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Wandering WY: The Fetterman Massacre

On the same road trip I took to Sheridan, Wyoming for work in May I took the time to visit a couple of battlefields related to Fort Phil Kearny. In what was called Red Cloud's War, these two battles played a significant role in the fort's destruction and the closing of the Bozeman Trail. Aside from the Battle of the Bighorn, popularly known as Custer's Last Stand, the Fetterman Massacre was one of the most significant losses of the American Indian Wars by the United States Army.





As I walked this battlefield, what became clear to me is that to fully appreciate these sites in Wyoming you really have to have at least a general understanding of how the history of these places folds into one another. The rolling hills where this battle took place over a hundred years ago wouldn't mean much of anything to a casual tourist as they pass it on the road. It only becomes important when you know the many events that led up to these rolling hills being one of the many important sites in Wyoming history.


In 1851 a treaty was made at Fort Laramie was made between the United States and the Plains Indian Nations, it established the territories of each of these nations. The treaty also guaranteed safe passage for emigrants on the Oregon Trail and the building of forts to supply and protect them in exchange for payment to the tribes for fifty years. However, when gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the United States broke the treaty allowing settlers to travel through and settle in the territory that belonged to the Plains Indian Nations. This would include the establishment of the Bozeman Trail in 1862 and the building of Fort Phil Kearny in 1866.





The violation of the Treaty rightly angered the Northern Plains tribes of the Sioux and the Arapahoe who banded together under Chief Red Cloud to defend their territory. For this reason, the emigrants on the Bozeman Trail were under constant attack, leading the trail to be closed to civilians entirely after just a couple of years of use. Yet the military remained using the trail for transport of men and supplies between the three forts along its route. With the continued aggression of Chief Red Cloud, the men at Fort Phil Kearny were authorized to be more aggressive in their own response but they needed more supplies, especially weapons and ammunition to do so.


As with many of the forts on the Wyoming Plains, they had to travel quite a distance from the fort to supply the wood for construction and wood stoves. Wood-cutting crews were often an easy target for raids. The Wagon Box Fight is a great example of this, but we'll talk about it next time. It was late December when just such a crew came under attack, Captain William J. Fetterman gathered together eighty-one men to go relieve them. Little did they know that that's exactly what Red Cloud had been expecting.


The two-pronged assault sent one group of warriors to raid the wood-cutting party and another to lure their backup into the trap. Decoy's led Fetterman's men over Lodge Trail Ridge toward Peno Creek where the ambush was sprung. One hour later the battle was over and every last one of Fetterman's party was dead.





As you walk over the hills where these men made their last stand you can see how the shadows and a trick of the eye would make for a great hiding place for the warriors waiting in ambush. Even in the late spring, the idea of the December wind with flurries of snow chilling the men to their bones gives you goosebumps. Those flurries would turn into the blizzard that John Portugee Phillips rode over 236 miles through to request help from Fort Laramie when they learned of Captain Fetterman's demise.





Within a couple more years a new treaty was drawn up at Fort Laramie, but Red Cloud refused to sign it until the forts in his territory were destroyed closing the Bozeman Trail for good. He made his mark alongside the other chiefs in November 1868. This treaty is still contested today.





Today you can travel portions of the trail, but much of it remains in the wilderness of Wyoming and Montana. It is a tragic chapter in American history fraught with greed, deception, broken promises, and death. Whatever your thoughts on the policies today between the United States government and the present-day Native Americans, this is history worth knowing and land worth walking for yourself.


If you're visiting the Sheridan area, I would recommend stopping at Fort Phil Kearney first then taking their directions to the Wagon Box Fight, and finally, over to the Fetterman Massacre site, that's the easiest way to do so by car as their situated in a large loop.


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