In 1866, the federal government negotiated new treaties with the Five Tribes as a part of Reconstruction following the Civil War. In these treaties, the Tribes agreed to allow railroad rights of way through their nations. But one north-south line and one east-west line were all that was agreed to in these treaties.

That same year, Congress passed a Railroad Act that amended several other acts passed during the 1860s. Called the Pacific Railroad Acts, this legislation incentivized railroad companies to build lines across the continent to the Pacific coast. One lucrative incentive offered the railroads was the grant of thousands of acres of public land on alternate sides of the tracks. With these lands, the railroads could create towns by selling town lots and literally create the customer base they needed to operate profitably.

However, no such land grant was offered railroads that built through Indian Territory. None of the land here was public, government-owned land. It all was held by the various Indian nations that had been removed to the territory.

In Indian Territory, the railroads had only a narrow corridor of right-of-way on each side of their tracks. Railroads like the Missouri, Kansas & Texas (Katy) and the Atlantic & Pacific (A&P) chaffed at this limited land grant.

The only concession the government could offer to these railroads was the possibility that someday land in Indian Territory might revert back to the federal government. If this should ever occur, then the railroads might be granted some of this public land.

When the Dawes Commission began to negotiate with the Five Tribes for allotment treaties, the railroads were particularly interested in the prospect of a shift in land ownership. Attorneys for the Katy Railroad would often attend the treaty negotiations and committee meetings, hoping to influence the process of allotments.

Besides the possibility of being able to create new towns along their lines, railroad officials knew that their tracks ran through land rich in oil and coal deposits. A grant of these lands could potentially net the railroads millions of dollars in mineral wealth.

But leaders among the Five Tribes and the Dawes Commission were well aware of the intent of the railroads. They paid very close attention to the wording used in the treaties so that the allotment process would pass the land directly from the tribe to the individual tribal member. When the Choctaw Treaty was completed and sent to Congress for ratification, the Katy Railroad sent their attorney to argue against it. But his efforts were to no avail.

All five of the allotment treaties ensured that none of their acreage ever passed into public land. The Five Tribes Act of 1906 even stated that tribal land should not become the public property of the United States. Any land not allotted would be placed in a trust and held for the benefit of future generations of tribal members.

The railroads sued the government in one last effort to secure some of the valuable Indian land. But in 1914, the Supreme Court ruled this land had never become public land and thus the government had no obligation to honor the railroad land grant in the former Indian Territory.

Reach Jonita Mullins at jonita.mullins@gmail.com.

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