With all the history of Sheridan and the Custer battlefield not being that far away, we decided to hire a local guide outfit to show us the history of the area. We were not disappointed. Mike Kuzara who owns and operates Thunder Mountain tours was our guide for the day. Mike was born in 1939, yep, he is 83 years old, and a true cowboy, his family homesteaded here in the late 1800’s. He is a true historian, still plays in a band, and knows everyone here. It was a great time meeting him and learning all the fantastic, and tragic history of the area.
Our Guide Mike
The Bozeman trail, similar to the Oregon trail, was put into use because of the gold discovered, in Montana, so it traveled northwest, unlike the Oregon trail which went west. It branched off the Oregon trail in lower Wyoming and skirted the east side of the Bighorn mountain range, following streams, rivers, low land. All the while being in Crow Indian Territory. For many years, they had no problems with settlers traveling through. Then in the early 1860’s the Sioux Indians came in and pushed the Crow over to the west side of the Bighorn mountains. The Sioux did not follow any treaties and soon settlers were being killed. The U. S. Army then decided to put up a few forts, along the trail, one being Fort Phil Kearny, near present day Sheridan, it was huge, enclosed in the 17 acres of wooden stockade, was everything you could have to run an efficient fort. The fort operated from 1866 to 1868 when the railroad came through and made the Bozeman trail, obsolete. The fort was abandoned and the Sioux burned it to the ground.
The fort’s 400 or so troops, were very little help in keeping the settlers safe, they were busy fighting the Sioux constantly. At this time the Army was still using muzzled loading rifles, while settlers and wagon train men had some henrys and other repeaters. Still the Sioux raided, pillaged and killed whenever they could. A few noteworthy battles were fought.
The Conner Battle, or Tongue River battle, took place just before the fort was built and was built because of this skirmish. Brig General Conner was sent on a campaign to suppress the Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho Indians from all the raiding going on. they surprised a Arapaho village and attached and burned it to the ground. This enraged Red cloud chief of the Sioux and all three tribes banded together to fight the Whiteman, setting the stage for the next two years of bitter fighting.
THE FETTERMAN FIGHT OR FETTERMAN MASSACURE
On December 21, 1866, a group of woodcutters out about two miles from Fort Kearny were attacked by a small group of Indians. Word came to the fort, and Captain William Fetterman was ordered to rescue the men. He took with him about 80 troopers, most raw recruits. When he reached the besieged wagon train, the Indians fled. They were led by Crazy horse, this was all a decoy and Fetterman fell for the trap, he pursued them to Lodge trail ridge where over two thousand Indians were waiting. It lasted only 30 minutes, all were killed, some having over eight or more arrows stuck in there bodies. They were then mutilated as was the custom of the Indians. All but one that is, the bugler when found was covered in a buffalo skin. Accounts say that he was the bravest as he had no weapon, and fought with his bugle only. The Indians as an honor left him alone and just covered him as was there custom for bravery.
WAGON BOX FIGHT
On August 2, 1867, a group of soldiers and woodcutters were camped down in the little Piney creek area, where they were cutting down pine trees to use for fire wood, stockade posts and the like. As was the custom, they took off the wagon boxes from the wagon and put them in a large oval, with all there supplies. The wagon carriages, without the wagon box were then loaded with the wood they had cut down for ease of transporting them back to the fort. A force of about six hundred Sioux attached the area, sending everyone inside the wagon box corral. This time the troopers had a new rifle, the breech loading rifle, able to shoot seven to eight rounds a minute as apposed to the one or two they could do with the muzzle loader they had earlier. This made all the difference in the world, with just about thirty men they held off a much larger group for hours until help arrived in the early evening, sending the Sioux on there way back.
There were many other smaller fights, they say that for the two years the fort was there, one person was killed every day on average. As I mentioned earlier once the railroad came in, the Bozeman trail became obsolete. Some treaties were signed and for the next several years, an uneasy calmness hovered over the entire west. This was only the first half of our tour, the rest of the day was spent in lower Montana, along the Little Big Horn river, where in 1876, General George Armstrong Custer would meet his end. That’s for the next post.