The Bozeman Trail
The trail was founded upon old game and travel trails by entrepreneurs partners John Bozeman and John Jacobs to provide a shorter route for prospectors to Montana’s gold fields, primarily at Alder Gulch and Virginia City. To protect travelers, the U.S government ordered the establishment of forts along the trail. Travel was heavy in 1864, and caused resistance from the tribes occupying the Powder River area, their valued hunting grounds.
Col. Henry B. Carrington, a Civil War veteran, but with no combat experience, was chosen to establish the forts. Fort Connor, located o a bluff on the Powder River northeast of present day Kaycee, Wyoming, was established in 1865 during the Connor expedition, and named after its leader, Gen. Patrick Connor. The Lakota had no objection to its existence, but warned that anything built north of it would be opposed. Carrington had been ordered to abandon it, but he decided it was necessary and he reinforced it.
The sites were selected for forts Philip Kearny, the largest, and Fort C.F. Smith, then construction began. Unlike most western forts, all three had palisades of either wood or wood and adobe. It was not long until all three forts were harassed by warriors. The most immediate priority was to establish shelter before winter. At Fort Phil. Kearny, this required daily wood trains, which were escorted.
On Dec. 21st, 1866, the last wood train of the year was sent to get firewood. As usual, it was attacked. In a repeat of an event on Dec. 6, an ambush was planned. This time, it worked, and Capt. Judd Fetterman, Capt. Fred Brown and Lt. George Grummond and 7 troopers and two civilians were lured into a trap outside of timely supporting distance from the fort, and all 81 of them were killed by Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors. Today, debate continues whether Capt. Fetterman, in charge of the troops, violated orders.
Gen. Carrington had been earlier been granted his request to command the newly formed 18th Infantry regiment, and his orders were sent on Dec. 21st! It appeared to the public that he had been relieved due to the Fetterman debacle. His commander, Gen. Phillip St. George Cooke, was relieved later.
The spring of 1867 saw renewed hostile activities, culminating in two major battles. Warriors at their annual sundance could not agree upon which of the two northern forts to destroy, so decided to attack both. The Hayfield fight of August 1, 1867, was fought by troops and civilians from Fort C.F. Smith. Overwhelming numbers of warriors attacked hay cutters and their escort, sensing an easy victory. On the next day, woodcutters and troops from Fort Phil Kearny and were attacked. In both cases, the numerical advantages were overcome by the technological advances in weaponry. Muzzleloaders were replaced by faster shooting breechloading Springfield rifles, which negated the opportunity the warriors were used to having to dash in and finish of troopers during reloading. In both cases, the use of fortifications and lack of coordinated attacks also contributed to the warriors’ defeats.
These epic battles stunted the desire of the tribes to conduct massed attacks against the whites. Sporadic attacks continued, but it years until large scale battles resumed. The Bozeman Trail forts were ordered abandoned, and they were vacated from north to south in the summer of 1868. Red Cloud’s War of 1866-1868 was done. The usefulness of the Bozeman Trail had ceased by the close of 1866.