Thursday, July 21, 2011

Trails, Forts, Wagon Boxes, and a Massacre: 1860s Indian War Sites in Wyoming

The area bisected by Interstate 90 between the town of Buffalo, Wyoming and Billings, Montana also provides an interesting backdrop to America's westward expansion and the resulting clash with the native Indian tribes from the 1860s to the early 1890s, this time those of the Northern Plains, including the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe.  In an area no more than about 100 miles north and south of the Montana-Wyoming state line and about 50 miles east and west of I-90, one can visit the sites of the Battle of the Tongue River (1865), the Fetterman Massacre or “Battle of the Hundred Slain” (1866), the Wagon Box Fight (1867), the Battle of the Rosebud (1876), and the Little Bighorn (1876), plus a few other smaller and lesser-known sites of clashes.

A good place to start is Fort Phil Kearny between Buffalo (an interesting mix of cowboys, outdoor lovers, and artsy types) and historic Sheridan, Wyoming.  Kearny guarded the Bozeman Trail from 1866-1868.   The Bozeman Trail connected the gold fields of Montana with the Oregon Trail and generally followed the current trace of I-90 and I-25 between Bozeman, MT and Wyoming.   Kearny, along with two other posts (Forts Reno and C. F. Smith), protected travelers on the Trail, tried to prevent intertribal warfare between the Indians inhabiting the area, and attempted to draw Indian attention away from the transcontinental railroad construction to the south. Soldiers stationed at Kearny participated in a number of fights in the area in what was known as Red Cloud's War (1866-1868), including the Wagon Box Fight and the Fetterman Massacre. The fort and the Bozeman Trail were closed in 1868 in a treaty with the Indians because both had outlived their usefulness with the advance of the Union Pacific Railroad to the south. Once the Army abandoned the fort, the Cheyenne burned it so only traces and a few relics remain. Meanwhile, the treaty established a huge reservation encompassing parts of eastern Wyoming and western South Dakota, and the government promised to protect the Indians “against the commission of all depredations by people of the United States.”

A sketch of Kearny.
But there isn't much left today.  It is currently a state park with an interpretive walking path through the site, as well as a museum.  Placards offer insights into life on a frontier outpost in the 1860s.  Trust me, life was not all that exciting.  Between the occasional skirmishes with Indians, boredom was the chief enemy.  The bleak country and cold, wind-swept winters certainly did not help.  Alcohol was a frequent solace and desertion rates were very high. 

A reconstruction of part of the fort's wall.  A number of archeological digs have been undertaken in and about the site.
The park's museum is small, but informative and has some impressive displays.

Close by are the sites of two battles the soldiers of Ft. Kearny took part in:
The Fetterman Massacre or the Battle of the Hundred Slain:  In December of 1866, a military force of 81 men under Captain William J. Fetterman was wiped out here by a large force of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors.  Fettermen and his men had ridden out of Ft. Kearny to rescue a woodcutting wagon train under attack.  What they did not realize is that the attack was a ruse to draw a column from the fort into an ambush.  When Fettermen and his men rode over this crest, they were attacked by a force of Indians estimated from 1,000 to 2,000 strong.   No one in Fetterman's force survived.  Ironically, Fetterman, a Civil War veteran, had boasted he could with 80 men "ride through the Sioux nation."  I seem to recall a British general saying something similar during the Revolutionary War.  I don't think that worked out very well either.

A close up of the monument.

Fetterman and his men advanced along this ridge prior to being forced back.   Occasional interpretive signs along the trail in the photograph tell the story of the battle and what it was like for both the doomed soldiers and the victorious Indians.
The area contains traces of the Bozeman Trail.

The Indian force attacked largely from the left. The last remants of Fetterman's force were killed around the area where the monument is currently located.

The Wagon Box Fight:  There isn't much to see here, but somewhere in this vicinity (the exact site is still disputed), a large Indian force (perhaps 800 Sioux) in August of 1867 attacked another woodcutting party.  This time, however, some 32 men (26 soldiers and 6 civilians) armed with breechloading rifles and taking cover inside an oval of wagon boxes used as a stock corral beat off the attack.   There is no interpretive trail here, but the placards you see do tell the tale of the battle.

A wagon box (in case you were wondering).

And close-up of the monument commemorating the fight.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.