I suspect there would be a general consensus around the idea that the westward expansion of the railroads was a winner of an idea. It stimulated westward migration. It increased the overall output of American goods and services. It secured our lands from “sea to shining sea.” It was arguably the backbone of we proudly call our uniquely American “Manifest Destiny.”
What a great story – a uniquely American story – is that of the building of the railroads.
But railroads cost money to build, and we were far from a wealthy nation 150 years ago. We certainly were not the beacon of glimmering capitalism that we are today. So how did they get built, who paid for them, and at what cost?
How the Railroads Were Built & Financed
The names are very familiar. The Atchison, Topeka & the Santa Fe, the Union Pacific, the Burlington & Northern, are all staples in the American history of transportation. Their founders loom large among the icons of early American industrialism and capitalism. But what is not so familiar is at least one of the means by which these empires were built.
Here’s the deal – literally. The US government wanted to encourage westward expansion. Witness the Homestead Act, where each settler got 160 acres for the mere occupation and development of the land. And as stated above westward expansion increased our domestic output…made us a richer country with more goods and services to trade abroad. But the Government had a problem – how to get East Coast city dwellers, New England family farmers, and Southern plantation owners to move West. Wagon trains couldn’t move the volume of migrants that steamboats and rail could. And the West was not developed to the point of naturally enticing migration.
Enter the railroaders. If the Government could encourage the railroaders to build West…., well, you know what they say, if you build it they will come. But what businessman or railroader would build a train to nowhere? That sounds preposterous. Even if he could, and they did, advertise liberally domestically and abroad for migrants to move West, that would still be a huge capital investment and a lot of risk to take simply in the name of supporting “Manifest Destiny.” If the railroaders were going to do this they needed an incentive from the Government – something that would help them defer the costs and minimize the risk of the capital investment.
And that’s where the deal came in. The Government was all in on the plan to expand West with rail, and they realized the business challenge presented above by the railroaders. However, they lacked the funds to underwrite such an ambitious plan. What they did have was land – lots of land, millions of acres of land. The Federal Government gave the railroaders twenty miles of land each side of the tracks. So, you today can find a railroad going West on a map, paint a broad stroke of 40 miles wide across it, and you get a literal picture of the enormity of land grant given – for free – to the railroaders as incentive and compensation to build. A generous 33% of all land in Kansas and 16% of Nebraska land was given to the railroads for this very purpose.
Railroad Land for Sale
Now these titans of capitalism had no use for the land themselves. However, they had every use for the revenue the sale of the land generated. Further, land near the tracks typically sold for a premium over land further out because it was near the means to travel and transport goods. It’s no different from buying real estate today. A property near mass transit or a highway would naturally have greater value than that at a distance from it. Location. Location. Location.
The farmers and settlers were quite willing to pay the prices…even over free Homestead Land. Land that would normally go for $1.25/acre in Kansas was going for up to $10/acre if it. It was highly profitable for the railroaders with 100% profit on their sales, and it was an excellent means by which to finance the building of the rail. But wait – there’s more! The opportunity to sell the land given them by the Federal Government gave them every incentive they needed to promote migration West. They wanted the settlers not only to buy tickets on the rail from which they profited, but to buy the land they sold. Who wouldn’t want to be in this business now?
As for the records…
Now a century and a half later, the genealogist is left wondering why their ancestors didn’t show up in the Homestead records even though they are certain they came West in the great migration of the Manifest Destiny. My dear friend, the answer may very well lie in the archives of the railroaders. Your ancestor may very well have been the first private individual to purchase the land, but they bought it from AT&SF or the big “UP.” Which means you need to look elsewhere for the records.
Here are a few suggestions to find the land records:
- The archives of the railroads. The first place to look is among the archives of the railroad companies. These are often in the state archives of the state where the railroads were based. Warning: the railroad company archives are enormous. The Union Pacific records are a mere 702 linear feet. So you need to proceed with caution. Ask for the finding aid or inventory for this collection. Look for the land sales, leases, mortgages, or tract books. Dig in.
- Land Companies Think of land companies as early American development companies. It was their job to follow the railroad’s progression West and build towns. Plot the area, buy & sell land, promote the town and really make ready for the migrants to come and help them get established upon arrival. These records, too, you will find at State Archives. Either search or ask for “land companies.”
- State Agencies The states where the rails were established had a vested interest in the buying and selling of government land. (I suspect it has to do with the opportunity to tax the property owner.) Often they were the fiduciary or trustee of the land and responsible for the transactions with the railroad – sometimes individuals. Again, turn to the State Archives and look for an agency related to the distribution of land. In Kansas they call it the “Kansas Land Office.” Further, many counties may have rolled up their archives and given them over to the State Archives for care and protection. So you may find county records related to the distribution of railroad lands at the state archives.
- County Archives Finally, some counties retain all of their own records related to land distribution. And given the size or direct impact of the railroad (maybe it took half the county’s land), the records may still reside at the county level.