Railroads and US Imperialism

US history pedastools the names of Robber Barons Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John D. Rockefeller as the "men that built America," particularly the steel, copper, railroad, and banking industries. But building and built are loaded and obscuring terms. Consider that the people, the bodies, hands, backs, and minds that made America were the workers that labored to construct the products and infrastructure that were then used to "build" a country.

In the case of the railroads, the steel, copper, and timber were assembled and built by Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, and African American workers on and across land inhabited by indigenous peoples' nations. The railroads were central in spreading settlers and settler colonial economies across what would become the Western United States. What did the railroad mean to the people who built the tracks and on whose land the new rails scarred?

In a recently published book, Empire's Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad, Manu Karuka examines the history of the west railroads from the perspectives of the workers whose labor was exploited and the indigenous inhabitants of the land.

The book "boldly reframes the history of the transcontinental railroad from the perspectives of the Cheyenne, Lakota, and Pawnee Native American tribes, and the Chinese migrants who toiled on its path. In this meticulously researched book, Manu Karuka situates the railroad within the violent global histories of colonialism and capitalism. Through an examination of legislative, military, and business records, Karuka deftly explains the imperial foundations of U.S. political economy. Tracing the shared paths of Indigenous and Asian American histories, this multisited interdisciplinary study connects military occupation to exclusionary border policies, a linked chain spanning the heart of U.S. imperialism. This highly original and beautifully wrought book unveils how the transcontinental railroad laid the tracks of the U.S. Empire."

Check out these reviews of Empire's Tracks here and here.

Karuka gave the 2020 Feinberg Series Lecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on October 4, 2022. "The lecture traces the evolution of U.S. imperialism through wars to control land and labor, from the conquest of North America to expansion into the Caribbean and the Pacific by the close of the nineteenth century. Karuka offers a definition of imperialism and explores its centrality to understanding and overcoming the major crises of our moment."