The Bozeman Trail in Dee Brown's

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

When Frederick Jackson Turner gave his speech "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" at the Chicago World Fair in 1893, he defined the west as a concept of progress and transformation. The image he used in his speech was the transformation of the old buffalo paths into roads and railroads:

The buffalo trail became the Indian trail, and this became the trader's "trace;" the trails widened into roads, and the roads into turnpikes, and these in turn were transformed into railroads (Turner 11).

Turner's theory, then hardly acknowledged, became an influential one in  dealing with the west. Subsequently it transformed history teaching in schools and universities. His followers, the Turnerians, adapted the theory so that it could meet the needs of the 20th century. Yet, it still was a theory of progress and a celebration of the "making of America".

It rook nearly 100 years, until new voices were heard, who rejected Turner's frontier theory. The New Western Historians, among them Patricia Nelson Limerick, see the west as a specific place, a specific region in the USA, namely "the trans-Mississippi region in the broadest terms, or the region west of the 100th meridian" (Limerick 85).

They reject the term frontier as it is nationalistic and racist, their fields of studies being invasion, conquest, colonization, exploitation, development, expansion of the world market. They do not only deal with the conquest of white males but with: "women as well as men, Indians, Europeans, Latin Americans, Asians, Afro-Americans and their encounters of each other and with the natural environment (86)."

Consequently, they favor a subjective view-point in history writing, as objectivity cannot meet the needs of such diversities. Apart from these scholarly disagreements on how to define the west or how to write about history, Dee Brown's native American history of the West Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee (1971) fits the concept of the new western historians. The history is subjective as it shows the winning of the west from a native American view-point and it also has a novel like character. Dee Brown, although from Euro-American descent, was the first who wrote of the history of the west from a native American perspective. Yet, what Turner, Dee Brown and the New Western Historians have in common is the importance they lay on the roads in winning the west.

Roads disrupted the buffalo paths, struck through native American homelands, brought settlers into the the west and, of course they brought the military — or the military brought the roads. The military had a crucial part in the settlement of the west. The roads were federally built, often constructed by the military. Military posts were established, treaties with native Americans were made. As early as 1850, the military had become a service industry for emigrants. The forts became "shopping centers," the soldiers helped in nourishing the hungry, in providing them with weapons, road maps and medical treatment, in answering questions, in leading lost treks back on the trail and in accompanying treks through dangerous passages.

Native Americans were no dangers to the big trails, such as the Oregon and Californian trail. Statistics show that during the years of 1840 to 1860, out of 296,259 emigrants 362 were killed on the overland trails by native Americans whereas 426 native Americans were killed by emigrants on the overland trails (Milner 129).

Yet, the Bozeman trail was not a big overland trail. It only existed for four years, from 1864 to 1868, although it continued to play an important role in the succeeding Indian Wars. In those four years only 3,500 emigrants used the trail. In 1846, one trek to Oregon alone consisted of 2,700 emigrants.

The Bozeman trail was nothing but a short-cut, leaving the main route at Fort Laramie and roughly following "what is today Interstate 25 along the eastern flank of the Big Horn Mountains before finally turning west to the gold camps (EAIW 25)" of Virginia City. This was not the only route to Virginia City. Before, traveling was done via the river, a much longer journey that could not be made in winter, when the river was full of ice.  

Bozeman trailreference map


John Bozeman explored the land route in 1863. The advantage was that the route was shorter and theoretically it could  be traveled during winter, provided the emigrants were well equipped for the low minus temperatures. The big disadvantage was that it struck right through the hunting grounds of the Lakota treaty land and the native Americans took the intrusion for what it was — a violation of the treaty of 1851 — and they were not willing to give up their last remaining hunting ground. Even Bozeman was not able to explore the whole route; he was stopped by a Northern Cheyenne war party.

By taking on the native American point of view, Dee Brown does not write about the emigrants' or soldiers' hardships on the trail, but of the trail's meaning to the tribes of the Lakotas and the Northern Cheyennes and Arapahos. Dee Brown dedicates two chapters to the happenings along the Bozeman trail, "Powder River Invasion" and "Red Cloud's War."

"Powder River Invasion" starts with the year of 1865, when "the tribes of the Powder River country were scattered from the Bighorns on the west to the Black Hills on the east (Brown 104)" and four columns of soldiers invaded the Lakota treaty land.

The Powder River country( map) was crowded that year as the Lakotas had taken in some of their relatives, the Dakotas, after they were expelled from their homeland in Minnesota (»The Great Sioux Uprise«) and the Northern Cheyennes and Arapahos had taken in some of their relatives, the Southern Cheyennes and Arapahos, after they were expelled from their homeland in Colorado (»The Sand Creek Massacre«). They were so numerous, that they felt totally safe in their country and many of them did not believe the rumors that soldiers were invading their territory.
One column of the soldiers escorted a trek led by James A. Saywers. Dee Brown refers to the trek as "gold seekers" at one place and a "road building party" at another. According to the Encyclopedia of American Indian Wars, Saywers trek consisted of

some 50 men (civilians) who were guarded by a 140-man army escort ... Saywers's train was euphemistically dubbed a road-building expedition when in fact its real purpose was to promote a route between Iowa and Bozeman, Montana (EAIW 52).

Saywers was able to use the trail, but not without being harrassed constantly by several bands of Lakotas, Cheyennes and Arapahos. The other three columns were under the head of General Patrick E. Connor, a former civil-war hero, who had made himself a name by launching a winter campaign against the Paiutes "early in 1863 that resulted in a decisive victory at Bear River near Preston, Idaho (EAIW 51)." In Dee Brown's words he "had surrounded a camp of Paiutes on Bear River and butchered 278 of them" (104).

Connor led a punishment expedition against the Sioux and Cheyennes, after "they had grown increasingly hostile" (EAIW 51). This hostility the EAIW is referring to, was the Platte Bridge Fight, a native American punishment campaign after the Sand Creek Massacre. Connor's' command was to "attack and kill every male Indian over 12 years of age" (official record quoted in Brown 105).

During the expedition the trail was closed to emigrants' travel, instead Connor led his column of soldiers along the trail. The other two columns moved in from different directions. The three columns should unite at the Rosebud Creek around September 1 — "in the heartland of the hostile Indian territory" (105). Along the trail, Connor built Fort Connor, which was soon renamed into Fort Reno. Then he started out for his punishing task. He took 250 men and eighty Pawnee scouts on a forced march up the Tongue river, where he found Black Bear's peaceful Arapaho village. They attacked the surprised village from two sides. The EAIW refers to the event as a "victory of sorts" (51) and "a brisk affair" (52), when the surprised Arapahos managed to counterattack. Yet, they could not win against the howitzers, and so they had to watch from the hills, while

the soldiers tore down all the lodges in the village and heaped poles, teepee covers, buffalo robes, blankets, furs, and thirty tons of pemmican into great mounds and set fire to them. Everything the Arapahos owned - shelter, clothing, and their winter supply of food — went up in smoke (112).

Of course, the village was not only inhabited by male Indians over twelve years of age. Also women and children fell victims to the soldiers. Dee Brown quotes an officer:

I was in the village in the midst of a hand-to-hand fight with warriors and their squaws, for many of the female portion of this band did as brave fighting as their savage lords. Unfortunately for the women and children, our men had no time to direct their aim ... squaws and children, as well as warriors, fell among the dead and wounded (Brown 111-112; emphasis mine).

In the meantime the other two columns had met at the Rosebud, but there was no sign of Connor. They were watched by a thousands of native Americans who held their ceremonies in the Black Hills. According to Dee Brown, the natives hated the soldiers for desegregating the Black Hills, which was the center of the world for them, but they did not form any war parties. They tracked them, however, and consequently encountered them. Had it been for the Lakotas, it would have been a peaceful encounter. A handful of young Hunkpapa braves rode down to demand peace offerings. After all, the soldiers were in their territory without permission. A peace offering in form of tobacco or coffee was the regular dealing in a situation as that.

The braves rode in under a truce flag, but the soldiers did not disobey their command. As soon as the warriors were in shooting range, the soldiers fired. It ended in a fight, but although the natives already numbered about 400 warriors they could not match the soldiers with their rifles. Yet they followed them and made short attacks on them. The idea was to "drive them so crazy with fear, [so that] they would never return to the Black Hills again" (116).

Dee Brown describes the morality of the troops being low. They had to cut their food rations, and had already to slaughter some mules. And there was also a second enemy — the climate. With September the weather changed. Sleet storms were not an irregularity at that time of the year. When a big sleet storm came, the natives soon found shelter, but the soldiers took it fully. Horses and mules froze dead, and the soldiers were in rags and on foot, when they finally were rescued by Connor's column. Together they managed it back to Fort Connor.

In the meantime the Indian policy in Washington had changed. During that campaign each dead Indian had cost the government more than a million dollars, not to mention the dead soldiers, dead settlers and the destroyed property (cf. 123). The government tried  its treaty policy again, but although the treaty commission came back to Washington with a new treaty, it was worthless as no war chief had signed it. Connor was ordered back, leaving Saywers' escort in command of the Fort, closely monitored by a handful of native Americans. More were not needed to blockade the Bozeman trail and to cut off the soldiers' supplies that came from Ft. Laramie. When the winter was over half of the soldiers were "dead or dying of scurvy, malnutrition, and pneumonia" (118).

Connor's Powder River campaign did not punish the Lakotas, but it gave them confidence. They were positive to fight the white man again, if he again would dare to come into their country.

The second chapter, "Red Cloud's War," deals with the following years until the abandonment of the Bozeman trail in 1868.

In 1866 the government finally succeeded in negotiating a treaty with the war chiefs at Ft. Laramie.  In June — the negotiations were still in progress — not over, Col. Henry B. Carrington, who had the order to build two new forts along the Bozeman trail, stopped with his troops at the fort. When Red Cloud heard of Carrington's orders, he was outraged. In a council meeting he brought the dilemma to a point:

... we are forced to live in a small country north of the platte, and now our last hunting ground, the home of the People, is to be taken from us. ... for my part I prefer to die fighting rather than by starvation. ... Great Father send us presents and wants new road. But White chief goes with soldiers to steal road before Indian says yes or no! (130)

The next morning, Red Cloud and his followers had left the fort. Although the treaty delegation failed, Carrington and his people went on. Dee Brown describes the trek:

The two hundred wagons were loaded to the bows with mowing machines, shingle and brick machines, wooden doors, window sashes, locks, nails, musical instruments for a twenty-five-piece band, rocking chairs, churns, canned goods and vegetable seeds, as well as the usual ammunition, gunpowder, and other military supplies. (130)

The forts were meant to be constant homes for the soldiers. Many of them had brought their wives and servants into the "Unorganized Indian territory." Carrington was not an Indian fighter.  His orders were to build two new forts and he did obey his orders. He built Fort Phil Kearny as his head post and Fort C.F. Smith along the trail. Further he tried hard to keep his people away from the native Americans.

Yet, Red Cloud had started a guerilla warfare. They did not attack the three forts, but they blocked the road, no wagon train was safe of an ambush or an attack. They rightly recognized that their enemy was the road. By blocking the road, they blocked the intruders.

The highlight of the guerilla warfare was the Fetterman fight (December 21, 1866), then called Fetterman massacre, in which a whole battalion consisting of 73 soldiers under the command of Captain William J. Fetterman were lured into an ambush and killed. There were no survivors. The bodies of the dead were mutilated exactly the same way as the bodies of the inhabitants of Black Kettle's Cheyenne village were mutilated by the 3rd Colorado volunteers regiment.

Losses on the native American sides were heavy. Nearly 200 warriors were either dead or wounded. The Fetterman fight was a turning point in the history of the trail. The trail was again closed to emigrants' travels and became a military road until it was abandoned in 1868.
Carrington was released  from his command immediately, and the soldiers were provided with modern Springfield rifles. The bands were not able to win a decisive victory afterwards, but they did not give up.

Red Cloud was again invited to Ft. Laramie, but he would not go before his country was cleared of soldiers. In April 1868 the last soldier left the Powder River country and the Bozeman trail was officially closed. The tribes set the forts afire and Red Cloud signed the second treaty of Fort Laramie.

This was the only time that a native American tribe had won a war against the U.S. army, but the victory was only a small one. Although the treaty of Fort Laramie set the borders of the Lakota territory in the Powder River country, article 11 contains the following:

... the said Indians further expressly agree:
1st. That they will withdraw all opposition to the construction of the railroads now being built on the plains.
2d. That they will permit the peaceful construction of any railroad not passing over their reservation as herein defined....  (Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 )

The railroad was on its way and did more damage to the Plains culture than any trail could have done. Native Americans were no threat to it. Even buffalo hunting was so much easier when hunting them in the safety of a train compartment. Hunting trips via railroads were organized and the buffaloes, already diminished, were nearly wiped out and with them the 19th century Plains Indian culture that was dependent on the buffalo.


  Boundaries after the treaty of 1868

Lakota territory according to the treaty of Ft. Laramie.
The state is South Dakota. The dark dots are Indian agencies. The area outside of
the state boundaries mark the hunting grounds of the Lakotas. They agreed to live
on the reservation in winter but did not give up the hunting rights outside their
Dee Brown shows the history of the Bozeman trail from a different angle, and the story changes considerably. Native Americans (apart from the Pawnees) are drawn in a sympathetic light, their humanity is shown; the blood-thirsty savages in this book cannot be found among the Lakotas or Cheyennes but among the Euro-Americans such as Chivington or Connor. Brown's history also shows the aggressive pace of the U.S. in claiming the land.

There is, however, one question remaining, which is not answered by Dee Brown. The "why?" Why build an emigrant trail that is closed to emigrants' travel three quarters of its existence?

According to the EAIW there were two advantages, one that it was shorter than the land route, and second that it could be traveled year round — also in winter time.

As for advantage I,  Jim Bridger  explored a trail that also had Virginia City for its destination. I have to admit that I have not found much about the Bridger trail, but that it was outside of the hunting grounds and that it was shorter than the Bozeman trail. There was even a competition going on between Bridger and Bozeman. Bridger won by a couple of weeks. Yet the Bridger trail lacked the game along its route the Bozeman trail evidently had, and so it was the Bozeman trail that was federally funded, although it violated the treaty of 1851. 

As for advantage II, one can only speculate of how many of the 3500 emigrants passed the Bozeman trail during the winter. Wyoming winters are rough and cold. Already in September Connor's expedition failed partially due to weather conditions. When Carrington was released from his command after the Fetterman fiasco, he had to report at Ft. Caspar. The temperatures were 13 below (Fahrenheit not Celsius). Carrington's men were frost-bitten, "requiring two amputations when they finally arrived at Fort Reno" (Ft. Phil Kearny Ass.). If one takes into account that soldiers normally are better equipped than emigrants, one wonders how many emigrants who dared to take the risk using the trail in winter died because of the cold.

These two advantages seem to be fake advantages, a propaganda for an emigrant trail that was the most despised of all the trails in the U.S. history.

There is, however, one statement among my sources available, which explains the "why."  A webpage of the Ft. Phil Kearny association gives an answer to the "why" under the subtitle "Why? Why were we there?"

Because of the Civil War, the country's treasury was depleted, and the discovery of gold in Montana was of importance to the country. As the gold seekers streamed in they were threatened by Indians along the way, and asked the government to protect them. The government responded by ordering the building of the forts along the Bozeman Trail, thus giving the emigrants some measure of support and at the same time diverting the Indians from the building of the transcontinental railroad further south.

This explanation seems plausible, yet, when did the gold seekers stream in? In 1865, when the only civilian trek was the Saywers trek, which in fact was a federally funded road building party? The road was closed for other civilians while Connor was on his punishment campaign. Maybe they streamed in during the time the U.S. government negotiated a treaty with the Lakotas, Cheyennes and Arapahos. Yet, Carrington arrived at Ft. Laramie already in June,  He had departed from Ft. Kearney in Nebraska, already having his orders then. The only possibility is that the gold seekers streamed in during the winter time, which again is highly unlikely, but one cannot know what the call of gold can do to human beings.

What the Bozeman trail certainly did was to distract the natives from the railroad. And this was certainly a nice side-effect of the whole affair. Another coincidence concerning the railroad is that the Bozeman trail was abondoned in the same year the transcontinental railroad was finished. The railroad made the trail obsolete; the USA did not lose much by closing it.

Apparently, the only advantage the trail had was what what is described here as its big disadvantage. It struck through the last remaining hunting grounds of the Lakotas; it struck through unorganized Indian territory. With the trail, the U.S.A had the chance to organize the territory; and of course, they took it. 

Karina Kaintz



Brown, Dee,   Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. An Indian History of the American West (London  1971).
Cronon, William   "Annihilating Space: Meat", in Smith, Merrit Roe, ed., and Clancey, Gregory, ed., Major Problems in the History of American Technology (Boston 1998).
Fleming, Paula R. and Luskey, Judith, The North American Indians in Early Photographs (New York 1988).
Hassrick, Royal B.,  Das Buch der Sioux (Augsburg 1992).
Keenan, Jerry,   Encyclopedia of American Indian Wars 1492 - 1890 (Santa Barbara 1997).
Limerick, Patricia N., ed., et al., Trails. Toward a New Western History (Lawrence 1991).
Taylor, George R., ed.,  The Turner Thesis. Concerning the Role of the Frontier in American History (Lexington 1972).
Milner II, Clyde A., ed., et al., Major Problems in the History of the American West (Boston 1997).


Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee
(Comment by Brigitte Pitzl)

The American Indian and the Problem of History
(Comment by Brigitte Pitzl)


Useful Links

 BACKTRACK WEST - Bozeman Trail
 Bozeman Trail
 Fort Phil Kearny / Bozeman Trail Association 
and Foundation

The Overland Trail - Links to Western Trails

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