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All Rights Reserved © Donald E. Fisk, 2018


By Donald E. Fisk


The Bozeman Trail 150th Anniversaries, Part I-1865


            Nineteenth-century expansionists believed that the United States was an empire of liberty peacefully extending itself into an untamed wilderness and populating the empty land with settlers thankful for the empire’s blessings.  But the incorporation of Indians into the United States was not peaceful, and the Indians were not thankful…they surrendered their lands to the empire of liberty only under duress.1

            Over the next few years, several 150th anniversaries will occur along the Bozeman Trail extending through Wyoming and Montana.  Events occurring a long way from the Powder River country in the mid-1860s would lead to actions igniting a decade or longer conflict between long-time residents and new arrivals. 2014 was the 150th anniversary of the first successful wagon train to journey over the Bozeman Trail from the Platte River in Wyoming to its end, near the gold rush town of Virginia City, Montana.  The significance of this sometimes violent, bloody era of cultural clashes has, at times, taken a back to seat to the Sioux War of 1876.  But as more attention has developed to the events of 1864-1868 along the route, the more it is realized they were precursors to the later campaigns over more than decade long.

            The end of the Civil War saw a flood of people, among them men mustered out of the military services and who were looking for opportunities away from the east.  The U.S. national debt in 1865 was 2.7 billion dollars and the government recognized the benefit of getting Montana gold into circulation to boost the economy. 2   Good trails to the gold fields became vital.  Existing routes reached the Montana gold fields though in a round-about trek and a shorter route was desired.3

This drove the creation of two vastly shorter trails, the Bridger Trail and the Bozeman Trail.  Bridger’s Trail ran west of the Big Horn mountains and hosted more travel than its rival in 1864, but the Bozeman Trail, running on the east side of the mountains, surpassed it the next year.  Bozeman’s trail offered more hospitality from nature, but that was countered by more hostility from the people who opposed the trespass into the Powder River hunting grounds.4

            The Civil War was raging in 1863 when John Bozeman, John Jacobs and his young daughter left Bannock, Montana, southwest of present-day Dillon, Montana.  They were bound for the Platte River, determined to establish the shortest route to the Montana gold fields from the Platte River portion of the Oregon Trail.  In May 1863, the intrepid duo assembled their first wagon train and started northwest from near present day Glenrock, Wyoming.  Lakota warriors turned it back on Rock Creek, four miles north of present day Buffalo, Wyoming.5 Their planned route knifed through the richest hunting grounds of the region and essentially followed the way surveyed by Army Captain William Raynaud in 1859-1860.6  

John Bozeman regrouped, and in June 1864, two trains left two days apart to begin their journeys on the Bozeman Trail.  Both trains reached Virginia City without incident.  These were the first of several to successfully reach their destinations.7

            The route blazed by the famous mountain man Jim Bridger lay on the western side of the Big Horn Mountains.  It was considerably longer, requiring about forty-five days to travel its 650 miles, compared to the 500 miles and thirty to thirty-five days required for the Bozeman8. It was safer as it did not penetrate the treasured Powder River hunting grounds.  With a shorter route available, travel along it increased, despite Bozeman’s route being more dangerous.  With the increased travel came increased conflicts and this led to the introduction of U.S. Army forces into the region.

            While the Treaty of Laramie in 1851 indicated use of the region for roads, etc., was permissible, many Indian leaders neither signed the treaty nor agreed with its provisions. While tribal leaders said no, white leadership indicated it was fine given their understanding of the treaty setting the stage for the conflict.

            Bloody clashes started in 1864.  The first of note involved the Townsend Wagon Train.   It was made up of 150 wagons with 375 men, several women and children.  It was very well armed, and could fire over 1,600 rounds without reloading.  On July 7, 1864, a large party of Northern Cheyenne and Lakota warriors attacked it.  After a six-hour fight, the warriors withdrew.  After burying its dead, the train continued to Montana the next day.9

            In response to increasing attacks by Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors, Major General Grenville Dodge, commanding the Department of the Missouri, tasked Brigadier General Patrick Connor to mount an expedition to “settle the Indian troubles this season.”10 

            A beautiful park on the Tongue River in Ranchester, Wyoming, once hosted the pony herd just North of Black Bear’s Arapaho camp.  On the morning of July 29, 1865, Connor’s troops attacked the camp.  A running fight ensued, with the Arapahos first heading westward toward the mountains but a counter-attack caused the soldiers to retreat.  Many ponies were eventually captured and thirty or more warriors were killed.   Several Arapaho prisoners were released the next day to rejoin their tribe with a message for Black Bear to meet General Connor at Fort Laramie in October.11 

            At the Battle of Platte Bridge, July 26, 1865, about 1,000 warriors attacked troops stationed at Platte Bridge Station on the North Platte River near Fort Caspar.  This was a significant action temporarily shutting down travel on both the Bozeman and the Oregon trails.12   Another source placed 3,000 warriors there.13 

            Connor’s campaign “to settle the Indian troubles” met with abject failure. There was one major engagement but two subordinate columns were badly led, badly equipped and supplied, and did little more than march and counter-march through the desolate Wyoming countryside nowhere close to the trail. Connor himself drew sharp and justified criticism for his orders to kill all males, twelve years and older, regardless of circumstance. Condemned by everyone above him in the chain of command and by national civilian leadership, Connor’s conduct helped fuel the reluctant into recalcitrant and the undecided into hostile. While lasting perhaps four months at the outside, this mission had long-lasting effects.

A large road surveying expedition led by James Sawyers traveled north along the Eastern base of the Big Horn Mountains on its way from Nebraska to Montana’s gold fields.  Near the Tongue River, Arapaho warriors attacked it on August 31 and September 1, 1865.  After extended skirmishing, Arapaho leaders parleyed with Sawyers, and told him that their attack was due to their belief that his party was part of Gen. Connors’ troops.  The parley, which involved George Bent, was fruitless, and for two weeks, the train was besieged, unable to move.  It eventually proceeded onto Montana.14 

            An account was given Mr. A.M. Holman, a member of the Sawyers expedition.  According to him, the expedition had sixty-five to seventy-five men, mostly oxen drivers, with twenty soldiers as the escort.  He recalled that they passed a half mile west of Lake DeSmet, forded the Little Goose Creek at Big Horn and reached Wolf Creek.  Two officers rode ahead and climbed a steep bluff to get a view of what was ahead and there they were confronted by a large group of warriors.  One officer was killed and the other escaped.  The trains corralled and held off multiple attacks but eventually was allowed to move on to its destination.15  

The years 1864-1865 saw a boom in travel over the Bozeman Trail, fueled by the lure of fortunes to be made in Montana.  The boom led to increased resistance by the Northern Cheyennes, Lakotas and the Arapahos who viewed this as a violation of the Laramie treaty, if they had signed it or not. That led to a second escalation with permanently stationed army units in the Powder River country in 1866.  The clashes between the tribes, the soldiers and emigrants had begun in earnest by the end of 1865.  Even higher numbers of travelers would take to the trail after the Civil War and the resistance to them stiffened. It is impossible to establish a number of people, on either side, who lost their lives during 1864 and 1868 along Bozeman’s route.16   Records do show about 3,500 miners, traders, and immigrants traveled in those years. The stage was set for Red Cloud’s War to begin in earnest.

                 Dull Knife, Little Wolf, American Horse, Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and others whose names would become household names a decade later, first earned their battle coups along the Bozeman.



1. Richard White. It’s your Misfortune and None of My Own:  A New History of the American West, (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 85.

2. United States Treasury, Bureau of the Public Debt.

http://www. publicdebt.treas. gov/history.htm.

3. John H. McDermott, Red Cloud’s War: The Bozeman Trail 1866-1868, (Norman, University of Oklahoma, 2010), Vol. 1, 13.

4. Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, an American Legend. (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2013), 236.

5. James A. Lowe, The Bridger Trail:  A Viable Route to the Gold Fields of Montana Territory in 1864, (Spokane, Washington, Arthur H. Clark, 1999), 85-86.

6. Monnet, Where a Hundred Soldiers Were Killed 12-14.

7. Lowe, 149.

8.  The Bridger Trail Route,

9. Susan Badger Doyle, Ed., Journeys to the Land of Gold:  Emigrant Diaries From the Bozeman Trail, 1863-1868, Vol. 1, (Helena, Montana Historical Society Press, 2000), 152-153.

10.  LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, eds., The Powder River Campaigns and Sawyer’s Expedition of 1865, (Glendale, CA, Arthur H. Clark: 1961), 24, 28-29. Monnet, Where a Hundred Soldiers Were Killed, 9. Dorothy M. Johnson, The Bloody Bozeman: The Perilous Trail to Montana’s Gold. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1971), 159.

11. Hafen, 46-48.

12. John Dishon McDermott, Circle of Fire: The Indian War of 1865.  (Mechanicsburg, PA, Stackpole Books: 2003), 112.

13. George Bird Grinnell, The Fighting Cheyennes.  (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press: 1915), 189.

14. Gregory F. and Susan J. Michno, Forgotten Fights: Little Known Raids and Skirmishes on the Frontier, 1823-1890, (Missoula, Montana Press Publishing Company: 2008), 219-220; Hafen, The Powder River Campaigns 50-51,  

 Grinnell, The Fighting Cheyennes, 208-209; McDermott, Circle of Fire, 124-127.

15. Elsa Spear Edwards, “A Fifteen Day Fight on the Tongue River, 1865”, Annals of Wyoming 10 no. 2 (April 1938): 51-58.

16. Monnett, Where a Hundred Soldiers Were Killed, 64.



Donald E. Fisk is an active member of several Indian Wars historical organizations. He has served on the Board of Directors of the CBHMA and is currently the Vice-President of the Ft. Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association.   He received his J.D. from Washburn University School of Law.  He lives with George, Libby and My-Thai, his three cats, in Sheridan, WY.       

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