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The Fetterman Fight 1866


1866-8 War over the Bozeman Trail

"The white men have crowded the Indians back year by year until we are forced to live in a small country north of the Platte, and now, our last hunting ground, the home of the People is to be taken from us. Our women and children will starve, but for my part I prefer to die fighting rather than by starvation....the white chief goes with soldiers to steal road before Indian says yes or no. "
Red Cloud, Oglala, to the Peace Commission, 1866

Red Cloud, Mahpiua Luta, Oglala

Red Cloud, Mahpiua Luta, Oglala

The Bozeman Trail and Sawyer’s Expedition

Gold was discovered in Virginia City, Montana, in 1862, and one year later John Bozeman blazed a trail to the east of the Big Horn Mountains which greatly reduced the travelling time and it is also claimed, was accessible in winter. However it crossed land promised to the Lakota in the Treaty of Fort Laramie 1851. The Big Horn Mountains were important for hunting, a source of lodge poles and included the Black Hills, an area sacred to them.

“The Big Horn Mountains …..was a beautiful land, with slope after slope covered with excellent grass. Trout filled streams of clear snow water flowed out of the mountains, through valleys wooded with aspen, willow, cottonwood and chokecherry. Raspberries, cherries, strawberries, currants and plums grew in meadow and underbrush. ………Buffalo, elk and antelope grazed on the open grasslands, deer abounded in the breaks, and there was an abundance of bear, sage, hens, rabbits and lesser game.” (Ralph Andrist page 102)

The Lakota had fought hard to take this land from the Crow and they were not going to give it up easily.

In 1863 Bozeman and nine men manage to evade the native Americans and make it through to the Montana goldfields from the Oregon Trail. The following year he led a freight train through and others followed. The native Americans regarded any travellers up the Bozeman Trail as desecrating the sacred Black Hills, and indeed they had been promised this area by the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851. In March 1865 Congress violated this treaty by passing a law which included the Bozeman Trail as one of many wagon roads to be constructed within the western territories. As a result of this Colonel James A Sawyer led some 50 men (civilians) who were guarded by a 140-man army escort. The civilians included an engineer, Lewis H Smith, who was to conduct a survey for the proposed road. The expedition was harassed by Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors.

Fight on Powder River August 1865

At the same time as Sawyer was leading the surveyor’s team up the Bozeman Trail, Brigadier General Connor led a three pronged ‘punitive’ expedition into Powder River country with the aim of bullying the native Americans into submission. On August 11 1865 Brigadier General Connor established a camp where it met the Bozeman Trail, and named it Camp Connor. From this base, as a result of using Pawnee auxiliaries Connor attacked an Arapaho village led by Black Bear, captured about a thousand ponies and burned the tepees and their contents, including the Arapaho winter food supply. However two further columns, led by Lieutenant Walker and Colonel Nelson Cole as part of a three pronged attack under Connor’s overall command did not fare so well. Both were subjected to attack by first the Cheyenne and then by the Lakota, including what the Cheyenne called Roman Nose’s fight. This was the occasion when Roman Nose repeatedly rode the length of the assembled troops well within firing range and was protected from injury by his War Bonnet. The worsening weather saw the physical condition of the troops led by Cole and Walker deteriorate. When discovered by the Pawnees on September 11th, they were lost, starving and demoralised. While the two officers were doubtless incompetent, Connor, as commander, was responsible, and so was relieved of his command. The punitive expedition was seen as a failure, the problems of terrain, weather and ferocity of their opponents had been underrated. as indeed had been the competence of the commanding officers been overrated.

The troops were withdrawn from the Powder River country until the following year, 1866, when Colonel Carrington built Forts Phil Kearny and CF Smith to protect miners on the Bozeman Trail, and Camp Supply was renamed Fort Reno. The abortive Connor campaign gave the northern peoples of the plains confidence that they could successfully keep the troops out of their land.

Three Forts on the Bozeman Trail 1866

On May 17 1866 Colonel Henry B. Carrington of the 18th U. S. Infantry led a force of 700 men and 226 wagons out of Fort Kearny, Nebraska and travelled westwards across the Oregon Trail route followed by emigrants. His orders were to garrison Fort Reno, formerly Fort Connor, and to build two new posts along the Bozeman Trail. As well as munitions the wagons were full of supplies to make building the forts as simple as possible, including a steam driven sawmill. Meanwhile the government had finally succeeded in beginning negotiations with a number of chiefs at Fort Laramie. In June 1866 the talks with General Sherman were still in progress when Carrington reached Fort Laramie and stopped with his troops and wagons. Red Cloud heard of Carrington's orders, and was outraged:

we are forced to live in a small country north of the Platte, and now our last hunting ground, the home of the People, is to be taken from us. ... for my part I prefer to die fighting rather than by starvation. ... Great Father send us presents and wants new road. But White chief goes with soldiers to steal road before Indian says yes or no! (Red Cloud)

Red Cloud’s condemnation of the deception was shared by others such as Spotted Tail and Man Who Others are even Afraid of His Horses (usually more simply but nonsensically written as Man Afraid of His Horses).

Carrington reached Fort Reno on June 28, 1866. Subsequently a log stockade was placed around the unprotected garrison buildings complete with log bastions on the northwest and southeast corners, even though at first Carrington favoured building a new fort completely. After a short delay there while troops were installed to replace the existing volunteers, they moved further up the trail and looked for a place to construct the first of the new forts. On July 15 Carrington, chose a location next the Big Piny Fork, which flowed into Powder River. Together with Captain Ten Eyck and the engineers he supervised the laying out the stakes according to plans previously drawn up, A crude mechanical mower which had been hauled a few hundred miles was now put to use to create a parade ground. In early August two companies of troops were sent 91 miles further northwest under Captain Nathaniel C. Kinney to build a smaller fortification, Fort C.F. Smith, where the road crossed the Bighorn River in Montana Territory. With the other two forts in Dakota Territory, (in the present day the state of Wyoming), Colonel Carrington’s forces and supply lines were stretched to the limit.

Over the next two years the forts never came under direct attack, but the Native Americans frequently ran off stock, both civilian and military, harassed the emigrant trains, and killed a number of individuals who had wandered from the safety of their respective groups. The Oglala Lakota led by Red Cloud and Dull Knife’s Northern Cheyenne harried the soldiers as they busily constructed Fort Phil Kearny under Carrington’s expert guidance. Marksmen picked off soldiers from the surrounding bluffs, and attacked woodcutting parties which, naturally enough, had to venture further and further from the fort. Carrington reported that in the first five weeks 33 travellers had been killed on the road – with the Indians gaining such prizes as the bell mare and 174 mules from one train – and that 70 head of government mules has been run off from Fort Phil Kearny alone. More Lakota arrived, Sitting Bull and Gall with the Hunkpapa and Hump led the Miniconjou. Black Bear also joined the force with the Northern Arapaho, as did most Brulé Lakota warriors, despite their leader Spotted Tail having eventually deciding to sign a treaty with General Sherman. When Jim Bridger, acting as a scout for the army, arranged a parley between Carrington and Red Cloud, the native Americans responded by running off 175 army horses the following morning. By the end of 1866 154 soldiers and civilians had died on the trail, 306 cattle, 304 mules and 161 horses had been driven off. In just over six months 51 engagements were recorded, and hardly a group of travellers or wood cutting party escaped attack. Fort Phil Kearny was subject to constant surveillance and was effectively under a state of siege as the native Americans exploited their knowledge of the terrain and their adaptability in the field to create a perpetual atmosphere of terror for the interlopers.

The Hundred Soldiers Killed Fight (The Fetterman Fight): December 21 1866

Early in November a cavalry force led by Lieutenant Horatio Bingham arrived at Fort Phil Kearny to reinforce the existing troops who, although capable of riding a horse, had actually been trained as infantry. This included Captain William J. Fetterman. Having given outstanding service in the Civil War, this young man felt that warfare was merely a matter of bravery in the attack. Until the arrival of the cavalry Carrington had been restricted to defensive tactics, and had drawn up extensive system of signals and routines of how the post would react if the wood cutting parties were attacked. Fetterman thought that a direct approach would pay dividends and begged Carrington to allow him to lead a charge on the ‘Indians’. “With eighty men I could ride through the Sioux nation.” He arrogantly claimed.

The need for wood as a building material took the soldiers ever further away from Fort Phil Kearny. The native Americans took advantage of the vulnerability of the troops in these circumstances and further attempted to draw them into even more exposed positions. On one such occasion in early December two men had been killed and five wounded. Later, on December 19 an experienced officer, Captain James W Powell, had managed to rescue a wood cutting party without losses.

Colonel Carrington decided that one more expedition would be enough to secure enough wood to finish building the hospital. However the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne had been practicing their tactics for some time, and on the 20 December they even rehearsed what would transpire the following day, to ensure that each warrior played their part.

On December 21 the woodcutters left with a heavy guard just after 10.00am. One hour later look outs signaled that the party was under attack. A relief force was hastily assembled and Fetterman insisted because of his high field or brevet rank which he had been awarded it for his bravery in the Civil War. Fetterman was given 48 enlisted infantry, 27 cavalry under Lieutenant George Grummond, the post’s armourer, Private Maddeon, and two civilian volunteers, James Wheatley and Isaac Fisher. One more volunteer, his friend Captain Frederick Brown, by a strange quirk of fate, gave Fetterman exactly the number of troops he had boasted he needed to “ride through the Sioux nation”.

Unfortunately for him he was wrong. Unfortunately for the eighty men who accompanied him the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors had other ideas. His troops were annihilated. Carrington’s orders, given to Fetterman and Grummond separately, and repeated to Fetterman via an adjutant, were quite clear: “Under no circumstances pursue over Long Tail Ridge”.

But Fetterman could not resist, after all these ‘Indians’ were inferior and should be given a good ‘hiding’ or some such prattle. The decoys were successful in tempting Fetterman on, much further than his orders should have taken him, not that he would have taken much tempting. According to the Cheyenne, Two Moons, the attackers lost only fourteen men in this brief fight: two Northern Cheyenne, one Northern Arapaho and eleven Lakota.

Winter 1866-7

Carrington, for his part, was summarily replaced as commander, implying that he had been responsible for the Fetterman debacle without waiting for a full report. The unfairness of this was recognized by General Sherman who dismissed General Cooke who made this knee jerk decision. Cooke had sent orders for Carrington’s replacement by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Wessels, commander of Fort Reno.

The severe weather conditions persisted and kept the troops bottled up in the forts. When Carrington, together with the families from Fort Phil Kearny, was escorted the 65 miles to Fort Reno by 60 men on January 23 1867, two of the mounted escorts had to have their legs amputated as a result of frostbite. The fort ran short of supplies, including food, animal fodder for the horses and wood for fuel. Clothing was inadequate. Scurvy was common. When spring came it brought the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne with it.

Colonel Carrington had requested improved weaponry without success, but the ‘Fetterman Massacre’ as the army erroneously called it, resulted in 700 new rifles being delivered, albeit not as quickly as the replacement of Carrington. Weapons changed to breech loading Springfield carbines arriving in the last week of July 1867. These replaced the muzzle loaders, and while both fired a single shot and were not ‘repeaters’, loading the weapon through the breech was almost instantaneous whereas through the muzzle with a ramrod was painfully slow. Unless firing was cleverly staggered a frontal assault could become hand to hand combat before reloading could be effected. These new weapons enabled the assailants to be kept at a distance in both the major incidents which took place at the beginning of July near Fort Phil Kearny and Fort C.F. Smith.

The Hayfield Fight 1 August 1867 Fort C.F.Smith

About two and a half miles from Fort C.F.Smith tall meadow grass provided the ideal feed for the post’s livestock, so once it was ready to be harvested a daily detail was sent out. Generally about six to twelve civilian hay cutters were guarded by about twenty soldiers. They dealt with the occasional attacks by Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors by retreating to a corral made of logs. The mules were driven into at night, for the detail did not normally return to the fort when darkness fell.

On 1st August the astonished party was confronted by about 500 warriors, mostly Northern Cheyenne, far in excess of the normal dozen or so who were out to enhance their reputation. Sheltering behind their log corral the soldiers managed to repel the first wave of the attack by firing a volley of fire and quickly reloading their new Springfield breech loaders. Subsequent attacks were similarly repulsed. At last the native Americans employed a ploy commonly used in hunting and intertribal warfare; they set fire to the prairie grass. The trapped soldiers watched the advancing flames with trepidation. Miraculously a few metres from the logs the flames died down and the fire went out, to the relief of the haymakers and soldiers in their makeshift fortification. Nevertheless the siege lasted six hours and the odds of twenty to one were overcome by a combination of improved weaponry and disciplined use of the Springfield to fire them together in volleys. Three soldiers were killed and only three injured, the fatalities including the Lieutenant who thought his leadership role meant that he should stand upright when his men were prostrate. He was shot through the head in the first attack.

The Wagon Box Fight 2 August 1867 Fort Phil Kearny

The next day a similar type of engagement to the Hayfield Fight took place near Fort Phil Kearny. It was also similar to the Fetterman Fight in that it was a woodcutting group which came under attack. This time the soldiers were led by Captain James W. Powell, an experienced officer with sense. Like those in the hayfield they were equipped with the new Springfield carbines.

As with the hayfield cutters the woodcutting party made a corral, but theirs was made from the wagon boxes which were left by those felling trees when they took away the wheels and axles to use for hauling the logs. The gaps were filled with sandbags and logs as they were gathered, and any deficiencies made good with paraphernalia such as ammunitions boxes and sacks of grain or beans.

In the early morning, about 7am, about 1500 Lakota led by Crazy Horse appeared on the hilltops. Two wagon trains were under way, an empty one trundled towards the woodcutters and the other was bringing lumber back to the fort. Both made a run for the fort and narrowly made it, but those cutting wood or guarding them had to race for the wagon box corral and watch as their mule herd was run off.

Powell toured the makeshift fortification to make sure they were protected as much as possible and that the men were not too openly exposed to enemy fire. When the attack came it was spectacular, the Lakota warriors his behind their mounts which looked riderless. There were so many that the dust they raised created an atmosphere of confusion, ponies appeared as if from a mist and then popped back out of vision into the haze. The full frontal assault was repulsed as, unexpectedly, there was no lull in the troops fire between volleys. Unknown to the Lakota, the trapped party, like the hay cutters, had Springfield breech loaders. Another attack, this time on foot was also repulsed, and, about five hours after the fighting began, the Lakota withdrew, to the great relief of those who had resisted them. Casualties, like the Hayfield fight, were limited to three dead, but on this occasion two were wounded.

Meeting at Fort Laramie

Red Cloud was again invited to Ft. Laramie, but he would not go before his country was cleared of soldiers. In April 1868 the last soldier left the Powder River country and the Bozeman trail was officially closed. The tribes set the forts afire and several chiefs of the Brule, Oglala, Miniconjou, and Yankton Lakota, and the Northern Arapaho signed a treaty. Red Cloud delayed until November 6 before he signed the second treaty of Fort Laramie.

This was the only time that a native American people had won a war against the U.S. army, but the victory was a small one. Although the treaty of Fort Laramie set the borders of the Lakota territory in the Powder River country, article 11 contained the following:

... the said Indians further expressly agree: 1st. That they will withdraw all opposition to the construction of the railroads now being built on the plains. 2nd. That they will permit the peaceful construction of any railroad not passing over their reservation as herein defined.... (Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 )


The significance of the Bozeman trail was out of all proportion to the traffic it carried. From 1864 to 1868 only 3,500 emigrants used the trail. In 1846, one trek to Oregon alone consisted of 2,700 emigrants. One could speculate that, had the US government not broken the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie and deceived the negotiators in 1866 the war that was fought between 1866-68 might well have been avoided. Historians had the audacity to call the war “Red Cloud’s War” when then only contribution he made was to lead his people against a flagrant trespass by US citizens and military onto land which under the United States own laws was owned by the Lakota.

“The territory of the Sioux or Dahcotah Nation, commencing the mouth of the White Earth River, on the Missouri River: thence in a southwesterly direction to the forks of the Platte River: thence up the north fork of the Platte River to a point known as the Red Bute, or where the road leaves the river; thence along the range of mountains known as the Black Hills, to the head-waters of Heart River; thence down Heart River to its mouth; and thence down the Missouri River to the place of beginning.” Article 5 Fort Laramie Treaty 1851

Granted, article 2 had stated: “The aforesaid nations do hereby recognize the right of the United States Government to establish roads, military and other posts, within their respective territories.” But sending a force of 700 troops to build three forts without first discussing it fully provoked a completely unexpected response: indignation supported by committed and successful military action.

The Fetterman Fight 1866

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© Chris Smallbone March 2006