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A Brief History of the Bozeman Trail
by Susan Badger Doyle

The Bozeman Trail began as a gold-rush trail, a shortcut from the main overland trail on the North Platte River to the gold fields of Montana.  The several routes of the Trail overlaid earlier Indian, trader and exploration routes in Wyoming and Montana.  While only about 3,500 emigrants traversed the trail in 1863-66, its significant consequence was that it cut through the Powder River Basin, the last and best hunting grounds of the Northern Plains Indians, and led to military occupation of the region and ultimately resulted in the Indian wars on the Northern Plains.

After emigrant use ceased, the Trail served as a military road to the forts until it was abandoned in 1868 following the Fort Laramie Treaty.  It was used again in 1876 by the forces of General George Crook and shortly after the Battles of the Rosebud and the Little Bighorn, the route was opened and used by settlers.



by Mark Badgett and Mary Ellen McWilliams, 1985

  As westward trails go, the Bozeman Trail was considered by many historians to be of lesser significance than others, such as the Oregon Trail, to the settlement of the West. The 'Bozeman' by comparison, was a secondary trail, leaving the Oregon Trail at Douglas, Wyoming, and from other locations, only from the years 1863-68 before it was abandoned by order of the U.S. Government and not reopened to emigrants until after the Battle of the Little Bighorn and subsequent placement of Indians onto reservations.

  Yet along this secondary trail, occurred the bloodiest clashes and most concerted efforts of the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho to halt the settlement, by whites, of what is often referred to as the Indian's last and best hunting grounds. Along this secondary trail occurred one of the few Indian-military battles in U.S. history (the Fetterman battle) in which the entire military command was wiped out, leaving no white survivors.

  Here occurred a turning point in the course of the Indian Wars when it was demonstrated, as evidenced by improved firearms technology at the Wagon Box fight, that well trained, well led troops, with superior arms could withstand overwhelming odds of Indian warriors.

  The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 abandoned all three forts built to protect emigrants along the Trail (Forts Phil Kearny, Reno, and C. F. Smith) and closed the Southern end of the Bozeman Trail.  For almost a decade the vast lands of Dakota Territory would belong to the Indians as unceded territory, the trail unused until General George Crook came through on his way to the Rosebud just before the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  In the movement of the frontier westward for over 200 years, the Indians had been repeatedly pushed back, and the various white intruders had come through in stages.

  When John Bozeman founded the Trail in 1863, his first wagon train through, made up of 45 wagons and 90 men prepared to shoot 425 rounds without reloading, was met by a band of Sioux and Cheyenne, who told the emigrants to turn back and they could go unharmed; go ahead the they would all be killed.  Most turned back but Bozeman and several others rode through by night to Virginia City.

  But soon emigrants were traveling the Trail.  The Crow tribes determined settlement by the whites to be inevitable, and befriended them.  Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho, allied against the whites in bitter reaction to the Sand Creek massacre of friendly Indians in Colorado, and the Connor battle near Ranchester, where an entire village was burned and destroyed.  They felt the whites threatened their food supply, way of life, and very existence and vowed to fight to the death.

  Indian attacks spurred a demand on the U.S. Government for protection.  The government responded by ordering Colonel Henry B. Carrington, to to build what became Forts Phil Kearny, 25 miles South of Sheridan, and C. F. Smith, 90 miles to the north.  He was also to garrison Fort Reno, another 48 miles to the south of Phil Kearny.  Those two years during which the forts were built, and then abandoned were the most dramatic years of the Trail.  Here history brought together representatives of most every kind of people who had lived in and settled the West.

  One of the earliest and greatest of the Mountain Men, Jim Bridger, was at Fort Phil Kearny.  He served as scout and interpreter to Colonel Carrington through the 6 months Carrington was at the fort. Then in his 60s, Bridger had trapped and traded fur, and served as guide and interpreter throughout the West for over 40 years.  Without instruments, Bridger had mapped much of the Rocky Mountain region with remarkable accuracy.

  In 1866, Nelson Story drove the first commercial herd of cattle down the Bozeman Trail, stopping at Fort Phil Kearny to await permission and escort to continue on.  Short on patience, and well-armed, Story left in the middle of the night, without permission, and drove his cattle on Bozeman, Montana.  It was some years before other cattle herds came into the area.

  Around the forts, and elsewhere along the Trail, were some of the most famous Indians who ever lived.  They included Chief Red Cloud, of the Oglala Sioux; a young Oglala warrior, Crazy Horse, said by some to have led the decoy at the Fetterman battle; Chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf of the Northern Cheyenne and many others.

And camping nearby were Indian women, with families, suffering hardships and playing an almost untold part in the planning and decision-making of their nation at war.  At Fort Phil Kearny, were not only the soldiers and officers, assigned and expected to fight Indians if necessary, but some of their women and children, brought along in the expectation that the land would be peaceful.

  Emigrant families traveled the Bozeman Trail, some to become prospectors for gold, others to farm the rich soil near Bozeman.   Thousands of artifacts found on the trail, from both Indian Wars days and later when the trail was reopened and the country was being settled, tell the story of remarkable determination, stamina, and adaptability to hard and difficult conditions.

Diaries indicate that people left their homes, many right after the Civil War, not only lured by new opportunities but in a desire to leave the violence and heartbreak of a bitter war behind them forever.  They had little concept of the hardships that lay ahead.  Cold, heat, lack of water and proper nutrition, poor sanitation, fatigue and finally disease, took a heavy toll.  Many died on the trail and were hurriedly buried there while the wagons pushed on.

Civilian freighters hauled almost unbelievable tons of supplies hundreds of miles to the forts, and many of them stayed on, or returned, to settle the area.  They and their descendants became the peoples who first populated Sheridan and Johnson Counties, and other areas of the Dakota Territory.

  Seldom in the story of our entire national move westward have so many divergent groups and individuals come together in such a short period of time, to have such an impact on the course of the history of a region.  They and others stood on the land where we stand today and helped to make the Trail and events along it significant to the history of our nation.

  Within a few short years the Mountain Man would be gone forever; the buffalo would be destroyed and the Indian tribes rounded up and confined to reservations.  Settlers of all kinds and occupations would pour in almost over-night.  In 1890, Wyoming would become a State and it would be proclaimed that our nation was settled.  The frontier was no more.

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