Fetterman Massacre

The Frontier Cavalry

One of the most significant battles of the U.S. frontier army in the 1860’s was the Fetterman Fight which is often referred to as the Fetterman Massacre. This battle among the U.S. Cavalry and Sioux Indians occurred in Wyoming a decade before the Battle of the Little Bighorn. There’s been a tremendous amount written  about Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Bighorn. Much less has been written about a conflict which happened in Wyoming, about 25 miles south of the present day city of Sheridan.

Diagram of Fort Phil Kearny, 1866

The Bozeman Trail

Back in the mid to latter part of the 1800’s many areas of the western U.S. where immigrant traffic was significant. One place in particular was the area of northern Wyoming. During the 1860’s, army forts were built along an emigrant path called the Bozeman Trail. This trail was a cutoff from the heavily traveled east/west Platte Road and Oregon Trail which was the main overland trail used by people moving to the west from the area of western Missouri. The Bozeman Trail ran northwest from the Platte Road beginning near Fort Laramie, WY. This trail ran to Montana where gold mining at that time was booming. Fort Laramie as well as Fort Phil Kearny and Fort C.S. Smith to the north were built along the Bozeman Trail to help protect wagon trains from Indian attack. Much of the trails traffic at that time were from miners heading to the gold fields. There are many side stories that go along with the history of this area but one, the Fetterman Fight, in particular, is of historical interest.

The Settlers and Miners Flood the Area

Fort Phil Kearny which was directly on the Bozeman Trail north of Fort Laramie was under constant assault from several Indian tribes, most notably the Lakota Sioux. The issue from the Native American perspective was simply that they had occupied this land for centuries and were understandably not happy to give it up. The massive flow of settlers were a steady reminder to them that things were changing fast. The gold boom in Montana worsened the situation from the perspective of the Indians. In addition, the emigration from the east disturbed the buffalo hunting grounds which were the main source of sustenance for the plains tribes. In a situation like this conflict is inevitable.

Colonel Henry B. Carrington, Commander of Fort Phil Kearney

The Fetterman Massacre

There were many skirmishes between the U.S.cavalry and Indian during this period and  many books have been published on the topic.Many moves as well have been produced on the subject of the Indian Wars. Regarding the area of Wyoming and Montana there was one conflict in the 1860’s which stood out among all others.This was called the Fetterman Massacre. In essence, an entire command of cavalry and infantry soldiers (81 in all) commanded by a Captain William J. Fetterman stationed at Fort Phil Kearny were annihilated by a surprise grouping of some 1500-2000 or more Indians on Dec 21st, 1866. The battle itself lasted only about thirty minutes. There are many reasons why this occurred and who may or may not have been to blame. Most accounts appear to place the blame on an overly eager cavalry officer who reportedly disobeyed direct orders from the fort commander, Colonel Henry B. Carrington.

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On the same day of this massacre, the Indians had attacked another site just outside Fort Phil Kearny and Captain Fetterman was sent out with his troops to give chase. A small group of Indians made themselves known to the soldiers not far from the fort and near a rise in the terrain. Captain Fetterman, in pursuit, led his troops over this small rise. This was only about one mile from the fort itself.

Modern day Bozeman Trail Historical Marker

Unknown to Fetterman was the fact that the Indians had hid in gulleys and behind rocks just over the crest ready to spring the trap. After ascending the rise, the troopers were greatly overwhelmed by the attacking Indians. The rise was in eyesight of the fort but not the battle site just over the rise.

The Aftermath and Conclusions

The Fetterman Fight in 1866 stood as the U.S. Cavalry’s worst defeat up to that date. George Armstrong Custer’s  battle was still 10 years into the future. That historic battle would take the place of the Fetterman Massacre as the worst cavalry defeat during the Indian Wars.

 

Site of the Fetterman Massacre

The obvious fact that the troops in this instance were vastly outnumbered certainly contributed to the defeat.  In addition, the soldiers were using outdated weaponry such as the single shot muzzle loading Springfield Civil War era rifle. This was before the use of repeating rifles which changed the odds greatly.  A contributing factor was that the soldiers in this battle were not considered experienced Indian fighters and did not display the horsemanship of the average Indian warrior. Although taking place very near the fort, the battle field could not be seen from Fort Phil Kearney and this delayed the sending of reinforcements in any timely manner.

Also, you’ll enjoy our photo article regarding the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon Texas during the Red River War.

Much was made of the fact that Captain Fetterman went against the orders of his commander, Colonel Carrington. The question of why Fetterman led his troops over the rise will never be answered for certain.

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. A decade later the Battle of the Little Bighorn was actually a continuance of the unrest in the Wyoming/Montana region. There are some very interesting books available on the subject and you’ll probably find information at your local library that cover these topics from both the governments perspective and that of the Indian. Only the Battle of the Little Bighorn stands as a larger defeat for the frontier U.S. Cavalry.

Fetterman Battlefield Site Plaque

What the visitor to this site in Wyoming will see is a monument dedicated in 1908 at the very sight 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 supposedly because the expanding railroad was making the trail obsolete and as part of an agreement to end Red Cloud’s War of which the Fetterman Massacre was a part. Red Cloud’s War, led by Chief Red Cloud, is often referred to as the one Indian War lost by the U.S.

Visiting the Site

There is a monument (shown above) at the site of the battle which is accessible to visitors. As mentioned above, the monument was erected during a ceremony on July 3, 1908. The site is in Johnson County Wyoming, about 25 miles south of Sheridan Wyoming and just west of Interstate-90. For the history minded traveler, this site would be a great addition to a western U.S. trip planner.

(Photos and images from the public domain)

See the Deadwood Stagecoach in Cody Wyoming

Many people familiar with the old west would say that the most famous stagecoach to have plied the trails of the frontier west was the Deadwood Stagecoach. This is Deadwood as in Deadwood South Dakota and the Black Hills. Deadwood South Dakota could easily have been called the capitol of the Black Hills.The photo below is of Deadwood circa 1877.

deadwood south dakota

This is where people from all walks of life hastened to as soon as gold was discovered in the nearby hills. The fact is that Deadwood was, in a way, founded by none other than George Armstrong Custer. It was Custer who led an expedition into the Black Hills which was at the time a very sacred area of the country to the Sioux Indians. The Sioux in fact had ownership of the Black Hills per a treaty with the federal government. When Custer filed a report of his expedition to the Black Hills, whose purpose was to ascertain if gold was truly there,  he emphasized that gold was there in abundance. Somehow, at about the same time Custer filed his report, the startling information also found it’s way to the eastern newspapers.

concord stagecoachThe national economy was in a slump at the time and this only added fuel to the fire and what appeared to be another California Gold Rush, this time in the Black Hills, was in the making. Beginning in April of 1877 the first stagecoaches started rolling between Bismark South Dakota and Deadwood. The Northern Pacific Railroad had a terminal in Bismark and this offered the fastest way to Deadwood from the east. Three time a week service began in May and it didn’t take long for the stages to make the trip daily. Deadwood South Dakota was booming and people were trying to get there fast. The coach of choice was none other than the Concord coaches which were built well for the rough western trails.The first Concord stagecoach was built in 1827 by the Abbot Downing Company. The innovation that made these coaches so popular lay in the construction of their suspension. Traditional stagecoaches employed metal springs which gave the coach a very bouncy ride when the trail got rough. Concord coaches instead used leather braces which gave the coach a gentle swinging motion, prompting Mark Twain to refer to the Concord as the “cradle on wheels.” Freight and passenger revenue was doing very well and in addition to that the stage company received the coveted U.S. Mail contract. During the stage lines heyday it was reported that they employed about 175 men. This was quite a large operation in 1877.

sam bassAnytime there was a flourishing stagecoach route, and the route to the Black Hills was one of them, there were stagecoach robbers. In that era they were often referred to as “highwaymen”. People handy with firearms such as Wyatt Earp were hired to sit beside the driver with a shotgun to protect passengers and gold from the highwaymen. There was a lot of criminal activity in the area. The infamous Sam Bass, pictured above, and his gang reportedly robbed the stage four times in two months. In fact, the Sam bass gang was credited with the largest Union Pacific train robbery that took place in Nebraska. The amount and value of gold dust being shipped via stagecoach was such that precautions were taken that included a special coach to protect the gold. The treasure box was bolted securely to the floor, the coach was even lined in lead, and there were two portholes guards could use to fire back at the robbers.

The transportation boom ended suddenly when the railroad reached Pierre, South Dakota. In 1880 the company moved the majority of its coaches and livestock to Pierre and opened an alternate line. After that the service on the Bismarck line was cut to tri-weekly trips and was soon after abandoned.

To illustrate how popular Buffalo Bill’s Deadwood Stagecoach was in his Wild West performances, while performing in England the highlight of one of the shows came when several monarchs, including the Prince of Wales and the kings of Denmark, Greece, Belgium, and Saxony, climbed aboard the Deadwood Stage with Buffalo Bill in the driver’s seat and rode around the arena while the Indians engaged in a mock attack. It doesn’t get much more real than that for the visiting monarchs. Obviously this was a show business first and gained wide publicity for the Wild West.

Today, you can see the original Deadwood Stagecoach which played a big part in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West performances. The stagecoach is on display at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody Wyoming. The Cody Historical Center began as a log cabin tribute to William  F. Cody, founder and namesake of Cody Wyoming, and has materialized into  a seven-acre building which houses five museums and a research center. The museum is located at 720 Sheridan Ave. and features everything about Buffalo Bill Cody, his Wild West and the old west in general. They have done an excellent job with this museum and I would recommend anyone traveling on a Wyoming vacation to make a visit there. It is the largest repository of William Cody artifacts in the west.