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Color lithograph, “Herd of bison, near Lake Jessie [North Dakota],” U.S. Pacific Railroad Explorations and Surveys, ca. 1855

The survey report’s depictions of terrain and wildlife gave Congress and the public a better understanding of the West, where vast herds of bison were a life-sustaining resource for Plains Indians. Completion of the transcontinental railroad opened a national market and brought other advantages, but also contributed to the near-extinction of North American bison by 1885.

Art by John Mix Stanley; lithography by Sarony, Major & Knapp

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Color lithograph, “Herd of bison, near Lake Jessie [North Dakota],” U.S. Pacific Railroad Explorations and Surveys, ca. 1855

A Railroad to the Pacific - 2

Settlement of the western territories in the 1850s increased the need for efficient rail transport to the Pacific Coast, but members of Congress could not agree on what route it should follow. Northern members wanted a northern route; southern members sought one advantageous to their region's interests. To inform this debate, in 1853 Congress authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to survey four potential rail routes. Intense sectionalism blocked further legislation until southern states seceded. In 1862, a northern-controlled Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act.