Cooke's Gamble: The Northern Pacific Railroad,
The Sioux, and the Panic of 1873
by M. John Lubetkin
2006, University of Oklahoma Press
by Brad J. Buttruff
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picked this book up at the LBHA conference last
month and I'm already thinking of getting a second
copy! So very often when you buy a book on history
it is essentially telling the tale of a specific
person or event all over again. This was particularly
true when I was reading the history of the American
Civil War; I seldom found a book offering anything
new in terms of facts.
Jay Cooke's Gamble: The Northern Pacific Railroad, the Sioux, and the Panic of 1873
is a wonderful book for presenting
new information. Now I'll admit right now that I'm
not the expert on Custer or the Plains Indian Wars
that some people are but, so far, I have not heard
anything about this particular episode. This book
also shines a bright light on the influence of the
Northern Pacific railroad company and Jay Cooke
in particular on some of the national decisions
of the time.
Cooke planned on building a new transcontinental
railroad line across the northern plains states.
The critical leg of this venture starts in Minnesota
and is quite the story in itself. The bogs and lakes
of Minnesota turned out to be more of a problem
than anybody expected. The real heart of the book
comes in the telling of the crossing of the Dakotah
territories. This was going to be a crossing in
which at least a hundred miles of the rail line
would pass through land that none other than Sitting
Bull was willing to contest.
whole story revolves around Jay Cooke's efforts
to drive the railroad through, come Hell or high
water or a thousand angry indians. It involves characters
such as ex-Confederate general Thomas Rosser and
George Armstrong Custer. This is a story of some
little known fights between the army and the indians
as the survey crews attempted to plot a trail west.
The book is not only interesting in the new facts
it reveals but the writer, M. John Lubetkin, demonstrates
himself as a excellent writer.
by Charles E. Merkel, Jr., Ph.D.
years ago, Bob Ege advised me to broaden my historic
horizons because he predicted that the Custer story
would soon play itself out. As John Lubetkin demonstrates
in his book Jay Cooke's Gamble: The Northern
Pacific Railroad's Yellowstone Surveys and the Panic
of 1873, three and a half decades after Bob
uttered those words, the Custer story is alive and
well and shows no signs of ever slowing down.
researched and well written in a pleasing narrative
form, John Lubetkin tells the story of Jay Cooke
and his quest to build the Northern Pacific Railroad.
He was drawn to the story by a book he found in
the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity house, while he was
a student at Union College. The slim volume, titled Union College, Record of [the] Class [of] 1868,
50th Year Reunion, contained the name, Edward
Jordan, who had studied civil engineering at Union
College, worked for the Central Pacific Railroad
and was present during the joining of east and west
by rail at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869. The
following year he was working for the Northern Pacific
Railroad as that line made its way through Indian
Territory. Lubetkin was determined to find out about
Mr. Jordan and this quest led him to the Yellowstone
Surveying Expeditions, which yielded a cast of characters
very familiar to the members of the Little Big Horn
Associates. Thomas L. Rosser was also working for
the Northern Pacific Railroad, the expedition was
being protected from Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse,
Gall, Rain-in-the-Face and others by George Armstrong
Custer and the entire undertaking was being financed
by Jay Cooke.
an ironic twist of fate, when President-elect Ulysses
S. Grant was selecting the members of his cabinet
in March 1869, he chose George S. Boutwell as his
Secretary of the Treasury instead of Jay Cooke and
a series of events were set in motion that changed
the course of history and the result was the 1873
Yellowstone Surveying Expedition. Lubetkin examines
the project through all facets of its development,
from Cooke's original idea, his attempts to obtain
funding through the sale of bonds, Sitting Bull's
impact on those sales and finally to the actual
survey in the Yellowstone Valley and Custer's role
in providing protection for the expedition. Cooke
saw his dream wither and die as the Indians resisted
the intrusion of the railroad, the public declared
the project too dangerous to be successful and the
financial Panic of 1873 gripped the country. Later
that same year he was forced to declare personal
bankruptcy and Grant turned his back on him when
Cooke could not longer be any use to him.
it was left for James J. Hill to acquire the St.
Paul & Pacific Railroad and he turned that into
the Great Northern. The Northern Pacific was finally
completed in 1883 but most of the work done by the
Yellowstone surveys was never used and the two railroads
competed with each other for business well into
the 20th Century. Finally, in 1970, both the Northern
Pacific and the Great Northern were merged into
the Burlington Northern and they ceased to exist
as separate railroads.
Cooke's Gamble is a wonderful book and anyone
who wants to know the entire Custer story should
have a copy on their bookshelf. It has a couple
of minor errors (one does not "win" a Medal of Honor,
it is "awarded" for deeds of valor in combat) but
these in no way detract from the excellent research
conducted by John Lubetkin. Some readers may not
necessarily agree with all of his conclusions but
he should be very proud of what he has accomplished
and how he has helped to perpetuate the Custer story
into the 21st Century.