Westward Expansion: The Plains Indian Wars along HWY 14 Wyoming

St. Louis is the Gateway to the west and many important missions into the west begin here. Although the official start of the Oregon trail is Kansas City, most of the people traveled through St. Louis.  One of the trails that shoots off of the Oregon Trail is the Bozeman Trail.  This trail connected the gold mines in Montana to the Oregon Trail.  The use of the trail by pioneers resulted in conflict with the Native tribes in the area. The conflict was a part of the Plains Indian Wars.  My sons and I visited three battle sites of this war on our trip from Yellowstone to Mount Rushmore and back down to St. Louis.

Sand Creek Massacre

The three stops we made cannot be understood without first referring to the Sand Creek Massacre.  This massacre took place on November 29, 1864 near Sand Creek in Colorado.  The camp consisted of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians and had an American Flag flying and a white peace flag.  A group of U.S. military men lead by John Chivington  attacked the town.  They slaughtered everyone they met including old men, women, and babies and mutilated them.  The Cheyenne and Arapaho were angry following the massacre and moved north to Wyoming.

I would like to take a moment to recognize some of the heroes of this battle though.  First off were the Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs who were arguing for peace.  The chiefs from Cheyenne tribe were Black Kettle, White Antelope, Lean Bear, Little Wolfe, and Tall Bear.  The chiefs from the Arapaho were Little Raven, Storm, Shave-Head, Big Mouth, and Niwot.  On the American side were the Captain Silas Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer.  Both of these men refused to lead their men to follow Chivington’s instructions to attack because they saw the white flag and U.S. flag.  Silas Soule later testified against Chivington and was killed by a soldier for his testimony.

Sawyer’s Fight

The first stop we made was a historical stop commemorating the Bozeman trail and Saywer’s Fight on the side of the road on Highway 14 near Ranchester WY.  The Bozeman trail is parallel to the HWY 14.  Here, on September 1, 1865 a group of Arapaho warriors attacked a road building expedition led by Lt. Col. James A. Sawyers.  The Arapaho were angry because of an attack on one of their villages 4 days before by Connor.  Soldiers accompanied the expedition and Sawyers was able to hold off the Arapaho for 13 days by using the wagons as a temporary fort to shoot from.  Because of Sawyer’s quick thinking, the men were able to withdraw with three deaths and regroup at Fort Connor where they were able to complete the road building project.

Battle of the Tongue River or Connor Battle

Our next stop was a Wyoming state park called Connor Battlefield Historic Site in the town of Ranchester, WY.  This battle actually occurred four days before Sawyers Fight and would be more accurately described as a massacre.  General Patrick Edward Connor lead the attack on the village on August 29, 1865.  They fired into the camp killing men, women, and children.  The Arapaho warriors were able to set up a defense and allow many of the women and children to get away.  But the soldiers killed at least 30 women and children plus 35 men.  After looting it, the soldiers burned the village to the ground.  Later, Patrick Connor was sent back to Utah where he had been posted before.

Fort Phil Kearny and the Fetterman and Wagon Box Battles

Our last stop of the day was Fort Phil Kearny and the Fetterman and Wagon Box Battles.  Fort Phil Kearny in Wyoming was the largest fort on the route to Montana and bordered the Crow Indian Reservation.  The displaced Arapaho, Sioux, and Cheyenne tribes moved into the area according to some of the sources I read.  They attacked the Fort and wagon trains attempting to haul wood and build roads.  Logging was a big industry for the fort and one of the saw mills is still displayed on the property.

The Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Sioux attacked the fort on December 21, 1866.  This was a year and a half after the Battle of Tongue River where the soldiers under Patrick Connor destroyed an Arapaho village.  Almost 1,000 Native Americans attacked a wagon train that was logging wood near the fort. William J. Fetterman lead the forces to rescue the logging train.  The Native warriors lured the men away from the Fort by using a decoy to draw the soldiers to the main force.  One of the men who was in the decoy party was the legendary Crazy Horse.   Once the soldiers were over the hill and no longer visible to the fort, the warriors attacked.  The Natives succeeded and killed and mutilated  all 81 members of the party including Fetterman.  A young man, John “Portugee” Phillips, rode from the fort through a blizzard to Fort Laramie to get reinforcements.  The warriors retreated most likely because of a snowstorm and the people in the fort were safe.

The fort was later abandoned and the Cheyenne burned it down.

The Bear River Massacre

I have tried to present the information that I was able to find.  The stories were a overwhelming to read about.  Men like Patrick Connor and John Chivington do so much harm.  They killed women and children and did not take time to find out if the Natives were friendly.  Chivington wiped out several of the chiefs who were arguing for peace and fueled the war that followed.  War is always hard and people died on both sides.  But after reading about the massacre of the Arapaho village by Patrick Connor, I felt sad in a familiar way.

After going to the Fort, I finally realized that Patrick Connor was the same man who had massacred a group of Shoshone Indians at the Bear River Massacre in Idaho.  As a young girl growing up in Idaho, not much interesting history seemed to  have happened there.  So hearing about the slaughter of 250-400 Shoshone Indians, many who were descendants of Sacajawea’s tribe was devastating to me. The Native American’s had massacred some settlers in Idaho, but most of the people in the valley were peaceful.  But they all died, women, infants, and the elderly.    It is dangerous to lump people together and to hate the whole group because of the choices of a few outliers.

In Conclusion

One day, I would love to see the land that was watered with the blood of infants returned to the tribes they came from.  So that their people can properly remember them.  And maybe just maybe sew new dreams for their children.  The location where the Shoshone were slaughtered was a winter meeting ground, favored for its protective hills and hot springs.  As a girl standing on the site I wished that the tribes could come together on their land again.  But for now, I merely take my own sons to read their stories and to hear the cries of the dead from both sides so that perhaps we can learn from the past and remember.

Also on a practical note, the Sawyer Fight is just a sign on the side of the road as is the Bear River Massacre location.  Bear River Massacre does have a more descriptive overlook a little ways from the massacre site. The Connor Battlefield State Historic Park is a small state park and has camping, bathrooms, a playground, horseshoes, and trees and a river.

The Fetterman Battlefield has an interactive hike and a marker but no restrooms. The Wagon Box Fight is located near by but we ran out of time this trip.  Fort Phil Kearny is just a few miles away and has a small museum, the outline of the fort, a cabin, some walls, and teepees.  It also has bathrooms and picnic tables and fishing.  It costs $4 for adults and children are free.  The park ranger was helpful and the museum had quotes from people on both sides of the battle.  They had a 12 min video you could watch as well. It does not have drinkable water or campgrounds.

Leave a Reply