On October 25, 1853, members of the Paiute Indian Tribe attack U.S. Army Captain John W. Gunnison and his party of 37 soldiers and railroad surveyors near Sevier Lake, Utah. Gunnison and seven other men were killed, but the survey party continued with its work and eventually reported its findings to the United States Congress.
U.S. officials touted the transcontinental railroad as a project that, once complete, would provide critical infrastructure for 19th-century America. But for many Native Americans, the railroad threatened hunting grounds, sacred sites and ancestral homelands, and it wiped out populations of buffalo, which were essential to tribal life. Attacks like the October 25 one by members of the Paiute Indian tribe, were one way Indigenous people tried to resist the intrusion.
Gunnison was a West Point graduate who had led several previous topographical surveys before being assigned to conduct this survey of potential railroad routes across central Colorado and Utah. Gunnison’s mission was only one of four surveys dispatched by the U.S. Congress in an attempt to break a sectional deadlock over which route the proposed transcontinental railroad should follow.
The idea of a transcontinental railroad was jeopardized by a bitter dispute between northern and southern politicians, with both factions insisting that the line should have its terminus in their respective regions. Congress hoped that by turning the question over to the impartial and scientific surveyors of the topographical corps, a clearly superior route would emerge and break the deadlock.
Following Gunnison’s death at the hands of the Paiute, his lieutenant, E.G. Beckwith, assumed command. Beckwith eventually found a potential railroad route through Weber Canyon in the Uinta Mountains and discovered two feasible passes over the northern Sierra Nevada.
The survey also provided valuable information on the geology, flora, and fauna of the West and set a high standard for subsequent explorers to follow. However, the results of neither the Gunnison/Beckwith survey nor any of the others succeeded in breaking the deadlock in Congress.
Since no clearly superior route emerged from the volumes of maps and data gathered, the decision remained a political rather than scientific one. The issue would only be settled after the southern states seceded from the Union, leaving the matter in the hands of northern politicians.