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Introduction



 
An important era in American History stems from western expansion and the “Taming of the American West.”

This western emigration resulted in a series of conflicts in the western United States between Native Americans and American settlers and the United States Army. These conflicts are generally known as the Indian Wars.

Although these conflicts took place in what would become many western states, the area that would eventually become the state of Wyoming in 1890 was traversed by the Mormon, California and Oregon trails, as well as  the Overland Stage Route and the original Pony Express routes.

For the most part, American Immigrants and Native Americans enjoyed a mainly peaceful existence due in part to the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie which allowed passage by immigrants and the building or roads and stationing of troops along the Oregon Trail.

However, a series of events in coming years would change that peaceful dynamic. Things like the passage of the Homestead Act and the building of the transcontinental railroad resulted in white settlers placed in direct competition for land and resources with Native Americans in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain West.

​Other events such as the Pikes Peak Gold Rush, discovery of gold in the Black Hills, the Montana Gold Rush and the opening of the Bozeman Trail would lead to Red Cloud’s War and later the Great Sioux War of 1876-77.
Four forts from this time period – Fort Bridger, Fort Fetterman, Fort Fred Steele and Fort Phil Kearny – are now Wyoming State Historic Sites. Early on interpretation at these sites examined the history and the role they played in the Indian Wars from the white man perspective.  Now, however, a concerted effort has been made by the sites to examine the story from a Native American perspective, as well.

Persons interested in learning about the history of the American West, the Frontier Army or Native American history and culture will find these Wyoming forts to be interesting and educational.

In addition to the four sites now listed as Wyoming historic sites, visitors are encouraged to visit the Fort Caspar Museum and Historic Site (operated by the City of Casper), Fort Laramie National Historic Site and the former Fort D.A. Russell, now FE Warren Air Force Base. Persons travelling to the Cowboy State from outside Wyoming will find Fort Robinson State Park located near Crawford in the Nebraska panhandle, and the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in southeastern Montana additional educational venues along the way.

While there are many stories taken from the settling of the American West, the Indian Wars and the history of the Frontier Army played an essential part in the country’s western expansion. These forts, located in what is now Wyoming, played a vital role in this part of American history.

 

 

Fort Bridger


 

With the decline of the fur trade and the need to find a new way to make a living, mountain men Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez built a small fort here in 1843, in what was then Mexico, as a stopover on the overland trails to Oregon and California. Consisting of only a few cabins and a wooden stockade, Fort Bridger provided thousands of travelers each year with supplies, wagon repairs, and other assistance. Often Native American women ran the day to day operations at the fort while Bridger and Vasquez were either away or engaged in other activities. Indeed it was not uncommon for arriving settlers to see dozens of Shoshone tipis set up around the stockade. 

The Donner Party passed through Fort Bridger on its ill-fated journey in 1846, and the first Mormon settlers arrived in 1847 on the way to the Salt Lake valley. 

In 1855, Lewis Robinson, an agent of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, bought the fort from Vasquez in order for it to be put into service for the thousands of Mormon immigrants passing through. The new owners added a stone wall measuring as high as 18 feet, but its wooden portions would not last much longer. 

Complaints from non-Mormons about the administration of Utah Territory under Governor Brigham Young caused President James Buchanan to appoint a new governor, Alfred Cumming, a non-Mormon. Buchanan decided to send the governor to Utah with a military escort of 2,500 soldiers in the fall of 1857 without communicating his intentions to Young.  As the U.S. Army approached, the Mormons burned the fort and retreated west, leaving only the stone wall standing.

The Army took over and began rebuilding Fort Bridger as a proper military post, with fortifications and numerous timber and limestone buildings added over subsequent decades. A 500 square mile military reserve was established around the fort and no homesteading was allowed within its boundaries, thus providing the army with a healthy supply of timber, water, grass, and even coal deposits.

The Army allowed post sutler (trader) William A. Carter to build a residence and operate several businesses inside the fort and reservation, which turned out to be lucrative endeavors. 

The fort continued to be a center of trade and negotiations with several tribal nations.  In 1868, Shoshone Chief Washakie and Bannock Chief Tahgee negotiated the Treaty of Fort Bridger, which established both the Wind River and Fort Hall reservations. 

With the coming of the Transcontinental Railroad and the relocation of tribal nations to reservations, the Army post began to outlive its usefulness. So in 1890, the Army abandoned Fort Bridger and its lands and buildings were sold at auction.  While some structures were torn down for their building materials, others were repurposed, which enabled them to survive until they could be reincorporated into the state historic site that opened in 1933. 

Visit Fort Bridger's Website

 

 

Fort Phil Kearny


 

Built in the late 1860s in northeastern Wyoming along the Bozeman Trail approximately 15 miles north of present-day Buffalo, Fort Phil Kearny although only in existence for two years, has a lot of history.

Fort Phil Kearny was the largest of the three stockade fortifications along the Bozeman Trail. Its eight-foot high log walls enclosed an area of 17 acres. The fort was under continuous construction and was nearing completion in December 1866, when its garrison was due to be re-designated the 27th Infantry.

At the height of the fort’s activity, the garrison numbered 400 troops and 150 civilians.

Known to the Indians as the “hated post on the Little Piney,” the fort played an important role in Red Cloud’s War. This culminated with the Native American victory during the Fetterman Fight in 1866.

A group of ten warriors, including the later-legendary Crazy Horse, acted to lure a detachment of soldiers into an ambush. All 81 men under the command of Captain William J. Fetterman were killed by the Indians. At the time, it was the worst military disaster ever suffered by the U.S. Army on the Great Plains. The battle is still studied by military students from Fort Leavenworth.

A year later, three forts along the Bozeman Trail --Fort Reno, Fort C.F. Smith and Fort Kearny -- were abandoned as part of the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Shortly after its abandonment, Fort Kearny was burned by Cheyenne Indians.

Visit Fort Phil Kearny's Website

 

 

Fort Fetterman


 

Fort Fetterman was constructed in 1867 by the U.S. Army approximately 11 miles northwest of present-day Douglas, Wyoming, at a major supply point for the army’s operations against occasional hostile Indians and to protect pioneers on the Bozeman Trail. It was named after Capt. William J. Fetterman, who was killed in the infamous battle near Fort Kearny. The fort contained quarters for 300 enlisted men.

Considered a hardship post, Fort Fetterman was located on the south side of the Platte River which excluded it from the provisions of the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Due to its remote location, the winters at Fort Fetterman were long and hard. Supplies had to be brought in by wagon from Fort Laramie to the southeast or from Medicine Bow Station on the railroad. A soldier had to carry water up steep bluffs from the river or nearby creeks and the soil was unsuitable for gardening.

While Fort Fetterman was never attacked, several expeditions initiated out of the fort were involved in several battles. The inconclusive Battle of the Powder River in Montana Territory resulted in the taking of substantial Cheyenne property but not much loss of Native American life.

Other companies were defeated at the Battle of Rosebud, but the Dull Knife Fight essentially ended the Northern Cheyenne’s ability to continue the fight for their freedom on the Great Plains.

The fort was abandoned by the Army in 1882 when the Indian Wars had subsided.

Visit Fort Fetterman's Website

 

 

Fort Fred Steele


 

One of three forts built to protect the Union Pacific Railroad from attacks by Native Americans, Fort Fred Steele was established in 1868 where the railroad crossed the North Platte River near what is now Sinclair, Wyoming. The fort provided both military protection and law enforcement for the region and dealt with labor disputes in Wyoming and as far away as Chicago.

In 1878, a contingent from the fort was dispatched to Colorado in response to the Meeker Massacre. The column was ambushed in the Battle of Milk Creek resulting in the death of the fort’s commander Major Thomas T. Thornburgh and 13 troops. A heroic 140-mile ride led to the reinforcement of Thornburgh's embattled soldiers by a unit of black cavalrymen known as buffalo soldiers.

Even after the fort closed in 1886, Fort Fred Steele remained a hub of activity for southern Wyoming. Fort Steele, the town, was an important shipping point for lumber and railroad ties cut from logs floated down the North Platte.  Fort Steele was also used as a wool shearing and shipping point for sheep operations which took place in the local area.
 
Visit Fort Fred Steele's Website
 

 

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