STORY — The Sheridan WYO Rodeo is coming up and corresponds with the 150th anniversary of the building of Fort Phil Kearny. Col. Henry B. Carrington, commander of the 18th Infantry, U.S. Army arrived in Powder River country, chose the site to build Fort Phil Kearny and immediately began construction on July 13, 1866. Opening day of rodeo performances this year is July 13.
Kearny’s Frontier Regulars will open the Sheridan WYO Rodeo on July 14 with cannon fire from a field howitzer. Also, Fort Phil Kearny has been chosen as the grand marshal for the parade, and is also part of the National Stagecoach/Freight Wagon Association Conference that will also take place during Sheridan WYO Rodeo Week.
The weekend before the WYO begins, July 8-9, Fort Phil Kearny State Historic Site and the Bozeman Trail Association will host Bozeman Trail Days Celebration, which will focus on skirmishes and battles “within a days march” from the fort.
The battles will include skirmishes and battles of which not much is written about.
The fort will offer an opportunity to learn something that you can only get from the people who are giving the tour: Bob Wilson and Sonny Reisch, former curators and superintendents of the fort.
A dinner and chat with the experts is scheduled for July 8. Participants will have the opportunity to visit with author Shannon Smith as she shares a unique and fresh interpretation of the facts derived from her perspective as a former professor at Lakota College. Smith grew up near Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
A guided bus tour with Wilson on July 9 will take participants to the battle sites, where they can experience the importance of the terrain to the narrative of each event.
“In every story from Indian wars to the trail systems to westward expansion in general, terrain was the primary player in all of those dramas,” fort superintendent Misty Stoll said.
Bozeman Trail Days Celebration commemorates the building of the fort, the daily skirmishes and battles that led up to December, the skirmishes on Dec. 6 and 19, and finally the Battle of the Hundred in the Hand on Dec. 21, which was historically the U.S. Army’s worst defeat until Custer’s Last Stand a decade later.
“Our 150th anniversary is portrayed to help people understand the value of a place like Fort Phil Kearny and the fact that it encompasses 1,000 acres, two major battle sites, an interpretive center, the largest stockaded fort in the West. Also Jim Bridger was there, Crazy Horse was there, Red Cloud was there — several famous people all in one spot — and to top it off, many of the battle sites are still in open spaces where they can be physically experienced,” Stoll said.
“Fort Phil Kearny is one of the only places where the details match the Hollywood stereotype of what a fort was like and what fighting tribes was like,” Stoll said. “They had the native weaponry— the war club, bow and arrow and feather headdress. Fort Phil Kearny was a stockaded fort with a dramatic mountain landscape where three separate tribes came together in battle with soldiers, and extreme weather events are also part of the story. The Fort Phil Kearny story is the stuff of movies only we don’t have to make any of it up.”
Fort Phil Kearny was the largest stockaded fort in the West, during that time. Forts were not typically stockaded because it was too much work to build. Eight-foot high log walls enclosed an area of 17 acres. The longer walls on the northeast and southwest sides each measured 1,496 feet in length. The width of the northwest side was 600 feet and this tapered to 240 feet at the southeast side. The perimeter of the stockade was approximately 3,900 feet and its construction took more than 4,000 logs. There were 90 wagons in the wood wagon train on any given day to gather that wood for the fort.
The Indians attacked the wood wagon train almost daily as well as the wagon trains on the Bozeman Trail. By December, the fort was almost completed. The Indian attacks and harassment continued and travel along the Bozeman Trail was at a virtual stand still.
Tensions continued to rise as the Indians worked to get rid of government presence on their hunting grounds and soldiers looked for opportunities to retaliate.
On Dec. 6, 1866, Indians attacked the wood wagon train 4 miles west of the fort. Four companies of soldiers who went out to relieve the wood wagons split up. One of the companies was surrounded by about 100 warriors and were left mutilated. This was a pivotal learning experience for the Indians, because they realized that when they attacked the wagon train, a signal was sent to the fort from Pilot Knob. Upon receiving the signal, the fort sent out another company of soldiers.
Dec. 19, 1866, marked another wood train attack, in which Cap. James W. Powell was sent out to relieve the wagons and successfully completed his mission.
According to the video exhibit at the Fort Phil Kearny interpretive center, on Dec. 21, the Battle of the Hundred in the Hand proved to be one of the few times in Native American history where three Indian tribes united together, had a pre-planned battle and set up an ambush. The soldiers fell for it, the Indians led them into the trap, divided them up into three groups and wiped them out.
Every year Fort Phil Kearny presents the interpretation of Dec. 21 on the battlefield itself.
This year, the Dec. 6 and Dec. 19 skirmishes will be added to the program. Stoll hopes to get permission to use a new location to see those battlefields, which is on private land. A wreath laying on Dec. 21 is also planned.