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Where Settlers and Sioux Collided

A Bozeman Restrospective

By Meredith Hindley | HUMANITIES, July/August 1999 | Volume 20, Number 4

In 1861 a Georgia adventurer named John Bozeman headed for the newly opened Montana goldfields, finding a shorter route northwest of the well-worn Overland Trail in the process. The trail was to become known as the “bloody Bozeman” as miners, settlers, and the U.S. Army clashed with the Sioux, Crow, Apaches, and Blackfeet, who saw the influx as an invasion of their territory. Seven years later, a treaty between the U.S. Government and the Sioux Nation shut down the Bozeman Trail, but the conflicts over it signaled the beginning of the end of a way of life for the Plains Indians.

A conference this July will look at the trail, not just as a battleground between the U.S. Army and Indians, but also as a conduit for miners and settlers. “The Bozeman Trail has been written about in terms of military affairs, but we want to emphasize that it was a civilian trail also,” says Charles Rankin, director of publications for the Montana Historical Society and one of the conference organizers. More than 3,500 civilians used the Bozeman Trail from 1864–1866 to find a new life in Montana. Leaving behind the Oregon Trail at Fort Laramie, emigrants headed northwest across present-day Wyoming, skirting and then finally crossing the Big Horn Mountains in Montana. Meeting up with the Yellowstone River, they followed it west to the goldfields around Helena, Bannack, and Virgina City.

“While there has been increasing interest in the Bozeman Trail, it hasn’t received as much attention as the Overland or Mormon trails,” says Rankin. The organizers of the Bozeman Trail Heritage Conference, which takes place July 28-31 in Bozeman, Montana, are hoping to expand the public’s knowledge about the trail and highlight its social and cultural contributions to the region. The conference is hosted by the Montana Historical Society and Montana Department of Transportation and co- sponsored by the Montana Committee for the Humanities and the Wyoming Council of the Humanities.

Bozeman appears to have been oblivious to the fact that his trail cut through lands ceded to the Sioux, but it was a lesson he was to learn first hand. On his first attempt to find a northwest route, a Sioux party attacked Bozeman and his partner. In the spring of 1863, Bozeman led the first group of settlers over the trail. Again the Indians attacked (near present day Buffalo, Wyoming) and all but Bozeman turned back. Traveling by night across Indian lands, Bozeman eventually made his way to Virginia City. In 1864, traffic on the trail increased, and by the end of the year, more than 1,000 emigrants had made the arduous journey. The town of Bozeman became a jump-off point for miners looking to try their luck in the areas around Helena and Virginia City.

Emigrant travel mingled with military occupation in 1866, the last year civilians used the trail. The wave of settlers and the end of the Civil War led to an expansion of the U.S. Army’s presence in the West. Recognizing the usefulness of the Bozeman Trail, the Army hoped to fortify the section leading from Fort Laramie up the Powder River into Montana. The Sioux believed that the growing number of settlers and the Army’s spreading fort system threatened their prime hunting grounds. Red Cloud, an Oglala chief, led thousands of Sioux in a two-year harassment campaign designed to halt construction on the road. In a twist that demonstrates the complexity of the region’s politics, the Crow Indians, while initially neutral, eventually joined forces with the Army against their long-time enemies the Sioux.

The conflict between the Sioux and the Army climaxed on December 21, 1866, when a band of Indians trapped and killed more than eighty soldiers near Fort Phil Kearny. After the massacre, the trail was shut down to emigrant travel and was used solely as a road between military posts. Bozeman ironically demonstrated the danger of continuing to use the trail in the spring of 1867, when he was killed after a skirmish with Blackfeet warriors at the Yellowstone River. In the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, the U.S. government agreed to abandon the Bozeman Trail and the Sioux were given exclusive possession of the area in South Dakota west of the Missouri River. It was to be a short-lived victory. The treaty would later be disregarded by the thousands of miners who swarmed into the Black Hills searching for gold in the 1870s.

While the trail was only a five-year phenomenon, its use fundamentally shaped the history of Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota. Approximately three hundred and fifty people are expected to take a closer took at these tumultuous years at the Bozeman Trail Heritage Conference. Scheduled events include demonstrations, workshops, and lectures from scholars of the West, such as Elliott West, Richard White, Michael Malone, James Ronda, Joyce Szabo, Dan Flores, Robert Utley, and Susan Badger Doyle. Conference participants will also have a chance to explore Virginia City, an old mining town and the trail’s terminus, and walk the same ground crossed by prospectors in search of gold.

For more information, contact the Montana Historical Society at 406-444-3761.