Photo: Wikipedia


The Battle for the Bloody Bozeman Trail

In 1866, gold was discovered in Montana, and it was almost a replica of what had happened in Colorado. The main trails west bypassed and went far south of Montana, so a scout named John Bozeman laid out a new diagonal trail northwest across Wyoming for the dozens of wagon trains creaking across the plains to the gold fields. The new trail ran directly across Sioux hunting grounds and was a disaster from the start.

The Sioux’s Red Cloud was one of the most brilliant Native American leaders. Pulse News Mexico photo/Rich Grant

The United States tried to make a treaty with the Sioux to “buy” the rights to this trail and had even convinced two of the most brilliant Native American leaders, Red Cloud and Crazy Horse, to come to Fort Laramie in Wyoming for discussions. And then the usual double dealing of the whites came into dramatic view.

While meeting with the Indians on the one hand, the Army had also sent a force of 1,000 infantry soldiers to build a series of forts along the Bozeman Trail. No one had mentioned this to Red Cloud. While in negotiations with the army for a peace treaty, into the fort by total coincidence marched a thousand-man army with a 38-piece band. Red Cloud exploded. He stood before the new arrivals and said, “The Great Father sends us presents and wants a new road. But the White Chief already goes with soldiers to steal the road before the Indian says yes or no. I will talk with you no more. I will go now and I will fight you. As long as I live, I will fight you for the last hunting grounds.”

Commanding the new U.S. troops was Colonel Henry B. Carrington. “Carrington was the absolute wrong man for the job,” says historian and Vietnam veteran Sid Wilson. “He was a desk soldier who never saw combat in the Civil War. He was a good choice as an engineer officer to build a string of forts, but he was not the man to command soldiers who were outnumbered and in combat almost daily.”

Carrington moved his soldiers across Wyoming, and built his forts. He brought his wife. Carrington was a great lover of martial music and brought a band that played nightly concerts. Building Fort Philip Kearney was a gigantic undertaking – and today, walking along its former outlines, you can see that it was a huge, romantic Hollywood fort surrounded by an 8-foot-high wood palisade. The woman of the camp sewed together a 20×36-foot American flag, which flew above a tall flagpole.

Colonel Henry B. Carrington, an engineer, was the absolute wrong man to lead troops into battle. Pulse News Mexico photo/Rich Grant

But Carrington was not a combat soldier. When two true combat veterans of the Civil War, Captain William Judd Fetterman and the dashing and handsome Lieutenant George Washington Grummond, arrived to serve at the fort, they were shocked by the numbers they heard. Since the fort had been built, there had been 51 Indian attacks on it and its environs; 154 soldiers and civilians had been killed and three times that number wounded; not a single wagon train had reached Montana on the Bozeman Trail without violent loss of life, and more than 800 heads of Army livestock had been stolen.

Worse, Carrington refused all officer requests to go on the offensive and attack the Sioux. Fetterman was disgusted. Grummond, a bully, bigamist and drunk who had been court martialed for ordering his troops into unnecessary danger during the Civil War, was even more disrespectful. Both Fetterman and Grummond made no secret of the fact that they hated Carrington and thought him a coward.

Meanwhile, Red Cloud and a young warrior chief, Crazy Horse, were attacking the fort and work crews daily and coming up with a plan. While brilliantly constructed, the Achilles heel of Fort Kearney was that there was no firewood nearby. To get wood for cooking and warmth, the fort had to send woodcutters out several miles, and it was here that the Sioux launched their daily attacks. Crazy Horse knew that the fort always sent out a company of soldiers to rescue the wood cutters and escort them back. He devised a plan to lure this rescue force into a trap.

The first attempt only partially succeeded, but on Dec. 21, 1866, everything went like clockwork. The Sioux attacked the wood-chopping crew, the fort sent out reinforcements … but then instead of retreating as usual, eight of the Sioux, led by Crazy Horse, stayed behind and shouted insults at the soldiers. They flipped their breechclouts at them, shook their asses, and called insults. The words were in Sioux, but to soldiers frustrated by their non-combative commander, they needed no translation.

Fetterman had been warned by Carrington as he left the fort with 55 infantry not to follow the Sioux up on to Lodge Tail Ridge. His orders, heard by others, were to just rescue the wood-chopping crew and bring them back to the fort.

While brilliantly constructed, the Achilles heel of Fort Kearney was that there was no firewood nearby. Pulse News Mexico photo/Rich Grant

Unlike in John Wayne movies, most of the Western forts at this time were staffed by infantry, not cavalry. Fetterman most likely obeyed his orders and had the infantry stop at the edge of Lodge Tail Ridge. But Grummond, leading 25 cavalry and seeing only eight Sioux insulting him, probably ordered a charge. The Sioux retreated up the ridge and the horse soldiers followed them, galloping wildly on the chase, while the infantry trotted along behind.

As you walk the ridge today, you can see how someone walking along it would think that the sides are too steep to hide anyone, and that whoever you were pursuing was going to sooner or later run out of real estate and be cut off. But the reverse is true. The ridge eventually opens up into wide sides that could conceal hundreds, maybe even a thousand warriors. By the time Grummond galloping along in pursuit realized this, it was too late. There were hundreds of Sioux warriors already swarming behind him.

We know by the descriptions of where the dead were found, that Grummond must have turned and tried to ride back. By now, Fetterman and the following infantry were themselves already too far extended along the ridge. Many of the soldiers met by some flat rocks, but it was not enough protection to save them. It is estimated that some 20,000 arrows were fired at Fetterman’s command. In fact, the Indians reported that they suffered many casualties from arrows that sailed too far over the soldiers and struck Indians on the other side so more Sioux were probably killed by “friendly fire” than by bullets.

Surrounded, cut off, with limited ammunition and wildly outnumbered, Fetterman’s command died quickly. The Sioux did not have guns, so a Captain Brown found with a gunshot wound to the head probably committed suicide. Some reports say Fetterman did also.

Back at the Fort

The arrival back at Fort Kearney of Captain Ten Eyck and his gruesome wagons of dead frozen bodies set off a panic and a wail of suffering and screams. Carrington had lost nearly a third of his command and did not have enough men left to hold the huge fort complex. Had the Sioux attacked that day, they could have easily carried the palisade.

Surrounded, cut off, with limited ammunition and wildly outnumbered, Fetterman’s command died quickly. Photo: Indian Country Today

Meanwhile, there were grieving wives, and terror. Captain Ten Eyck had left half the bodies of Fetterman’s command stripped and naked on the battlefield. Carrington did not have enough men to hold the fort and send out a command to retrieve the bodies. While not a good combat commander, no one ever doubted Carrington’s personal courage. He put all the women of the fort in the powder magazine with instructions to blow it up if the Sioux attacked. Then he personally led the last few soldiers out to retrieve the bodies and bring them home.

Meanwhile, reinforcements were needed. A civilian scout, John “Portugee” Phillips, volunteered to ride through winter nights for 234 miles to bring news of the disaster to Fort Laramie. It is the stuff of a dozen Western movies. Facing constant danger, he finally arrived at Fort Laramie on a freezing Christmas night. His horse dropped dead as he rode through the gates, and he burst into a formal Christmas ball, with all the officers in their finest uniforms and the women in lovely ball gowns, the room glowing with candlelight, food and wine … only to fall to his knees exhausted, and tell them the dreadful news that a third of the soldiers at Fort Kearney had been wiped out.

What happened afterwards

The disaster at Fort Kearney shocked the nation, and was to reverberate through history.

FORT KEARNEY was abandoned in 1868 through a new treaty with the Sioux and burned to the ground by Red Cloud. It was the only U.S. treaty that ceded everything to the Indians and asked nothing in return.

CORONAL HENRY B. CARRINGTON was relieved of command, left the fort in January 1867, and spent the rest of his life defending his actions. Amazingly, after his wife died, he began a correspondence with the wife of his worst enemy, and shortly after, Carrington married the widow of Lieutenant Grummond.

Pulse News Mexico photo/Rich Grant

BLACK KETTLE survived the massacre at Sand Creek, and tried to remain peaceful with the United States. He was in another camp along the Washita River in Oklahoma, which he believed was at peace, when on Nov. 27, 1868, the camp was again attacked by soldiers, and this time, Black Kettle and his wife were shot in the back and killed, along with 100 others while trying to escape. The commanding officer of this attack was George Armstrong Custer.

CRAZY HORSE went on become one of the most famous warriors of the Plains Tribes, participating in the Battle of the Rosebud, where he led 1,500 Lakota and Cheyenne in a surprise attack, and in the Battle of Little Big Horn, where he fought and avenged Black Kettle by killing Custer and a total of 290 troopers of the 7th Cavalry. In 1877, he went under a flag of truce to Fort Robinson in Nebraska. Under mysterious circumstances, he was fatally stabbed with a bayonet by a guard.

RED CLOUD became perhaps the most famous and well-known chief of the Plains Indians. After his victory and the destruction of Fort Kearney, he went east in 1870 and visited President Ulysses S. Grant. Thousands turned out to see him speak in New York. He visited the east many times and became a champion of Native American rights. However, after touring eastern military forts, he realized the power of the United States Army was too strong and the Sioux had to learn to adapt. His son fought at Little Big Horn, and Red Cloud continued to walk a balance from helping the Lakota adapt to reservation life, to fighting for their rights against the United States. He died at Pine Ridge Reservation in 1909 at the age of 87. In one of his most famous quotes, he talked about dealing with the whites. He said: “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one: They promised to take our land, and they took it.”


La Junta, Colorado, is near the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, and is also home to Bent’s Old Fort, another fascinating national park filled with Old West history. For the story of Bent’s Fort, click here.

The best place to stay near the Fetterman Battle Site is Sheridan, Wyoming, which is also only about 90 minutes from the national park at Little Big Horn. For the story of that battle, click here.

One of the best ways to experience the Old West is at The Fort restaurant in Denver, a reproduction of Bent’s Old Fort serving authentic dishes of buffalo, elk, quail, rabbit, and even rattlesnake.

…July 24, 2020

1 Comment

  1. This is local history for me. (I live in Wyoming and the Bozeman Trail starts near me.) The Oregon Trail was a Native American trade route for centuries before whites found out about it. Oregon obsidian has been found at camp sites near Fort Laramie, for example. The importance of free trade along the route was recognized by most tribes. As long as one stayed on the trail, people were given free passage. The Oregon trail traffic strained the concept of free passage but it held.

    The problems started when whites started wandering off the established trade route. The Bozeman Trail amounted to tresspassing or invasion. Defending it became a massively expensive proposition. Starting at Fort Fetterman at the Oregon Trail, there was Fort Reno to the north, and then Fort Phil Kearny near Story, Wyoming. There were more army forts in Montana. Native anger caused battles up and down the Bloody Bozeman. Casper, Wyoming is (mis) named for Caspar Collins, a lieutanant who was killed along with several other soldiers in a battle west of the city. The appropriation of the Black Hills only tossed more fuel on the fire. The forts along the Bozeman trail were abandoned once it became clear that the whole thing had been a mistake.

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