The Frontier Partisans Muse took me by the hand last week and pulled me hard down the Bozeman Trail.
On June 6, I headed out to Buffalo, Wyoming, for a newspaper conference and training session. The owners of my newspaper do these professional development sessions regularly, and I always wish I could take more time in our locations — but deadlines always loom and I’m always pressed for time.
So I didn’t do much homework on Buffalo, figuring that outside of the drive up from Casper and a stay at the historic Occidental Hotel, it was going to be all business. This time, I was wrong. I arrived at the Occidental at 1:30 p.m., with nothing on the agenda till Thursday evening. Driving up through the vastness of the Powder River country, I figured Fort Phil Kearney had to be somewhere in the vicinity. Turns out that it was 15 miles up the road. Hot damn!
By 2 p.m., I was standing in the hoofprints of Crazy Horse — on the site of the Fetterman Fight, where, on December 21, 1866, a force of decoys led by the young Tashunka Witko lured 79 soldiers and two civilians out of Fort Phil Kearney, over Lodge Trail Ridge and out on a long north-south finger of ridge some scholars call High Backbone — better known as Massacre Hill — where a force of more than a thousand Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors boiled up out of the gullies and draws flanking the ridge and rubbed out the soldiers to a man.
I spent a couple of hours walking the ground. Other than a stone cenotaph and a very low-key and well-done interpretive trail, the site is undeveloped, and though I was there on a bluebird spring day rather than a chilly winter’s day, it was not difficult to strip away the intervening years and picture how the 40-minute running fight developed.
I also visited the Fort Phil Kearny site, which has a small museum, staffed by a very knowledgeable and enthusiastic parks historian.
I am presently way down the trail in catching up on the current scholarship surrounding the Fetterman Fight, and will serve up a detailed post when I can do it justice. It’s past time I addressed Red Cloud’s War — an intense and bloody conflict, and the only time a native force actually forced the U.S. Government into significant concessions of territory.
I’m still absorbing the experience of standing on ground where Crazy Horse rode on his war pony, where Jim Bridger rode through the gates of a fort whose location he warned against, where the drama recounted in formative books like Will Henry’s No Survivors actually took place. For me, this site is far more significant than any spot where a president slept and no historic building, no matter how august looms as large in my historical imagination as a place like Fort Phil Kearny.
Every time I contemplated the fact that I know that Crazy Horse rode right here, frisson hit like a lightning bolt shot down my spine.
In one of those bits of synchronicity that strike surprisingly often here at Frontier Partisans, on the same day I was soaking in the Fetterman Battle Site, PBS Wyoming posted this doco on the Bozeman Trail. Check it out — it’ll provide background for our coming exploration of Red Cloud’s War and the Fetterman Fight.