Ft. Phil Kearny
Exit 44 on I-90 halfway bet Buffalo & Sheridan

Sheridan, WY

June 17, 2002

While staying in Buffalo, Wyoming, we saw a sign indicating a nearby Fort called Fort Phil Kearny. We drove the 16 or so miles towards Sheridan on I-90. Then we saw the sign for the Ft. Kearny exit. The drive was a very pleasant one and the roads leading to the fort were paved. When we got to "the fort" I got a real surprise. The only thing still left from the original fort were the outlines of where the original buildings had been along with signs indicating which had gone where. Along with this, there was a museum building with excellent displays giving the story of Fort Kearny along with the stories of Ft. Reno and Ft. C.F. Smith. Within a year of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, most of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe had been forced to surrender and were placed on reservations. Misguided white men tried to make farmers of the Indians. This sedentary lifestyle was contrary to the Indians' traditional hunting and gathering. To compound the problem the Plains were not conducive to agriculture. The prairie sod produced excellent grass, but without irrigation it could not produce good crops and irrigation was seldom used. CONNOR BATTLE - August 29, 1865. In a dawn attack, General Patrick E. Connor led 330 troops and scouts against Chief Black Bear's Arapahoe village. Camped on Tongue River, the Indians lost 250 lodges and 1,100 horses. By a sudden dashing charge, Connor was victorious over superior numbers, however, he had carried the fighting to women and children. For this, Connor was relieved of his command. However, the tactic was to become a common method of fighting along the Bozeman in the years to come. Over 60 Indians were killed while Connor lost eight men. The Sawyers Expedition Fight - August 31 to September 1865. For thirteen days, Arapahoe Indians fought and harassed Colonel J.A. Sawyer's road building expedition of several wagons and about 100 men, at the Tongue River Crossing on the Bozeman Trail. This fight was undoubtedly in retaliation for Connor's dawn attack two days earlier on an Arapahoe village four miles to the east. Sawyers abandoned the road project and was attempting to return to Fort Connor (later renamed Fort Reno) when a relief party came from General Connor and escorted them on to the Montana gold fields. Fort Phil Kearny was surrounded by an eight foot tall log stockade with portals for firing rifles at attackers and artillery bastions at two of the corners. Most western forts were open, secured only by their garrison, but Carrington believed strong fortifications were important, even at the expense of completing permanent housing before winter. The soldiers cut and hauled 12,000 logs, finally completing the stockade late in the fall of 1866. Garrison Life - was rigidly controlled by the military rank structures with enlisted men and their wives socially separated from the officers and their families. The fort was a small town, with garden, workshop, a sutler's store and jail. For the troops, monotonous drill was broken by the drudgery of endless chores under the officers' watchful eyes. Soldiers wives worked as laundresses or as servants for the officers wives. Fight of December 6th, 1866 - On December 6, four miles west of Ft. Phil Kearny, Indians attacked a wood train as part of their continual harassment. Several Indians were also on Lodge Trail Ridge, Colonel Carrington sent out men on every available horse. He split his command, sending a large force to relieve the wood train and took a small force himself after the Indians on the ridge. As both groups passed north of the ridge, they encountered small parties of Indians waiting to pick off a few soldiers. Without orders, and sometimes in violation of orders, soldiers kept breaking away from the main column to participate in their own little skirmishes or, in some cases, just to hide. After the battles had continued for a while, Carrington blew recall. Finally all soldiers returned or were rescued except for a sergeant and a lieutenant who were killed. The Indians suffered a loss of ten. The helter-skelter movements of the soldiers and officers in this battle showed the lack of training and discipline of the garrison at Ft. Phil Kearny. They also demonstrated a lack of respect for the Indian's ability to organize and carry out a definite battle plan The Battle of 100 Hands - December 21, 1866 - climaxed a classic Indian ruse. On December 21, 1866, Captain Fetterman led 81 infantry and cavalrymen to repel an attack on the wood cutting detail. Taunted by a few mounted warriors, Fetterman allegedly disobeyed orders and chased the Indians over Lodge Trail Ridge - directly into the weapons of 2,000 Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahos. The trap snapped shut on the scattered troops, and forty minutes later, only Indians still lived. In July of 1867, the Ft. Phil Kearny garrison received new weapons. The Second Allin Conversion Model 1866 Rifles were improved Model 1861 Springfields, which had been converted to breech-loaders firing metallic cartridges. A trapdoor system allowed quick loading through the breech, while a metal sleeve inserted in the barrel downsized the bullet to .50 caliber. The improved accuracy and rapid rate of fire of these rifles played a crucial role in the Wagon Box Fight. The military already violating the 1851 treaty with military excursions, and by establishing Ft. Connor on the Powder River, attempted to negotiate peace with angered tribes in 1866 at Ft. Laramie. Before these talks even began, Col. Henry B. Carrington with the 18th infantry regiment, had been ordered to establish three posts along the Bozeman Trail. Carrington's arrival with a column consisting of hundreds of soldiers, women and children, numerous supply wagons and a cattle herd, so angered the tribes that the most militant warriors walked out of the negotiation vowing war if Carrington proceeded on his mission. Carrington continued on re-garrisoning Ft. Connor, and naming it Ft. Reno; establishing Ft. Phil Kearny as district headquarters and building Ft. C.F. Smith on the Big Horn River. His mission was to protect travelers from hostile warriors of the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes It became obvious that the forts were inadequately manned or armed to perform this mission. Some historians theorize, without documentation, that establishing the forts was designed to draw the warriors away from Union Pacific railroad construction further south. The Wagon Box Fight - Aug 1867 - saw the new weapons used in combat. Wood cutting parties, still always under threat of attack, had prudently arranged wagon boxes, without wheels, into a defensive corral. On August 2, 1867, hundreds of warriors attacked. The 32 defenders fired a volley, but when the Indians swept down while the troops reloaded, they were stunned by a second volley on the heels of the first, and then a third. The new Springfields held the field. Generations of mistrust and a lack of understanding between the two peoples caused minor incidents over the years. These came to a head and the Indians were finally overpowered by the slaughter of Dull Knife's Band of Cheyenne at Fort Robinson, Nebraska in 1879, and the quelling of the Sioux unrest at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1890. Due to an inadequate subsistence base, the tribes were reduced to the poverty level. Only recently have the Indians begun to recover economically. This recovery has been precipitated by energy crisis which has increased mineral extraction on tribal lands. Johnson County was established in 1875. The town of Buffalo, located on Clear Creek just downstream from Fort McKinney, was charted in 1884 and became the county seat. Farming and livestock grazing were the early industries. By 1910, the population of the county had reached 3,453. The 1884 Legislature also chartered the town of Sheridan and in 1888, Sheridan County was formed. An excellent farming area, the county also produced fine cattle and horses. The railroad reached Sheridan in 1892 and coal mining began on a large scale. The county had a population of 16,324 in 1910, with Sheridan, the county seat, boasting nearly 10,000. Smaller town throughout the area were also settled as ranching or mining communities. Some of the earliest ones include Kaycee, Big Horn, Slack, Dietz, and Monarch. Archaeology at Fort Kearny - The watercolor of Fort Phil Kearny by Walter Sies depicts the fort in 1867. Immediately following the abandonment of the fort by the military in 1868, the Indians burned the fort. While nothing remains above ground, the portions of the stockade below ground level did not burn. In 1971, Dr. George Frison, WY State Archaeologist, conducted test excavations and discovered parts of the charred original stockade. The log walls, main gate, and the base of the flagpole were buried three feet below. This allowed the archaeologists to identify the exact location of the fort. An earlier excavation done by Gene Galloway in 1961 after a road improvement project produced a collection of ammunition, buttons, nails and eating utensils dating from the military period. Such discoveries enhance our knowledge of the fort - its design and the lifestyle of its inhabitants. The treaty of 1868 ended Red Cloud's War. He refused to talk peace until the three forts were gone. Only armed military convoys dared travel the Bozeman Trail. As the transcontinental railroad neared Utah, it offered a faster, and much safer, route to Montana's gold fields. Orders came to abandon the forts, and by the end of August, 1868, they had been burned. On November 6, Red Cloud rode victorious into Fort Laramie to sign a peace treaty. As we prepared to leave Ft. Kearny I realized that I had seen another part of the puzzle of the past. I sometimes wonder how we survived much of what we went through in the past. However, survive we did, and I feel that we have come out of it stronger and hopefully wiser.

Good Luck! Have Fun! and Stay Safe!