This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America.
American westward settlement had mostly neglected the open prairies. Settlers preferred the forested lands where they could find more water, and trees provided lumber for building and for fuel. When they did settle the prairies, most emigrants chose the river bottoms where grew stands of cottonwood, hickory, and other trees.
This settlement pattern, however, began to change in the mid 1850s with the increased construction of railroads. Instead of relying on cumbersome, slow-moving wagon trains for supplies, settlers could receive what they needed, quickly, by rail. One such railroad, the Illinois Central, when completed, ran from Chicago to Cairo, Illinois, and thus opened up the Illinois prairie for settlement.
The 1850s witnessed the definitive triumph of the noisy railroad over the peaceful, idyllic canal. With California and Oregon filling up with settlers, Americans began to dream of a trans-continental railroad. Different routes were proposed. The most promising seemed to be the southern route, since it would pass through already organized territories. Starting in New Orleans, the route would follow the Red River, and then run through Texas and New Mexico to the Gila River. Following the Gila, the railroad would pass through Yuma on the Colorado River, and from Yuma, traverse the Southern California desert to its destination in San Diego.
Secretary of State Jefferson Davis advocated the southern route because it would connect the South to the West. Because the route would pass through the Gila River valley, which was Mexican territory, Davis persuaded President Pierce to buy it from Mexico. Mexico agreed to the sale, and in 1854 the Gadsden Purchase (named for James Gadsden, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico) added the territory south of the Gila River and west of the Río Grande (in what is now Arizona and New Mexico) to the United States.
But Davis’ southern route faced powerful opposition in the Senate. Stephen A. Douglas, senator from Illinois, had been speculating in western lands and in Chicago real estate. Partly to realize greater profits on his investments and partly to add to his own political prestige, Douglas began to champion a central route for the transcontinental railroad. This route would run from St. Louis, up the Kansas and Arkansas Rivers, climb over the Rockies to the Great Salt Lake, and then follow the California trail over the Sierra Nevada to San Francisco. There was one catch to Douglas’ plan, however; the railroad needed to pass through organized territories, and the Nebraska territory between Missouri and Utah had no territorial government.
Such an obstacle could not daunt Stephen Douglas, known to his senatorial colleagues as the “Little Giant” for his short stature and mighty political organizing abilities. In 1854, Douglas introduced a bill to split and organize the Nebraska territory into two separate territories — Kansas and Nebraska. The Little Giant knew he needed southern support for this Kansas-Nebraska bill, so he proposed that the territories should be organized without any reference to slavery. Instead, the people who settled the territories would decide whether they would accept slavery among them or forbid its introduction.
Popular or “squatter” sovereignty was what Douglas was proposing for Kansas and Nebraska. But, whatever one called it, Douglas’ proposal slashed at the weakening bonds of the union, for it would implicitly overturn the Missouri Compromise; the new territories lay north of longitude 36 degrees, 30 minutes, from where slavery was supposedly forever banned. This was bad enough, but, to add insult to injury, Douglas took the further step of supporting a bill, presented to the Senate by Senator Dixon of Kentucky and Senator Atchison of Missouri, that would explicitly repeal the Missouri Compromise.
Opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska bill was hot in Congress. One southern senator, Sam Houston of Texas, attacked the bill because it would violate treaties with Indian tribes to whom the U.S. had guaranteed Kansas and Nebraska for “as long as grass shall grow and water run.” Few congressmen, however, cared a whit about Indian treaties; other concerns — slavery or freedom, a southern or central railroad line — took precedence.
In the end, Douglas’ political engine broke through all opposition in Congress, and both houses passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act on May 25, 1854. President Pierce gladly signed the bill, and it became law. Kansas and Nebraska were organized as territories under popular sovereignty.
In 1854 – a year looking ahead to hard times in America — American songwriter Stephen Foster published the song, “Hard Times Come Again No More.” It has remained one of Foster’s most popular songs.