In 1854, a year of heavy traffic on the Oregon Trail, Fort Laramie was woefully undermanned, tribes were hungry and tensions were growing. That August, in a dispute over a strayed cow, a reckless young West Pointer ignited a war with the Lakota Sioux that would last a generation.
Two military posts were built a few miles apart during the Indian Wars near the strategic Bozeman Trail crossing of Powder River—Fort Reno in the 1860s and Cantonment Reno in the 1870s. The first was one of three forts whose existence provoked the tribes into war. The second was an important Army base for later campaigns.
In March 1866, when whites and Indians together at Fort Laramie mourned the death of Mni Akuwin, daughter of Spotted Tail, chief of the Brulé Lakota, a colonel at the post hoped it was a sign of peace between the peoples. Peace hopes were shattered later that spring however, by the arrival of hundreds of troops to build forts on the Bozeman Trail, and two more years of bitter warfare followed. Finally in 1868, the tribes of the northern plains gathered at the fort and signed a treaty, ending the war—for a while.
Two battles on July 26, 1865 near Platte Bridge Station near present-day Casper, Wyo., are best understood in the context of tribal response to the Sand Creek Massacre the previous November. Twenty-eight U.S. troops were killed that day including Lt. Caspar Collins, for whom Fort Caspar and the town of Casper were later named.
When the U.S. Army in 1866 sent troops to build a string of forts along the Bozeman Trail north from the North Platte River to the Montana gold fields, Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in that country reacted angrily. For two years, the tribes harassed and attacked the soldiers and travelers on the trail. After the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, the Army withdrew, the Indians burnt the forts and for a few years, until hostilities started up again in the mid-1870s, the tribes the country largely to themselves.
Fort Laramie began as a fur-trade post in 1834 near the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte rivers. Soon it changed into a post for the trade in buffalo robes, and for supplying emigrants bound west on the Oregon/California/Mormon Trail. In 1849 the post was purchased by the U.S. Army, and became an important supply, logistics and communications center for the Indian Wars campaigns of the next four decades. In recent decades the post has been carefully restored, and today is a National Historic Site.
Fort Fetterman was established by the U.S. Army on the North Platte River near present Douglas, Wyo. in 1867. It served as a staging point for Gen. George Crook’s three campaigns against Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux Indians in 1876, near the end of the Indian Wars. The Army abandoned the post in 1882, and the settlement finally closed down a few years later when the railroad arrived at Douglas, seven miles to the south.
The U.S. Army established Platte Bridge Station in 1862 to protect the Oregon/California/Mormon Trail crossing of the North Platte River and the new transcontinental telegraph. After Lt. Caspar Collins was killed there by Cheyenne and Lakota Indians in 1865, the post was renamed Fort Casper, misspelling his first name. The fort was abandoned two years later, but reconstructed in 1936—and renamed Fort Caspar—with funds from the Works Progress Administration. Fort grounds and a museum are open to the public.
The Connor Battlefield is a park on Tongue River in Ranchester, Wyo., marking the spot where Brig. Gen. Patrick Connor and about 475 U.S. troops and Pawnee scouts in August 1865 attacked a village of 500 Arapaho under the leadership of Black Bear and Old David. The Arapaho suffered 33 killed, and the troops burned their lodges and drove off most of the horse herd. Today the park offers picnic grounds, a campground and a monument to the event.