Monday, August 7, 2017

August 2, 1867 The Wagon Box Fight on the Bozeman Trail

Soldier Encampent on the Fort Phil Kearney fort site, August 5, 2017

Today we went with our youngest son, daughter in law, and grandkids to the 150th anniversary re-enactment of the Wagon Box Fight.  We had a really fun time, cool day in Wyoming, mid 70's with a breeze.  It was actually jacket weather!

In 1864, gold was discovered in Montana.  The trail to the gold fields became known as the Bozeman Trail aka The Bloody Bozeman.  Leaving the Oregon Trail west of present day Douglas, Wyoming, it went through prime Indian territory, full of water and game and the Indians were instantly hot about the intrusion of the white men.  Red Cloud organized numerous attacks against the outposts, especially Fort Phil Kearney near present day Story, WY. 

Established in 1866, Fort Phil Kearney was closed in 1868 when the Union Pacific reached far enough into the west that the Montana Gold Fields could be reached through Idaho making the dangerous Bozeman Trail obsolete.  The Indians burned the fort to the ground as soon as the soldiers left and when Hubby and I were in middle school you could still see burned posts on the site.  It was practically all that was there.  Now there is an interpretive center, museum, and some reconstruction on the site.

Soldiers encampment

The Fort Cemetery (square in the distance) as seen from the fort grounds.

Several teepees were part of the encampment.  The lady here was selling period consumer goods.
Indian saddles in front of the teepees.

In the case of the Bozeman Trail, there was an alternative, the Bridger Trail which was mapped out by mountain man Jim Bridger.  Rather than running through Crow, Cheyenne, and Sioux Territory, it ran through the Big Horn Basin in Shoshone and Araphao territory who were much friendlier and less hostile.  The Bridger Trail lacked the plentiful game, and abundant water of the Bozeman Trail/

It was used by around 450 or so emigrants in 1864-1866 at the start of the Montana gold rush with the trains being led by Jim Bridger.  It left the Oregon trail at Casper and went to present day Lysite, over the Bridger Mountains (south end of the Big Horns) and then up to Montana.

By 1866 however, most were using the Bozeman Trail and the commander at Fort Laramie hired Jim Bridger to attempt to lessen the hostilities on the Bozeman.  Which meant Jim Bridger was unavailable to lead any more wagon trains up the Bridger Trail.

The Bozeman Trail was part of what led directly to the Custer fiasco on June 24, 1876.

Warriors gather before the fight.

Indian Women and children

Indians pursuing a cavaryman.

On August 2, 1867, a detail of 26 soldiers and 7 civilians left Fort Phil Kearney to cut wood.  They were attacked by over 300 Indians led by Red Cloud.  Due to the fact that the soldiers had just been 
issued Springfield 1866 breech loading rifles and lever action Henry rifles, both of which fired much faster than the old ramrod rifles, they were able to hold off the indians with only 7 men killed.  

The soldiers and civilians were protected by heavy wagons they had placed in a circle and unhitched the teams.  The Indians drove off almost all of the horses and mules, however.  

Soldiers at the fort learned of the woodcutter's peril from the observation station on nearby Pilot Hill who was signaling the fort to send out a rescue operation.  Major Benjamin Smith led 103 soldiers along with 2 mountain howitzers to their rescue.  Major Smith began firing the howitzers at long range, forcing the indian warriors to retreat.

The Battle

Pilot Hill is on the right in this photo.  It's hard to see but you will note a 'bump' of something on top of the hill.  That's the observators signaling with a huge flag!

The Sneak - once these two entered that tall grass you could barely tell where they were!

Our family watching.  The grandson especially was Very Impressed with the performance.

Rescue on the Way!

Mountain Howitzers in place.  They were brought in by the team on the wagon and the howitzers were hitched together so it only took one trip.
If you have never heard one fired, let me tell you they are LOUD!

One of  the Artillery horses who brought in the howitzer along with a teammate.  There was soldier who rode one of the horses pulling the howitzers to guide them as there was no where for anyone to sit to drive the team in a traditional manner.

The group of reenactors from Crow Agency, Montana.  They did a wonderful job!

Many thanks to all of the state employees, volunteers and reenactors that made this possible.  It was such a fun day that our family will always remember.


  1. I love hearing about historical events from around the World and it looked a great day. We have a Group in the UK called The Sealed Knot and they do re-enactments of famous English battles around the country and I was lucky to go to one in my home town of Nottingham when I was young. It was a great day and I always remember it as I am sure your Grandchildren will.

    I also love western films!!!!!

    Hugs, Susie xx

  2. Yet ANOTHER thing I didn't know about. My ignorance is growing by leaps and bounds. In the 1970's, There was an "Oregon Trail" reenactment; the wagon train made the trip in reverse, starting in Oregon. They were "attacked" several times, including by our little group outside Pinedale, WY. They told us that back in Idaho the Indians came charging down a hill to attack them and they began firing their guns into the air. Their horses were not used to gunfire and began bucking and all the Indians ended up in the dust. More fun.