HISTORICAL OVERVIEW

Prelude to Conflict:  To 1863

Native American habitation in the areas the Bozeman Trail crosses dates back thousands of years.  When European explorers first came into the area during the 1700’s, they found the Crow occupying the front range of the Big Horns and the Powder River country, although Shoshone, Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho also hunted and traveled through the region. The land was rich with wildlife and other resources crucial to the lifestyle of the nomadic peoples.  As the new United States expanded westward to the Mississippi River and beyond, pressures on the Sioux and other tribes permanently forced them further out on the Great Plains.  Conflicts over prime hunting areas such as the Powder River country increased

Until the 1840’s, the only Whites to explore the plains and mountains were traders, trappers and a few other adventurers.  Increasing emigrant travel over the Oregon-California Trails soon impacted wildlife and the environment.  It soon became apparent to the Indians that their livelihoods were in peril.  Increasing tensions led to conflicts between the tribes, and between Indians and Whites.

In 1851, the United States Government made its first major effort to maintain peace in the West.  A great council of most of the tribes at Fort Laramie resulted in a treaty that attempted to designate tribal land boundaries, and the responsibilities of the Indians and the Government. Most of the Powder River country was identified as Crow territory, but the treaty also recognized the right of other tribes to travel and hunt in the area. Most of the Indians did not understand or ignored the artificial boundaries, and continued to live the nomadic life.

Open hostility between the United States Army and the Sioux, largest of the Plains tribes, erupted in 1854 when a misunderstanding led to a force under Lieutenant John Grattan firing on a village, and the Sioux annihilating the soldiers in retaliation.  The Army retaliated during the next two years, and although major warfare faded out, the seeds for greater conflict had been sown.

The conflicts with the Army led the Sioux and their allies the Cheyenne to push further west, and by 1860, they had forced the Crows out of the Powder River region.  They now look at that country as their own, the last refuge from the encroaching Whites.

The Bozeman Trail:  1863-1866

The beginning of the Civil War limited the Army’s presence in the West, as the regular troops were recalled to the East.   As the nation was torn apart, Indian concerns on the Plains became secondary issues.  Maintaining peace in the West would be left to a variety of volunteer militias raised by the western states and territories.

Even though the Government and Army were otherwise engaged, the American people continued the western expansion.  Emigration to California and Oregon continued, while gold rushes occurred in Colorado and Idaho.  There were plenty of men willing to trade war at home for adventure and opportunity in the West.

The discovery of gold in present-day western Montana in 1862 soon started a rush to that area. Getting there was a problem, since the main routes were from the Oregon Trail through Idaho, or along the Missouri River in the north.  Both ways were long and expensive.  The need for a short cut would soon be met, with tragic consequences for many.

John Bozeman and John Jacobs met in the mining town of Bannack in 1862.  Bozeman had come west in 1860 to Colorado, while Jacobs had come to the Northwest in 1852.   By the time they met, both were seasoned frontiersmen.  In March of 1863, they left Bannack and headed south to explore a short cut from the gold camps and settlements to the Oregon Trail.  After being stripped of their provisions by Indians, they managed to make it to an Oregon Trail settlement at Deer Creek on the North Platte.  They had found a “new” short cut, which basically followed a north-south travel corridor used for years by Indians and early white explorers.

Bozeman and Jacobs’ first attempt to take a wagon train north on what was soon known as the “Bozeman Trail” ended abruptly when Cheyenne and Sioux warriors stopped the wagons and forced the party to turn around.  In 1864, four trains carried 1,500 people up the Bozeman Trail to Montana.  Only one train, the Townsend party, had a major conflict with Indians when a Cheyenne and Sioux force attacked them near Powder River.

Warfare erupted again on the Plains in 1864.  During most of the early 1860’s, the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Sioux were mostly at peace, although the Santee Sioux War in Minnesota and upper Dakota made the tribes uneasy, as did the growing White settlements in Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado.  It was a tinder dry situation, waiting for a spark.  A series of aggressive attacks by Colorado militia units against the Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1864 set the situation smoldering.  The vicious assault on a peaceful village of Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek in late November set the Plains ablaze.  Soon, Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho warriors struck at the communication routes and settlements along the Platte River valleys, burning the town of Julesburg and destroying miles of telegraph lines.  Confused movements by the few army units available did little to curtail the Indian’s wrath.

After their initial fury was spent, many of the Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho decided to quit the Southern Plains and go north to join their relatives and allies in the Powder River country, hopefully far away from the White expansionism that was making the Platte and Arkansas Rivers regions impossible to live in.  Thus, in 1865 hundreds of Indians moved into the area the Bozeman Trail ran through, strengthening the forces of those that were already there, and reinforcing the tribes’ determination to protect this last great hunting grounds.  Travelers on the Bozeman Trail would face a foe fighting for survival.

Recovering from the shock of the Indian attacks along the Platte, the Army made plans for a retaliatory campaign.  The end of the Civil War made available a huge force of veteran soldiers, and during early 1865 units were moved from the east and west to jumping off points for a massive offensive against the Indians in the Powder River country.  It would be a three-pronged attack, with General Patrick E. Connor leading a main force up the Bozeman Trail into the heart of the Indian hunting grounds.  Besides punishing the Indians, it was hoped this effort would securely open the route for travel to Montana.

Connor’s expedition and the other two columns in the campaign accomplished little.  The only major concentration of Indians Connor found was a village of non-belligerent Arapaho on Tongue River, which he attacked on August 29th.  Even though Connor destroyed the village the only lasting effect was that the Arapaho were no longer peaceful.  A few days after they were attacked, the Indians put the Sawyers wagon train under siege for several days until a truce was negotiated.  Most of the Cheyenne and Sioux were never found, although one of the other columns fought a series of inconclusive skirmishes with the Sioux on lower Powder River.

The only lasting contribution of Connor’s efforts was the establishment of a fort on the Powder River in August 1865.   First called Fort Connor, it was later renamed Fort Reno.

During the fall and winter of 1865-1866, a small force of former Confederate soldiers known as “Galvanized Yankees” garrisoned it.  The small fort was mostly left undisturbed by the Indians that winter since it posed little threat of offensive action.  It would be the spring of 1866 before conflict broke out along the Bozeman Trail.

Fort Phil Kearny: 1866-1868

During the period after the Sand Creek Massacre, a growing peace party in the American East advocated negotiation and treaty agreements with the Plains Indians.  Treaty negotiations were carried out at several locations, including Fort Laramie.  On June 13, negotiations were going on between Sioux leaders and government officials when the Eighteenth Infantry came marching to near the fort.   Commanded by Colonel Henry B. Carrington, it was soon revealed that the soldiers were headed up the Bozeman Trail to build new forts.  After expressing displeasure, the Ogallala Sioux leader Red Cloud and others opposed to the Army’s presence in the Powder River country traveled north to alert the Sioux and Cheyenne.

On June 17, Carrington’s column started up the Bozeman Trail.  The long wagon train contained a mixture of supplies, everything from tools and window sashes to canned oysters.  At Fort Reno, Carrington relieved the garrison, replacing them with two companies of his own men. Then he moved up the trail to find a location for the next post.

The column arrived at Piney Creek on July 13, and after spending some time exploring other sites, Carrington selected a low plateau between Big and Little Piney.  It had the advantage of being close to the Bozeman Trail, and timber for construction was only five miles away in the mountains to the west.  Construction soon began.

Hostilities also soon began.  On July 17, Indian warriors ran off a herd of livestock, and several soldiers were killed or wounded in the following pursuit and skirmishes.  A party of White traders camping near the fort was also killed.  These would be the first of many tragedies for the garrison over the next two years.

During the rest of the summer and fall, construction of Fort Phil Kearny continued, and a detachment was sent north to build a third fort on the Big Horn River.  Like Forts Phil Kearny and Reno, Fort C.F. Smith would see its share of warfare during its existence.

The Indian strategy was simple and effective.  Strike quickly, secure livestock if possible, avoid unnecessary risks were the tactics, and they work well.   Soldiers were continually going to the relief of woodcutting parties, small wagon trains, and attempting to recover livestock.  Usually, the Indians faded safely away from the pursuers.

Because of the constant threat of attack, travel on the Bozeman Trail became limited to military parties and wagon trains bringing supplies to the Forts.  It usefulness as an emigrant route was almost non-existent after the forts were established.  It was all the Army could do to protect and maintain the garrisons.

As the winter of 1866 approached, much of the construction of Fort Phil Kearny was completed. On October 30, a grand review was held to celebrate the garrison’s accomplishments.  Still, sporadic Indian attacks continued.

In November, reinforcements arrived, including the man that would become famous through disaster, Captain William J. Fetterman.  Throwing in with other frustrated officers, he pushed Carrington for offensive action against the Indians.   Like most others at the fort, he had no previous military experience in Indian warfare.

The crucial period in Fort Phil Kearny’s history came in December 1866.  The Indians changed strategic goals, deciding to attempt to lure a detachment out of the fort to a location where superior numbers could overwhelm it.  On December 6, they almost succeeded when several hundred warriors temporarily surrounded both Carrington and Fetterman, and an officer and soldier were killed.

The strategy was refined, and another attempt was made later that month. After failing to lure a detachment commanded by Captain James Powell into the trap on December 19, the warriors succeeded on December 21, when Captain Fetterman and eighty men were drawn over Lodge Trail Ridge.  In less than thirty minutes, Fetterman’s command was annihilated by hundreds of Indians. The Army had suffered its worst defeat to date on the Plains.

In January, reinforcements were rushed to Fort Phil Kearny, and the garrison suffered great hardship from lack of supplies and extreme cold.  Carrington had been transferred, and the new commander, Henry Wessells, worked to improve both morale and garrison conditions.  In the spring, supply wagons once more arrived, and the Bozeman Trail forts continued to function, even though there was no civilian travel on the trail.

Small Indian attacks continued, but there was no large engagement until August of 1867.

On August 1, Cheyenne forces attacked a haying party near Fort C.F. Smith, but were held off by the firepower of new Springfield rifles the soldiers had received earlier in the summer.  The next day, August 2, several hundred Sioux warriors launched an assault on a camp of woodcutters and soldiers near Fort Phil Kearny.  Armed with the same rifles as the C.F. Smith soldiers, the 32 woodcutters and troops fought from behind a barricade of wagon boxes, repulsing several attacks for five hours until a relief column arrived.

The fall of 1867 saw some small skirmishes, the largest being the Shurley Fight in November.  Improvements continued at the posts, but the expense of maintaining them and the lack of traffic on the Bozeman Trail soon doomed them.

During the winter of 1867-1868, the government reached the decision to abandon the Bozeman Trail forts and close the Bozeman Trail.  Fort C.F. Smith was vacated early in the summer, Fort Phil Kearny in August, and Fort Reno last.  By the fall of 1868, the Sioux and Cheyenne once more had the Powder River country to themselves.

Aftermath:  Since 1868

The end of the Bozeman Trail Forts did not mean the end of conflict in the Powder River country.  The next war, and the last, started in the spring of 1876, when a column led by General George Crook moved up the old Bozeman Trail to confront the last free-roaming Sioux and Cheyenne bands that refused to move permanently on reservations.  Crook would march up the trail in March, and again in June and November.  On June17, the Indian forces met his soldiers at the Rosebud, and fought them to a standstill.  A week later, the Sioux and Cheyenne achieved their greatest victory at the Little Big Horn.

By the spring of 1877, most of the Indians had been forced out of the Powder River region, and White settlers began to use the Bozeman Trail as they came into the area to establish ranches, farms and communities.  When many of the old soldiers came back to Fort Phil Kearny in 1908 to dedicate a monument at Fetterman Battlefield, they found far a different land than the frontier they entered in 1866.

Today, the Bozeman Trail route is still a major travel corridor.  The site of Fort Phil Kearny stands beside Interstate 90, offering travelers a glimpse into the past that is our history.

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