In the 1860s, a route that settlers, miners and soldiers navigated from central Wyoming to gold strikes in Montana was like a fuse that ignited an explosion of westward expansion, Native American distrust and eventual tribal marginalization.
Now a group of regional history devotees is working to have the route — known as the Bozeman Trail — recognized as a National Historic Trail.
The designation would serve several purposes, including: drawing attention to the history of the area, native people, and the memorable figures involved during the trail’s use in the 1800s; providing a platform for educating the public via local museums; offering institutions, tribes, local and federal agencies a platform for grant writing; and increasing visitation to rural areas in the two states.
“This is a tourism project when you get down to it,” said Billings resident Mike Penfold, of Our Montana, a nonprofit promoting care of the state’s natural, historic and recreational resources.
Our Montana has partnered with the Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association, which launched the initiative. Board member Dave McKee said the idea of the designation arose years ago but was never acted on.
“A couple of us said we would pursue it,” said McKee, a Sheridan, Wyoming, resident and the association’s committee co-chairman. “So far the response has been very positive.”
McKee said his personal interest, as a retired Forest Service archaeologist, is telling the story of the people who adapted to live on the Great Plains for thousands of years “before there were cell phones and Walmarts. How did they do that?”
The Bozeman Trail sauntered into history in 1863. That’s when John Bozeman and John Jacobs set off from central Wyoming to reach new gold camps in the Virginia City area. The idea was that by traveling north, instead of farther west and then north along the existing Oregon Trail, more than 500 miles could be shaved off the distance.
Although Bozeman gets credit for the route, it had been in use for thousands of years prior to that.
“As far as I can figure out, it was an old north-south migration trail for American Indians,” said Howard Boggess.
Boggess spent about five years trekking portions of the trail on weekends when he was director of the Big Horn County Historical Museum in Hardin. In that time he walked from Fort Phil Kearny to Bozeman, identifying old trail markers and even an infant’s grave along the way.
“It’s quite a trail,” he said.
His Crow clan sister, Mardell Plainfeather, said many of the main trails where highways now exist were also once routes used by native people.
“They used them to visit other tribes, to rendezvous and trade,” she said.
The first Bozeman Trail wagon train ran into Cheyenne and Sioux warriors who warned the migrants to turn back or face slaughter. The gold-seekers retreated, but the next year Bozeman tried again with a new group. This time the party consisted of four large wagon trains. Others soon followed.
That same year, the U.S. Army slaughtered a village of about 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho camped along Sand Creek in Colorado. As a result, the tribes formed an alliance with the Oglala Lakota to turn back the intruding Euro-Americans in places like the Bozeman Trail.
In 1865 U.S. Army General Patrick E. Connor, guided by Jim Bridger, plotted an alternative of the Bozeman Trail. Along the way the group attacked an Arapaho village near present-day Ranchester, Wyoming, intensifying tensions with Native Americans. More such incidents would occur.
“As a peace treaty was being attempted in 1866 at Fort Laramie between the Army and tribes, the meetings were interrupted by Col. Henry B. Carrington coming through with troops to establish Fort Phil Kearny in Wyoming and Fort C. F. Smith on land which would become the Crow reservation in Montana,” the groups noted in a history of the trail. “When discovering the plans, Chief Red Cloud left in anger, vowing to fight.”
There were more than 150 skirmishes between natives, civilians and the military along the Bozeman Trail, earning it the nickname the bloody Bozeman. One of the battles was the worst defeat of the Army by natives up to that point – the Fetterman Fight. On Dec. 6, 1866, a tribal alliance led by Red Cloud killed 80 soldiers from Fort Phil Kearny who had been cutting wood at the base of the Bighorn Mountains. The defeat prompted closure of the trail to civilian use. By 1868 the Fort Laramie Treaty led to the Army’s abandonment of three forts and the trail.
This Dec. 21 was the 154th anniversary of the Fetterman fight, and JoAnne Puckett was there braving a cold winter wind to remember the battle. The area south of Sheridan, Wyoming, remains largely undeveloped said Puckett, who co-chairs the Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail committee.
“Recognition is long overdue,” she said. “It has a lot of significance, plus it’s so beautiful.”
Considering how short-lived the trail was, a lot of history with numerous players got packed into one place in time.
“Establishment of that trail was a defining chapter in the history of the West,” McKee said.
The people involved represented diverse backgrounds, from the soldiers and natives, to gold-rush speculators and some of the first ranchers, like Nelson Story, who trailed cattle north from Texas along the route.
“It was just a marker for a transition period for Plains Indians and Euro-American expansion to the West,” McKee said.
The Bozeman Trail travels through eight Montana counties and four in Wyoming. In those counties the trail advocates have contacted local governments, museums, historical site managers and legislators to inform them of their intent to seek federal recognition of the route. Puckett said there are already 200 existing museums, historic sites and battle sites along the route that are publicly accessible.
“So far the response has been very positive,” McKee said. “We’ll continue to do outreach for several more months.”
The plan is to have a proposal submitted to the two state’s congressional delegations by spring. It’s up to Congress to authorize a study. If approved, that would start a process by the Department of Interior to ask one of its agencies to undertake a feasibility study. The study would include public meetings and a comment period.
“One of the keys is public support for the designation,” McKee said. “It’s really important for people to know there would be ample opportunity to ask questions.”
The designation does not carry with it any burden for landowners. Private property remains private, Penfold emphasized.
Once a study is completed, Congress must vote to approve authorization of the route. The promoters of the proposal don’t see any hindrances ahead. So far, most of the feedback has been positive.
“There’s a whole rich culture of American Indian tribes on the high plains,” McKee said. “This is an opportunity to tell the story of their history and culture.”
“Once it’s a historical site it will be protected for future generations,” Plainfeather said. “Even though I’m Native American … I appreciate its chapter in our history.”