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“That ancient trail…from prehistoric times to the present.”

by Sonny Reisch and Mary Ellen McWilliams



The history of human occupation in the Yellowstone River drainage can be traced back to around 13,000 years ago. Excavations at Pictograph Cave (south of Billings, Montana) in the late 1930s and 1940s showed continual habitation for at least 5,000 years.

THE EXPLORERS, from the 1740s:
Years before Lewis and Clark, Pierre la Verendrye’s reports to the governor of Canada in the mid-1700s indicate that la Verendrye and his sons came into northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana in search of a passage to the Pacific Ocean and may have been the first white explorers in the region.

In 1804 French trader Francois Antoine Larocque, accompanying a party of Crows, met Lewis and Clark at the Mandan villages in present North Dakota. He was looking into the possibilities of fur trade in the Yellowstone Valley region. He accompanied the Crows back to Bighorn Mountain country for the rest of the year. Larocque traveled the same route as LeRaye, the same route the Bozeman Trail would take sixty years later.


Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery wove through areas that would become the Bozeman Trail. On the return trip, Sacajawea led Clark and a small group over “an old buffalow road” to a pass, which today is named Bozeman Pass. Mountain men John Colter and Manuel Lisa passed through the area, followed by Jim Bridger, whose experience along the Bozeman Trail extended over thirty years. Although the trail has become known as the trail opened by John Bozeman, Bridger played the major role in establishing the routes of the Bozeman Trail.


In the 1840s Alexander Culbertson guided the Catholic Priest and Missionary, Father Pierre DeSmet over much of what would become the Bozeman Trail.

Summer 1851:

THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT ANNOUNCES it will convene a treaty conference at Fort Laramie in September.  Alexander Culbertson of the American Fur Company and Pierre De Smet, Jesuit missionary, escort representatives of the Upper Missouri tribes to the conference. From Fort Sarpy on the Yellowstone River, they blaze a path that mirrors what will become the Bozeman Trail. DeSmet records that their route bears “not the slightest perceptible vestige of a beaten track.”

Fall 1851:

THE FORT LARAMIE TREATY recognizes the area between Powder River and the Big Horn mountains as Crow territory, but also recognizes the right of other tribes to hunt on and pass over the land.


SIOUX & CHEYENNE EXPANDED in force between Powder River and the Bighorns, pushing their enemies the Crow Indians, who had occupied the land for about 300 years, north to the Bighorn River.


WHILE THE UNION ARMY concentrated most of its forces on the Civil War, volunteer cavalry units garrisoned military posts along the North Platte and Sweetwater Rivers to protect telegraph, stage, and emigrant routes.



GOLD IS DISCOVERED at Bannack, bringing in thousands of gold seekers to Bannack, Virginia City, and other towns in present Montana.


THE BOZEMAN TRAIL WAS ATTEMPTED AS A SHORTER ROUTE to the gold fields of Montana, through the Northern Plains Indians’ last and best hunting grounds. A wagon train led by John Bozeman and John Jacobs had only traveled 140 miles north of their departure point at Deer Creek when they were confronted by a large party of Northern Cheyennes and some Sioux warriors on Rock Creek, four miles north of present Buffalo, Wyoming. The train turned back to the main emigrant road, while Bozeman and several men went on horseback through the Bighorn Basin to the Montana settlements. Bozeman’s party entered the Gallatin Valley through the pass they named Bozeman Pass.


THE BOZEMAN TRAIL WAS ESTABLISHED. Four trains consisting of 1,500 people departed the North Platte River at Richard’s Bridge east of present Casper and traveled the trail to the Montana settlements. The route of the trail this year was established by John Bozeman, Allen Hurlbut, and Jim Bridger. The only encounter with local tribes was an attack by a large Cheyenne and Sioux war party against the Townsend train, on the Powder River east of present Kaycee, Wyoming.

THE SAND CREEK MASSACRE, an attack by Col. Chivington’s troops on a friendly Cheyenne Indian camp in Colorado, killing and mutilating men, women and children, caused the Cheyenne to ally with the Sioux and Arapaho at the Fetterman Fight the next year.


THE POWDER RIVER INDIAN EXPEDITION, commanded by General Patrick E. Connor, campaigned in the Powder River Basin in August and September. Jim Bridger, Connor’s chief guide, established a new route of the Bozeman Trail from the North Platte River near present Douglas to just south of present Buffalo. After establishing Fort Connor at the new Powder River crossing, Connor’s command continued north to the Tongue River and attacked a non-hostile Arapaho village at present Ranchester, driving many Arapahos into alliance with the Sioux and Cheyennes.

THE SAWYERS EXPEDITION, led by James A. Sawyers, was a federally-funded expedition authorized to build a road from Niobrara, on the Missouri River, to Virginia City, Montana. The expedition, with a military escort, traveled over the Bozeman Trail at the same time Connor was campaigning in the Powder River Basin.

FORT CONNOR, soon renamed Fort Reno, was established on the new route of the Bozeman Trail in August.

TREATIES SIGNED AT FORT SULLY were claimed by the U.S. Government to have restored peace, though many Sioux leaders did not sign them and were unaware of a provision allowing the government to build roads and forts in the territory.


SOME 2000 PEOPLE in numerous trains traveled the Bozeman Trail to Montana. In Wyoming, they all used the route opened by Bridger the preceeding year. In Montana, James Sawyers opened a new route of the trail west from the Bighorn River crossing in August that was used by all subsequent travelers.

COLONEL HENRY B. CARRINGTON garrisoned Fort Reno in June and planned two more forts to protect civilian travelers along the Bozeman Trail. Fort Phil Kearny was established on Piney Creek in July, near present Sheridan and Buffalo, Wyoming. Fort C. F. Smith was established ninety miles north of Phil Kearny, on the Bighorn River at the mouth of the Bighorn Canyon, in August.

THE ENTIRE COMMAND OF 81 MEN UNDER CAPT. WILLIAM J. FETTERMAN WAS DESTROYED near Fort Phil Kearny by combined forces of Sioux, Cheyennes, and Arapahos on December 21.

JOHN “PORTUGEE” PHILLIPS AND DANIEL DIXON WERE SENT TO HORSESHOE STATION to alert the army and the world of the disaster of December 21. Phillips rode on alone to Fort Laramie, arriving during a grand ball at Old Bedlam on Christmas night.


CARRINGTON WAS TRANSFERRED FROM COMMAND of Fort Phil Kearny in January (initial orders were in process before the Fetterman disaster); Colonel Henry Wessells took command and was later replaced by Colonel Jonathan Smith.

CHEYENNE INDIANS ATTACK A HAYING PARTY NEAR FORT C. F. SMITH in what is known as the Hayfield Fight on August 1 and are repulsed.

AN INDIAN ATTACK against a wood camp near Fort Phil Kearny is repulsed in what is known as the Wagon Box Fight on August 2.


THE TREATY OF 1868 calls for the abandonment of Forts Reno, Phil Kearny, and C. F. Smith, and of the Bozeman Trail, by the army. The abandoned forts are burned, or partially burned, by the Indians.



THE COMPLETION OF THE TRANSCONTINENTAL RAILROAD ends the three decades of the western emigrant trails era. Until the Indian wars on the Northern Plains in 1876-77, the country is left to the Indian tribes.



IN THE INTERIM between the Fort Laramie Treaty in 1868, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, both the Yellowstone Expedition and Custer’s Black Hills expedition traveled parts of the Bozeman Trail.




THE CAMPAIGNS OF GENERAL GEORGE CROOK used the Bozeman Trail from their supply headquarters at Fort Fettermen to their encampments near Sheridan and Big Horn, Wyoming. Here Crook camped for almost three months before and after the Battle of the Rosebud, which was a prelude to the battle of the Little Bighorn a week later, in June 1876.

Crook circled that fall through Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota to Fort Robinson, Nebraska, then back to Fort Fetterman, near present Douglas, Wyoming. From there, in November, he mounted a campaign against the Dull Knife village in the Hole in the Wall country west of Kaycee, Wyoming, which subsequently marked the end of the lives of the Northern Cheyennes as a free-living people.

The conclusion of the Great Sioux War opened the area to military occupation and private settlement.



IN THE 1880’s the trail became the route for settlers coming into the region from the south and west, and segments were used for telegraph lines and stagecoach routes.


Today many of our major highways and county roads follow the old trail, that “ancient trail, from prehistoric times to the present.”

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