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The Powder River Basin: A Natural History

The Powder River Basin sports a colorful history. Bones of bison slaughtered by people, found south of Sundance, Wyo., date back 6,000 years, and northeast Wyoming remained a favorite hunting ground for American Indians into the late 19th century. At that time the Powder River Basin was the scene of violent conflicts between the Indians and U.S. military men. Abundant grass made this region a favored spot for cattle and sheep ranchers. Under the grass is coal—so much of it that about 40 percent of the coal mined in the U.S., comes from the Powder River Basin.

Fort Bridger

Established by mountain men Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez in 1843, Fort Bridger was an important rest and re-supply spot for emigrants bound to Utah, California and Oregon. Mormons acquired the site in the mid-1850s, and burned it in 1857 as the U.S. Army approached during the bloodless Utah War. The following year the Army took over, and garrisoned the fort until 1890. Today it is a state historic site.

Fort Caspar

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.

Connor Battlefield

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.

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Encyclopedia | The Casper Army Air Base was built quickly in 1942 to train bomber crews for World War II combat. The facility trained more than 16,000 men before the end of the war. Its population grew to a third of the size of Casper’s, bringing prosperity and a lively social life to the town. The base closed in 1945, when the war ended.
Encyclopedia | On Aug. 29, 1865, troops under Brig. Gen. Patrick E. Connor attacked an Arapaho village near present Ranchester, Wyo. Connor’s detachment was part of a large expedition ordered to subjugate the warring Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho in the Powder River Basin. Overall success was mixed. Connor was relieved of his command.
Encyclopedia | University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who was openly gay, was brutally beaten in October 1998 by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Shepard died several days later. The incident received international media coverage and continues to spark controversy about hate crimes. Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis, established a foundation in Matthew’s name, which continues its pro-LGBT educational work today.
Encyclopedia | From 1942 through most of 1945, about 10,000 Japanese-Americans from the West Coast of United States lived behind barbed wire in tarpaper barracks at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center between Cody and Powell, Wyo. in Park County—one of ten such camps around the nation during World War II. The center was briefly Wyoming’s third-largest town. When hundreds of young men in the camp were drafted into the U.S. military, 63 resisted, feeling they had been denied their constitutional rights. They and seven more leaders of the group were sentenced to federal prison. In the 1980s, Congress passed a law granting an apology and $20,000 to every survivor of the camps.
Encyclopedia | 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.
Encyclopedia | On Aug. 2, 1867, a large force of Oglala Sioux attacked woodcutters near Fort Phil Kearny. Soldiers assigned to protect the woodcutters took cover behind a ring of wagon boxes. After the intense battle, both sides claimed victory, and estimates of the dead and wounded varied widely.
Encyclopedia | Although the Teapot Dome Scandal of the 1920s was named for a Wyoming rock formation resembling a teapot, the wrongdoers were not from the state. During the administration of President Warren G. Harding, oilmen Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny bribed Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall to gain access to the naval petroleum reserves located at Teapot Dome in the Salt Creek field north of Casper in northern Natrona County. Fall was the first Cabinet official to be imprisoned for crimes committed during his time in office. Sinclair also served a jail sentence.
Encyclopedia | The Powder River Basin sports a colorful history. Bones of bison slaughtered by people, found south of Sundance, Wyo., date back 6,000 years, and northeast Wyoming remained a favorite hunting ground for American Indians into the late 19th century. At that time the Powder River Basin was the scene of violent conflicts between the Indians and U.S. military men. Abundant grass made this region a favored spot for cattle and sheep ranchers. Under the grass is coal—so much of it that about 40 percent of the coal mined in the U.S., comes from the Powder River Basin.

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