Western Trips

Western Trips

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Fetterman Fight/ A Side Trip To The Old West/ Wyoming

pioneer covered wagonMany of us travel the interstates heading on trips to national parks, theme parks or maybe just to visit relatives. Being a person who enjoys reading books about U.S.history, I've learned about many sites in our country that were the scene of major history shaping events. Most of these sites feature monuments and visitor centers to commemorate what it was that occurred.

Many of these events happened decades and centuries ago which explains why some of us might not be readily familiar with what exactly transpired there. Perhaps if you find yourself traveling nearby or if you're planning a future trip you just may find it interesting to visit and stand on the very ground where our ancestors played a part in our nations history. I certainly hope you do.

Wyoming in the 1800's

Back in the mid to latter part of the 19th century many areas of the western U.S. were scenes of historical significance. One such place was the area of northern Wyoming. During the 1860's, army forts were established along a route called the Bozeman Trail. This trail was a cutoff from the east/west Platte Road which was the main trail used by people emigrating to the west from the mid west.

 The Bozeman Trail went northwest from the Platte Road beginning near the old Fort Laramie, WY. It's destination was Montana where gold mining at that time was in high gear. Ever since the 1863 gold find near Bannack Montana, the Bozeman Trail was heavily used. The fort at Laramie as well as Fort Phil Kearny and Fort C.S. Smith further to the north were built along the trail to protect the wagon trains from Indian attack. There are many side stories that go along with the history of this area but one story in particular is of historical interest.

Fort Phil Kearny and the Fetterman Massacre

chief red cloud
Chief Red Cloud
Fort Phil Kearny (not to be confused with Fort Kearney in Nebraska) which was on the Bozeman Trail north of Laramie was under almost constant assault from several Indian tribes. It was described as dangerous to even venture  outside the fort gate.

The issue from the Indian perspective was simply that they had occupied this land for centuries and were understandably not anxious to give it up. The constant flow of settlers were a steady reminder that things were changing fast. To make matters worse, the traffic generated by the emigration from the east disturbed the buffalo hunting grounds which were the main source of sustenance for the plains tribes. The only miscalculation by the Indians was the size of United States government. It took awhile for many Sioux to understand what they were up against. Scaring off a handful of settlers or even hundreds of settlers would not be enough to stop western migration. This same miscalculation could be applied to many western tribes.

There were obviously many skirmishes between soldier and Indian during this time and many many books have been published on this topic(ie; The Wagon Box Fight).

map of fort phil kearny wyoming
Plan of Fort Phil Kearny published in1904
In regards to this particular area of Wyoming there was one battle that stood out among all others. This was the Fetterman Massacre or sometimes referred to as the Fetterman Fight. It was also a part of what is referred to as Red Cloud's War. Red Cloud was a hard line Sioux chief.

 Chief Red Cloud was not a signer on the current treaty with the U.S. and had a particular problem with the thousands of settlers using the Bozeman Trail. In a way, Red Cloud's War in the late 1860's never really was resolved and the Sioux discontent regarding the region of Montana, Wyoming and the Bighorn Mountains continued into the 1870's.

Regarding the Fetterman Massacre, an entire command of cavalry and infantry (81 in all) commanded by a Captain Fetterman from Fort Phil Kearny were annihilated by a surprise grouping of 1500-2000 or more Indians on Dec 21st, 1866. There are a few reasons as to why this occurred and who may or may not have been to blame. (I believe you'll find the details available in several books quite interesting.) The prevailing opinion from historians is that Capt. Fetterman disobeyed orders from the fort commander not to take his command out of sight of the fort. Fetterman was also reported to have boast that he could defeat all the Sioux with only eighty good cavalrymen. It's a fascinating piece of history to explore further.

The Cavalry's Worst Defeat to that Date

fetterman battlefield plaque
Fetterman battle site plaque
Up until that date this was considered the army's worst single defeat. (Custer's battle was still 10 years into the future).

The obvious fact that Fetterman's command was vastly outnumbered certainly was a main factor as well as the fact that soldiers were using outdated weaponry such as the single shot muzzle loading Springfield civil war era rifles which were not a great help when being stormed close up by overwhelming numbers of Indians.

Also, many of the soldiers were not experienced Indian fighters and did not display the horsemanship of the average Indian warrior. The battle took place a mere two miles from Fort Phil Kearny but just over a ridge that made it impossible to see the troops directly from the fort. This delayed sending reinforcements in a timely manner. In fact, reinforcements were only sent out after shooting stopped and there was silence.

Two additional Western Trips articles along with sites to visit are linked below...

The Battle of Slim Buttes

A Steamboat and an Indian War

As a side note, there are many stories connected with this particular battle, the fort itself, the commanding officer of Fort Phil Kearny, a Congressional inquiry and the army's response. There are some very interesting books on the market and possibly at your local library that cover these topics from both the governments perspective and that of the Indian.

What the visitor to this site in Wyoming will see is a monument dedicated in 1908 at the very site of the battle (the top of Lodgepole Ridge). Fort Phil Kearny itself was burned down by the Indians shortly after the army vacated the fort some two years later. Today the site of Fort Phil Kearny is a Wyoming State Historic Site.

There still is plenty to see and learn at the fort site itself. Two excellent web sites regarding both the Fetterman Fight and the fort itself  www.philkearny.vcn.com/fettermanfight.htm and www.philkearny.vcn.com

This should give you all the information you need regarding directions, etc.Interestingly enough, today's U.S. Hwy 87 follows fairly closely the path of the old Bozeman Trail.The Fetterman Monument and battlefield is about seventeen miles south of Sheridan Wyoming. It's an educational and worthwhile visit and I hope you have the opportunity.

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images are public domain)

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1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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