This Date in Native History: On December 21, 1866, the U.S.
Army suffered its second largest defeat during the Indian Wars,
second only to the battle with George Armstrong Custer at Little
Bighorn. All 81 cavalrymen and infantrymen died in an intense fight
that lasted just 40 minutes.
The history leading up to this fight started three years earlier,
in the spring of 1863. The Bozeman Trail was constructed, leading
north from Fort Laramie on the old Oregon Trail into the gold fields
of Montana. This brought the trail and its hoard of immigrants right
through what had once been the homeland of the Crow, later the Shoshone,
and then the Teton Sioux. This is the Powder River country of what
is now Wyoming. It was open land but good land as game was abundant
and fruits and berries grew along the waterways.
chiefs were determined to close the Bozeman Trail. Indian attacks
became more common and travel was risky. Then U.S. soldiers were
brought in to guard the trail. Perhaps what really ended negotiations
was the plan to build Fort Kearny with orders to guard the Bozeman
Two Sioux Indian leaders, highly regarded and remembered today,
vowed to fight any white man using the Bozeman TrailRed Cloud
and Crazy Horse. The first raid on the fort occurred on July 16
resulting in two deaths. Attacks on wagon trains happened frequently,
but work continued on the fort. Two more of the military died on
December 6 and gave the Sioux the belief they could overpower any
assignment from the fort.
Indian warriors were becoming increasingly confident in part
due to a medicine man who had four visions of increasing numbers
of dead soldiers. The fourth vision showed that 100 soldiers would
December 21, 1866: A wagon train was sent out from the fort
to return with wood. Less than an hour later they were attacked
by a decoy party of Indians. The regimental commander, Colonel Carrington,
had warned his troops not to be fooled by a trap, something he had
seen employed by the Indians before. The relief force to help the
wood train was led by Captain Fetterman who had little respect for
the Indians and had commented earlier that a company of regular
soldiers could whip a thousand Indians, a big mistake as he was
about to find out.
wanted a fight, and the Indians were ready. There might have been
as many as 2,000, mostly Sioux with some Cheyennes and Arapahos,
waiting out of sight on the backside of Lodge Trail Ridge. Red Cloud
is thought to have been in that huge group of warriors. A second
decoy party approached the fort and drew artillery fire. Crazy Horse
was part of that party. The man responsible for the plan was High-Back-Bone,
a Minneconjou Sioux.
The initial decoy party retreated up Lodge Trail Ridge where
decoys were standing, yelling and gesturing at the soldiers. When
the soldiers reached the top of the ridge they likely only saw a
few Indians near Peno Creek in the valley below. It was now about
noon. As the troops approached the valley, the huge force of Indians
stood in the high grass and firing commenced. Most of the Indians
were shooting arrows, but that was more than enough. Just 40 minutes
later all the military troops were dead, including Fetterman who
had once said that a regiment could whip the whole array of hostile
As many as 40,000 arrows were released in that 40-minute spanit
was an overwhelming victory, second only to Little Bighorn, but
60 Indian warriors also died.
Attacks along the Bozeman Trail continued and only heavily armed
military trains were able to pass along the trail. In 1868 the three
forts guarding the Bozeman Trail, including Fort Kearny, were abandoned
and Indians burned them to the ground. On November 6 of that year
Red Cloud signed a peace treaty, thus ending the Bozeman Trail War,
part of which was the Fetterman Massacre but called by the Sioux
as the Battle of the Hundred Slain.