Early Oregon Trail travelers were enchanted by clear, cold water at Willow Spring, halfway between the North Platte and Independence Rock. But after traffic boomed with the 1849 gold rush, they were more often disappointed: Pioneers had cut down trees; livestock had eaten all the grass and muddied the water.
The amazing sight of Ayres Natural Bridge, a natural limestone arch across La Prele Creek near Douglas, Wyo., inspired numerous Oregon Trail emigrants to comment in their diaries. California-bound Cephas Arms on July 4, 1849, described it as “one of the wildest scenes I ever beheld.”
About 70 miles northwest of Fort Laramie, the Oregon Trail crossed La Prele Creek, flowing north from the Laramie Range toward the North Platte River a few miles away. On a high bluff above the creek mouth the U.S. Army in 1867 would build Fort Fetterman, which became an important supply base in the wars with the Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux in the following decade.
Near Fort Phil Kearny in December 1866 in what’s now northern Wyoming, Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors ambushed and killed Capt. William Fetterman and his entire command of 80 men. Fetterman’s arrogance has long been blamed for the disaster, but new evidence shows a more complex and nuanced story.
In the year of Custer’s defeat, Gen. George Crook led three expeditions into the Powder River country to subdue free-roaming Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne bands. The tribes defeated his troops twice and prevented them from linking up with Custer. On the third expedition, Crook’s soldiers destroyed Dull Knife’s village of Northern Cheyenne.