The Bloody Bozeman: #ThisWeekInWYHistory

Usually there’s a reason for taking the long way around.

In the 1860s, the safest way to reach the gold mines of Montana was to avoid the Powder River Basin, usually by breaking from the Oregon Trail in Idaho or by cutting across the Missouri River, according to wyohistory.org. For all others, there was the Bozeman Trail.

At 500 miles in length, the “Bloody Bozeman” broke off from the Oregon Trail at current-day Casper and ran through the heart of Indian country, shaving weeks off of travel time.

According to wyohistory.org, the trail gained its name from John Bozeman, a Georgia native who came west during the Pikes Peak gold rush. After an unsuccessful prospecting career, Bozeman decided to be a guide. He teamed up with mountain man, John Jacobs, and eventually concluded that the most promising shortcut to Montana was along an ancient corridor that ran against the eastern edge of the Bighorns. The path was well known among Native Americans, trappers, and others who lived near the mountains. By 1863, the pair was ready for business.

Unfortunately for settlers, the Powder River Basin had been promised to Native Americans in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. As Bozeman was leading his first wagon train along the trail, a group of Sioux and Cheyenne riders halted the party 150 miles into the journey a few miles north of Buffalo. The Native Americans told Bozeman to turn back.

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Heeding their warning, Bozeman turned back, and a majority of the party returned to safer routes. As soon as the party split, however, Bozeman and nine others decided to test their luck. They followed the new trail to the journey’s terminus at Virginia City, sleeping during the day and riding at night.

In 1864, the trail became more popular. Four parties made their way through the Powder River Basin that year, bringing upwards of 1,500 people to Montana. Tension with indigenous groups was often present, however, and one of the wagon trains was involved in a small skirmish. Trapper and Guide Jim Bridger realized the flaws of the Bozeman Trail and developed an alternative route along the western edge of the Bighorns, taking only a bit longer than its eastern counterpart. Despite this new route, many people still opted to take the Bozeman Trail.

According to legendsofamerica.com, the U.S. Government constructed three forts along the trail to protect settlers: Reno, Kearny, and C.F. Smith. The forts only exacerbated the bad blood between the Indians and shortcut-seeking intruders.

A series of battles, collectively known as Red Cloud’s War, kept U.S. soldiers and settlers on their toes between 1866 and 1868. The troops experienced at least one major defeat and several close calls. The Fetterman massacre left around 80 U.S. soldiers dead, and the Wagon Box Fight forced a small group of soldiers to fend off a much larger Sioux army. The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie reiterated the 1851 concession of the Powder River Basin to native tribes, prompting the soldiers to leave and, according to nativepartnership.org, prompted the Indians to burn the remaining forts.

According to Journeys to the Land of Gold: Emigrant Diaries From the Bozeman Trail, 1863-1866, the Bozeman Trail only guided around 3500 settlers to Montana during its peak, and the new treaty discouraged many from using the trail after 1868. But, there’s little doubt that a handful of people continued to take the Bozeman anyway.