rails and steam engines, freight cars and passenger coaches, everything except wood, had to be shipped from the east – round Cape Horn or across the Isthmus of Panama. In six years’ time, the paddle steamers will be redundant as an extension line from Sacramento to the newly-built Oakland Long Wharf will have brought the railroad to the Pacific.

The transcontinental railway will appear in many more posts but I mention it here as the paramount symbol of how modes of transport had been transformed since first contact. If there was a single moment in which the Old World finally draped the New in imported trappings, then it was as the hammer struck in the first rail spike on the 8th January 1863.

Central Pacific Railway Bond payable in 1895 (c) wikicommons

That hammer blow also finally and forever crushed any hope First Americans may have had of regaining their past lifeways. For their 15,000 year existence as free peoples, their lives had been shaped by the way they moved over the land – which was to walk. Before 1492, people did not ride horses, there were no wheeled vehicles and, of course, no mechanical transport – other than the sails and paddles of their coastal and river boats and dogs willingly pulling travoys. For 15.000 years, North America had been a walking continent – but as the newcomers’ wagons, horses, steamboats and iron rails gripped the land from coast to coast, the lifeways of First Americans were transformed.

The transport revolution may seem inconsequential when set against pandemic disease, physical and cultural genocide, and forced marches to barren reservations – but it had a profound effects. One obvious catastrophe was the First Americans’ relationship with nature. For 15,000 years they had moved at the tempo of the natural world and their understanding of themselves and their place in the universe was shaped by this. Scott Momaday captures this sense in his poetry:

“I have seen in the twist of wind
The landscape severed and heard
The brazen cries of streaming hawks.
First light is a tapestry on canyon walls,
And shadows are pools of illusion.
I am a man of the ancient earth
For I have known the desert at dawn”
(from La Tierra del Encanto)

At first contact, the continent was covered by a skein of trails millennia in the making. Trade passed across the continent on these trails – like the Silk Road, people by and large did not carry their goods from one end to the other, rather trade passed from bazaar to bazaar, tribe to tribe along the route. The ten mile stretch of the Columbia River from The Dalles to Celilo Falls was one such bazaar – described by Lewis and Clark as “the Great Mart of all this country” – obsidian from the south, buffalo hides from the west, whale oil from the Makah in the north. Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras managed another major hub along the banks of the Upper Missouri that linked to the Great Lakes. But modern transport networks interrupted the ancient flows: the Makah, whale hunters of the north-west, for example, could now spurn the Columbia River market and instead trade internationally, sending their fine quality whale oil to England to light homes in Dickensian London.

The new transport infrastructure damaged the environment and indigenous lifeways across the continent. Initially, colonisers were happy to follow the old trails – but, increasingly, wagon roads, railways and canals were driven through virgin territory. The ecological havoc of 400,000 emigrants and hundreds of thousand of livestock herding west on the Oregon Trail was immense. People foraging for clean water, food, and grass for their oxen in competition with vast droves of cattle, oxen, goats and sheep – and one drive of 1,500 turkeys heading west – made the OregonTrail a blighted, disease-ridden tract 50 miles wide in places.

Commanche Village 1871 (courtesy NARA)

Archeological evidence shows that conflict between tribes had been a constant pre-contact – but now the way they waged war was transformed. Horses brought the kind of sweeping mobility to the Great Plains that Eurasians had known only too well since the Sintashta developed their superior breed of domesticated horse (and, incidentally, chariots and the spoked wheel) around 4,000 years ago.

The Shoshone, for example, pushed by the Sioux into the deserts of the Great Basin, used horses to power their way back onto the Great Plains – where the Spanish renamed them Comanches after the Ute word komantcia. And here Comanche fought the resident Apache for resources and control of southern trade routes. Though the Spanish refused to arm the Apaches, the Comanches could buy guns from the French – so by 1730, the ill-equipped Apaches were driven to the margins, leaving the Comanches free to establish what became a major entrepot on the Upper Arkansas River.

In an article for The Journal of American History, Pekka Hamalainen points out that the suddenness of tribes on the southern plains moving from foot to horseback had serious downsides: “Horses helped Indians do virtually everything – move, hunt, trade, and wage war – more effectively, but they also disrupted subsistence economies, wrecked grassland and bison ecologies, created new social inequalities, unhinged gender relations, undermined traditional political hierarchies, and intensified resource competition”. The horse became a unit of wealth and a major trade commodity – so were bred on an industrial scale, depleting grasslands, winter forage and reducing the bison herds. The inevitable famines that followed, combined with epidemics of Old World diseases, reduced Comanche numbers from 20,000 in the 1820s to around 5,000 by the mid-1860s.

On the cold northern plains the effects were also ecologically disastrous and the fighting even more costly. Horse-based warfare fatally weakened the tribes on the northern plains: reducing males to just 25% of the population. The glister of horses proved just that – not gold, but a cancer eating at the inside, making the triumph of manifest destiny irresistible.

Isabella Bird (c) Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame

There is an entry by Isabella Bird in her travelogue that epitomises the plight of First Americans in the new world of mechanical transportation. Before first contact, North America had some 60 million people speaking perhaps as many as 500 languages. Tribes adapted their way of living and the sizes of their groupings to the resources at hand. Here in California, which was one of the most densely populated parts of North America, life was good – for most. The Chumash sailed in cedar boats to hunt seals, otters and porpoises; other coastal groups gathered oysters and clams; some of those inland farmed; most made acorn flour; they gathered roots and berries and feasted on deer, wildfowl, elk and rabbit – while those in the desert made do with pine nuts and the pods of the mesquite.

On September 2nd, 1873, Isabella Bird, travelling from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe, observed a small indigenous group who would once have walked through their virgin forests on their narrow trails – but here they are on a train riding through land now despoiled:

“The engines and tenders were followed by a baggage car, a mail car, and Wells Fargo and Co’s express car, the latter loaded with bullion …. Then came two cars loaded with peaches and grapes; then two ‘silver palace’ cars, each sixty feet long; then a smoking car … and then five ordinary passenger cars with platforms like all of the others, making altogether a train about 700 feet in length. The platforms of the four front cars were clustered over with Digger Indians with their squaws, children and gear. They are perfect savages, without any aptitude for even aboriginal civilisation, and are altogether the most degraded of the ill-fated tribes which are dying out before the white races…. They were all hideous and filthy and swarming with vermin…. a most impressive incongruity in the midst of the tokens of an omnipotent civilisation”.


Isabella Bird A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879)

N. Scott Momaday La Tierra del Encanto quoted in House Made of Dawn (1968)

YouTube: Woody Guthrie’s Oregon Trailhttps://youtu.be/CScH7s5lRLk

High Country News National Park Service – Protecting the Oregon Trail from the development it helped create by Sarah Gilman (March 7th 2016)

YouTube: How the Transcontinental Railroad Transformed America https://youtu.be/rUmD0jFTnCA

For conflict on the Great Plains pre-contact see Archaeological Perspectives on Warfare on the Great Plains (eds): Andrew J. Clark and Douglas B. Bamforth (Colorado UP)

The Western Comanche Trade Center: Rethinking the Plains Indian Trade System by Pekka Hämäläinen – Western Historical Quarterly, Winter, 1998, Vol. 29, No. 4 pp.485-513 (OUP)

The Rise and Fall of Plains Indian Horse Cultures by Pekka Hämäläinen – The Journal of American History, Dec., 2003, Vol. 90, No. 3 pp.833-862 (OUP on behalf of Organization of American Historians)

Early dispersal of domestic horses into the Great Plains and Northern Rockies by Taylor et al., Science 379, 1316–1323 (2023) 31 March 2023

For a challenge to the accepted view that the Spanish brought horses to America – see Yvette J. Collin The Relationship Between The Indigenous People of the Americas and The Horse: How the Dominant Culture’s View of Oral History Denied Truth (Sacred Way Publishing 2013)

YouTube: The First Horse Warriorshttps://youtu.be/dYw8NnQ1tpk

For a challenge to claims of environmental degradation in one area see Environmental Impact Of The Euro-American Emigration Through Southwestern Idaho (1840-1862): Effect On Native Lifeways by Garrett G Webb (MA Thesis, December 2010, Boise State University)


close up of a bull's head

Too Close (c) meirion harries 2023