A return to the Bozeman Trail

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Born and raised in Sheridan, and with a lifetime fascination with our history, the late Bozeman Trail explorer Mark Badgett had a brief way of stating his primary interest. He said, “Everybody was here.”

To elaborate a bit, he explained that during a few short years, beginning in 1863, our history represented a microcosm of the story of the settlement of the West with every sort of person already here or coming through.

Badgett’s approach to history is well illustrated by National Geographic in its special edition of “Trails West,” first published in 1979. It includes a full double-page photo of Badgett leading his mule, Jezebel, walking over 300 miles of the trail. The edition also includes a full-page image of what they label “Grand Lady of the Bozeman Trail, Elsa Spear Byron.”

Coming from an entirely different background, a young woman moved to Sheridan in the early 1980s with a master’s degree in history from the University of Wyoming and a contagious enthusiasm for history. She soon became enamored with the history of the trail and involved with the fledgling Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association. Katie Curtiss never had the opportunity to know Badgett, but she agreed with his beliefs.

She wrote, “We think of soldiers in blue uniforms and warriors in bright feathers and paint. But the fort contained women and children, civilian contractors, interpreters, traders, men of the cloth, musicians, a photographer and more. The Sioux and Cheyenne camps on the Tongue River had women and children, elders, medicine men and scouts, as well as hunters and warriors.”

In addition, emigrant families, mostly on their way to the gold fields of Montana, wended their way by the fort, and Nelson Story came through with what was thought to be the first cattle drive to those Montana gold camps. Friendly Crow Indians often camped nearby on lands that had once been the center of Crow Country.

In 1993, the Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association would publish a book, “Civilian, Military and Native American PORTRAITS of Fort Phil Kearny.” It included 49 biographies and was written by 36 members of the association from around the nation, as diverse as the people of whom they wrote.

Many of the biographies are of names you likely know, such as Jim Bridger, John Bozeman, Nelson Story, the Carringtons, Lt. Fetterman and “Portugee” Phillips. Many of the most famous Indians who ever lived are included, such as Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, American Horse and Dull Knife, mostly written of by tribal members such as FPK/BTA Advisory Board members Bill Tallbull, Ted Risingsun, Joseph Marshall, Karen White Eyes and Richard Williams.

There are some interesting relationships. Ted Risingsun wrote of his great grandfather, Chief Dull Knife (Morning Star), and Richard Williams is a Red Cloud descendant. “Finn” Burnett, a post sutler and Wyoming pioneer, is the great grandfather of the author, Dr. Peter K. Simpson and of longtime FPK/BTA Advisory Board member former Sen. Alan K. Simpson. Patricia Beer is the great-granddaughter of Cpl. Dennis Driscoll, who volunteered to ride through hostile Indians to deliver a dispatch to Fort C.F. Smith. Bill Dailey is the great-grandson of the Bill Dailey who helped build the huge flagpole at Fort Phil Kearny.

Publication was inspired by Badgett, one of the original founders of the association and dedicated to his memory. The editorial committee was led by Curtiss and also included Jack McDermott, Sonny Reisch and myself. It was funded by the Homer A. and Mildred S. Scott Foundation, the Peter Kiewit Foundation, Nickerson Family Foundation, Mark Badgett Memorial Fund and the Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association.

It is, today, well into its second printing.

In her foreword, Curtiss wrote, “The response (from potential authors) mirrors the passion and curiosity Americans have with the part played by the American West in shaping the heritage, character, values and legacy of the United States.”

She explains that “the project’s intent was to help promote an understanding of all viewpoints and lead to a more complete understanding of the role played by a diversity of people during the Fort Phil Kearny and Bozeman Trail era.”

The book is available at the Fort Phil Kearny book store, the Sheridan County Museum and elsewhere.

 

Mary Ellen McWilliams serves as an adviser and volunteer for the Sheridan County Historical Society and Museum and the Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association.

By |April 5th, 2018|

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