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Diane Merkel

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

by M. John Lubetkin
2006, University of Oklahoma Press

Review by Brad J. Buttruff


I 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.

Essentially 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.

The 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.


Review by Charles E. Merkel, Jr., Ph.D.

Thirty-five 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.

Meticulously 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.

In 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.

Eventually, 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.

Jay 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.