The long story of the Bozeman Trail

Home|Opinion|Local Columnists|The long story of the Bozeman Trail

The 150th anniversary of The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which closed the Bozeman Trail and abandoned the military forts along its route, is being recognized this year. The treaty, usually referred to as one, was actually a series of five, one for each Indian tribe involved (the Sioux, Cheyenne, Crow, Arapaho and Shoshone).

These are referenced by Don Fisk in his four-part series published in the Custer Battlefield Historical Society’s official magazine, “Greasy Grass.” Fisk has been a member of the board for three years. He retired to Sheridan in 2013 and now also serves also as president of the Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association.

Traditional histories of the trail generally begin with the emigrants’ travel, by wagon train, in 1863, from southern Wyoming to the gold fields of Montana, and end with its closing with the treaties in 1868 — a total of only five years.

But, as Lakota historian Joseph Marshall says, “The white man blazed a trail over a route the Indians and buffalo had used for centuries.”

Fisk doesn’t take it back that far, but he does give us a helpful picture of the times in our nation near the end of the Civil War when gold was discovered and emigration began. The population was unsettled, the military depleted, along with the government’s treasury, and conflicts between the races and their cultures thus set the stage for events to come.

Bozeman Trail scholar, Susan Badger Doyle has written, “While only about 3,500 emigrants traversed the Trail in 1863-66, its most significant consequence was that it cut through the Powder River Basin, the last and best hunting grounds of the Northern Plains Indians, and led to military occupation of the region, ultimately resulting in the Indian wars on the Northern Plains.”

While the signing of the Fort Laramie treaties is generally thought of as a closure, the end story, author Fisk perceives them as representing not a solution, but rather just a pause in that history. Eight years later, issues unsolved would be fought about again, with many of the same warriors, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

In his summary, Fisk writes, “The effect of building Fort C.F. Smith, (in Montana) and Fort Phil Kearny blossomed into the polar opposite of what the forts were supposed to achieve. Instead of protecting travelers and thus encouraging travel to the Montana gold fields, Bozeman Trail travel was effectively shut down due to the forts, so the U.S. government inadvertently achieved the result sought by the Indian tribes.”

Fisk asks “Looking back…why were the forts even there in 1867? Intended to protect travel on the Bozeman Trail, by then there was none.” After the disastrous Fetterman Fight of Dec. 21, 1866, the forts could barely keep themselves supplied, let alone protect emigrants.

Fisk cites dozens of outstanding historians as well as rare government records to back up his research. He includes the turmoil of leaders in Washington, D.C., struggling with the results of having provided “mostly untrained troops, too few in numbers, and woefully inadequately supplied.”

Actually, the Little Bighorn Battle was not the end of the history of the trail either. In years to come it was used by a diversity of people and primarily as a transportation route for settlers. They were, said trail explorer the late Mark Badgett, “a microcosm of every kind of people who settled the West.” It later became the route of many of our highways and byways today.

Questioned as to the significance of the treaties of 1868, western historian Don Rickey replied, “That’s easy. They set up the Indian reservation systems,” and he said prophetically, “I defy anybody to understand them.” Apparently that is a valid concern as those treaties are resounding through our court system today.

(Author’s note: Fisk is a retired Lt. Col. in the Air Force, a veteran of Desert Storm and an attorney. He has long been a student of our military history, holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Wichita State, and he helped raise funds for the Northern Cheyenne monument for those imprisoned at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in 1878-79. Copies of his articles can be read in The Wyoming Room in our Sheridan library, and are expected to be available to read on the Fort Phil Kearny website,, by Sept. 15.)


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 |Aug. 30, 2018|

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