A BRIEF HISTORY
of the BOZEMAN TRAIL
Sparked by the discovery of gold in 1862 near Bannack City in present-day Montana, the gold rush was fueled soon by additional discoveries at Alder Gulch near Virginia City and elsewhere. In their
search for a shorter route off the Oregon-Overland trail in Wyoming in 1863, 25-year old John Bozeman, with longtime frontiersman John Jacobs, scouted a route off the Oregon Trail on the North Platte River in central Wyoming to the mining camps in the Beaverhead Valley in Montana on what would become known as the "Bozeman Trail". During the trail's few years in use there would be a number of different starting and ending locations, as well as many diversionary routes.
Despite only a few thousand emigrants traversing the trail, and its limited years of use, its most significant consequence was that it cut through the Powder River Basin, a large area of land bordered by the North Platte River, the Bighorn Mountains, the Yellowstone River, and through a larger region including the Black Hills and Yellowstone Valley. This area encompassed the last and best hunting grounds of the Northern Plains Indians. The emigrant traffic scattered the buffalo for which the Indians depended upon for their livelihood, and subsequent Indian attacks would lead to military occupation of the region and result in the Indian wars on the Northern Plains. Based on preliminary research, 158 specific instances of conflicts between Indians and civilians or the military (attacks, skirmishes, stock raids, property destruction, etc.) along the Bozeman Trail between 1864 and 1868 have been documented.
In 1863, guided by Rafael Gallegos, Bozeman led a train of 45 wagons and 90 men off the North Platte at Deer Creek and on north to Rock Creek where they were stopped by a war party of Cheyenne and Sioux. They were told to go back, and they would be safe, or to go on and they would all be killed. The wagons returned and Bozeman with a few others rode back to Virginia City. They would try again.
1864 was the first year in which wagon trains traveled over the Bozeman Trail on through to Montana. Four large trains left the North Platte at Richard's Bridge, five miles east of Casper. The first train was headed by Allen Hurlbut who pioneered some revisions in the route from Rock Creek to the Tongue River. When camped along the way they stopped to allow the men to prospect for gold, and his wagons were passed by John Bozeman's which went on to arrive in Montana first. Other emigrant wagons followed that year, leaving the North Platte from various points. Most of the travelers had gone through Fort Laramie.
1864 was also the year of the Sand Creek massacre in Colorado. The attack and destruction there on a friendly village, mostly of Cheyenne, by Colonel John Chivington of the Colorado volunteers, was the impetus for the Cheyenne alliance with the Sioux in what would become known as "Red Cloud's War". In 1865, the military expedition of General Patrick E. Connor, guided by Jim Bridger, established a new route from the Platte that was used by all subsequent travelers. Bridger's route left the Platte at Sage Creek. They followed the emigrant road to a point near present day Ranchester where Conner attacked a village of Arapaho Indians on Aug. 29, 1865. A number were killed, including women and children, and their teepees and winter supplies destroyed. This attack was instrumental in the Arapaho also allying with the Sioux.
While Connor was campaigning, James A. Sawyers led a government-funded wagon road expedition from the Niobrara River in Nebraska to Virginia City, Montana over much of the later part of the
Bozeman Trail. Sawyers met up with the Arapaho right after their attack by Connor. After two weeks fighting and delay, they were rescued by Connor's troops and escorted on to Montana. Sawyers' significant contribution to the route of the trail was to suggest a new cutoff west of the Bighorn River that became the final route in that region.
As a peace treaty was being attempted in 1866 at Fort Laramie between the army and tribes, the meetings were interrupted by Colonel Henry B. Carrington coming through with troops to establish Fort Phil Kearny in Wyoming and Fort C. F. Smith on land which would became the Crow reservation in Montana. The Army would also re-garrison Fort Reno south of Fort Phil Kearny. When discovering the plans, Chief Red Cloud left in anger vowing to fight. The forts were being built to defend
emigrants along the trail and to protect mail and supply routes to the forts signaling the transition of the Bozeman Trail from an emigrant road to a military road. The new route was opened by a cutoff from near Fort Phil Kearny and traveling closer to the mountains. It re- joined the emigrant route north of Sheridan. This latest, military variant of the trail has become popularly known as the major route of the Bozeman Trail.
After a growing number of Indian attacks, on Dec. 21, 1866 the now-allied forces of the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho attacked a wood wagon from the fort and diverted Colonel William Fetterman and 80 men over Lodge Trail Ridge into ambush near Fort Phil Kearny killing all of them. It was the Army's worst defeat with the Indians and would remain so until the Battle of the Little Bighorn a decade later. Actually, even before the battle, the emigrant traffic on the Trail was almost totally stopped and directly after the battle, the Trail was closed and used exclusively for the military.
At the battles at the Wagon Box fight near Fort Phil Kearny and another in the Hayfield fight near C. F Smith, the following summer, a much smaller number of troops held off attacking Indians with the use of newly-issued rapid fire rifles. It was time to make peace and the complex Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 was negotiated. The government agreed to abandon the 3 forts and the Bozeman Trail, and the Indians
would agree to cease fighting and continue hunting on the lands. The trail routes would be used later by General George Crook for the Little Bighorn Campaign in 1876, and then for settlement into the area.
The people involved during those few short years represented practically the entire spectrum of those who inhabited and settled the west. Some of the famous participants in the Bozeman Trail History include:
John Bozeman: A young man from Georgia who journeyed west to mine for gold in Colorado and Montana. He established the original Bozeman Trail route and beginning in 1864 lead wagon trains of emigrants along the trail from the North Platte River in Wyoming to the Gallatin Valley of Montana.
Jim Bridger: One of the most famous frontiersmen of the west, Bridger guided emigrants and military forces along the Bozeman Trail and established several alternate trail locations used by travelers. He specifically served as Colonel Carrington's guide from Fort Kearney, Nebraska to Fort Phil Kearny and remained the colonel’s chief guide and interpreter during Carrington’s tenure at the Fort.
Red Cloud, Oglala Lakota: One of the most renowned Lakota leaders who forged an alliance of tribes to combat intrusion of emigrants, settlers, and military forces into the Powder River country. Due in part to his leadership of tribal resistance, the Bozeman trail was abandoned, and military forces withdrew from forts along the trail. In later years he served as a skilled leader in negotiations of the 1868 Laramie Treaty.
Tribal Leaders: Many historically significant tribal leaders allied with Red Cloud to resist use of the Bozeman Trail and participate in significant engagements including the Fetterman, Hayfield and Wagon Box battles. Lakota leaders included High Backbone, Man Afraid of His Horse, and American Horse. Cheyenne leaders included Little Wolf and Dull Knife. Arapaho leaders included Black Coal and Eagle.
Tasunka Witko (Crazy Horse): A key to victory in the Fetterman battle was a group of decoys including a young Lakota warrior named Crazy Horse, who enticed the forces of Captain Fetterman and George Grummond to chase them over Lodge Trail Ridge to a planned ambush and their demise. The young Crazy Horse would reach greater acclaim as a warrior in another ten years at the Rosebud and Little Bighorn Battles.
Colonel Henry Beebe Carrington: Constructed and served as Commander of Fort Phil Kearny in 1866. His command or lack thereof regarding the Fetterman battle was highly controversial, resulting in two formal investigations. Although Carrington was not found to be at fault or censured as a result of the investigations, he spent his life following retirement defending his actions as commander at Fort Phil Kearny.
Captain William Judd Fetterman: A civil war veteran who was breveted for distinguished service in several engagements during the Atlanta campaign under William Tecumseh Sherman, Fetterman arrived at Fort Kearny in November of 1866. Despite his obvious skill as a leader in combat, his one great weakness was underestimating the fighting prowess tactical skill of the Plains Indians. His lack of respect may have led him to disregard Carrington’s orders to not cross Lodge Trail Ridge, leading to his demise and the annihilation of his entire 80-man force.
Margaret Sullivant Carrington: Wife of Henry Beebe Carrington she arrived with her husband at the future site of Fort Phil Kearny in 1866. She compiled a detailed and comprehensive journal during her travels to Wyoming and stay at Fort Phil Kearny. She wrote about the wildlife, environment, daily events, Indians, and personalities including Jim Bridger. Her comprehensive and valuable account entitled “Absaroka, Home of the Crows: Being the Experiences of an Officers Wife on the Plains” was published in 1886 and stayed in print until very recently.
Frances C. Grummond Carrington: Frances arrived at Fort Phil Kearny on October 3, 1866 with her husband, second lieutenant George Grummond. She left the fort in January of 1867 with the body of her husband George, killed in the Fetterman battle. In 1871 she married then widower Colonel Henry Beebe Carrington. Shortly before her death in 1911 Frances published “My Army Life and the Fort Kearny Massacre”. Her account provides an invaluable account of events at Fort Phil Kearny and a rare insight into life on the frontier through the eyes of an army wife.
John “Portuguese” Phillips: Born on the island of Pico in the Azores, John arrived in California at the age of 18 seeking his fortune as a gold miner, eventually arriving at Fort Phil Kearny. On the evening of December 21, 1866, he volunteered to ride 190 miles south to Horseshoe telegraph station with news of the Fetterman battle. Phillips and Daniel Dixon along with others arrived at Horseshoe Station on the morning of December 25th. Phillips then travelled on to Fort Laramie, arriving on the eve of December 25th in the middle of a Christmas ball, to deliver an additional message from Lieutenant Colonel Henry Wessells at Fort Reno.
The Bozeman Trail, opening during the Civil War and closing just prior to completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, has the enduring distinction of being the last great overland emigrant trail in the American West. For a brief period of time the Bozeman Trail and associated historic sites became center stage for the westward expansion of a new nation, the brave resistance to change by the native inhabitants, and the fascinating history of the individuals significant in our national history.