Share This Article

Jay Cooke’s Gamble: The Northern Pacific Railroad, the Sioux, and the Panic of 1873

M. John Lubetkin, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2006, $29.95.

Before the Northern Pacific Railroad, nearly all of financier Jay Cooke’s investments—some would say gambles—had paid off handsomely. During the Civil War he had masterminded the Union’s war bond drives, providing the Federal government with much-needed cash at critical junctures. However, as author M. John Lubetkin points out in Jay Cooke’s Gamble, Cooke developed a superiority complex that may have blinded him to the shifting postwar economy. One thing Cooke could not conquer was the Wild West. His gamble to purchase the Northern Pacific Railroad, which would eventually run from Salem, Ore., on Puget Sound, to Duluth, Minn., on Lake Superior, proved to be a catastrophic failure that brought down Cooke’s banking house, Jay Cooke & Co., and ushered in the Panic of 1873.

Lubetkin blends Cooke’s story with accounts of the surveying parties working in the field to lay the railroad’s foundation. The author gives a detailed, day-by-day account of the Northern Pacific surveying expeditions of 1871, 1872 and 1873. These treks into unmapped Sioux territory were pressure-cookers for both the engineers and the soldiers ordered to protect them from Sitting Bull’s Sioux. The surveys’ leaders were a colorful cast of engineers and soldiers, including chief surveyor and former Confederate Thomas S. Rosser, the stolid-when-not-drinking Colonel David S. Stanely and the irrepressible Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. The tale of Stanley and Custer’s frequent clashes on the 1873 survey is worth the price of admission alone.

One of Lubetkin’s fascinating conclusions is that while these surveys were largely successful in fending off Sioux and Cheyenne attacks and mapping out a route for the railroad, the stories about the surveys that reached the U.S. public helped to bankrupt Cooke’s Northern Pacific. The sensationalized reports on the Indian fighting, written by embedded journalists, received front-page newspaper space equal to that of many major Civil War battles. Colonel Custer himself wrote embellished reports of his skirmishes with the Sioux while defending the 1873 survey of the Yellowstone River area. Despite only six total fatalities between the three surveys, the Northern Pacific Railroad was marked in the public’s mind as a risky endeavor.


Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here