North and SouthBy the 1850's, the line of white settlement had moved West to the great bend of the Missouri River. Beyond the boundaries of Missouri, Iowa, and what is now Minnesota lay a vast area of plains. Most white Americans had always believed it was unfit for cultivation (it was widely known as the Great American Desert) and thus the nation had therefore assigned it to the Indian tribes it had driven off the more fertile lands to the east. Now, large sections of this region turned out to be quite suitable for farming. Prospective settlers in the Old Northwest states urged the government to open this fertile land to them, provide territorial governments, and remove the Indian tribes - despite the solemn promise of the United States to the Indians that their reservations were holy. There was not much protest from any segment of white society to the violation of Indian rights consequential to these demands. But the idea of further settlement raised two issues that proved highly divisive and gradually became inseparable: railroads and slavery.
With the westward expansion, communication between the older states and the so-called trans-Mississippi West (the areas west of the Mississippi River) became more and more critical. Broad support began to emerge for building a transcontinental railroad. The problem was where to place it - and in particular where to locate the eastern terminus. Northerners favored Chicago, the rapidly growing capital of free states of the Northwest. Southerners supported St. Louis, Memphis, or New Orleans - all located in slave states. In other words, the transcontinental railroad was becoming entangled in sectionalism, as was nearly everything else in the 1850's. It had become the coveted trophy that both North and South were desperate to win.