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Fort Phil Kearny

Fort Phil Kearny

It was the era of the Great Indian Wars – a time where settlers migrated across rugged terrain, in hostile territory. Protection along this crude journey was vital in forging a new nation-establishing the need for military outposts and forts. In July 1866, at the forks of the Big and Little Piney creeks in northeastern Wyoming, Col. Henry B. Carrington of the 18th U.S. Infantry founded Fort Phil Kearny.

The original purpose of Fort Kearny and its two posts, Fort C.S. Smith and Fort Reno, was to protect settlers on the Bozeman Trail – a trail to Montana’s gold field blazed by John Bozeman. The fort was also used to draw the attention of Indian tribes to avoid inter-tribal warfare and prevent them from interfering with the construction of the transcontinental railroad.

Ten years prior to the epic Battle of the Little Bighorn – “Custer’s Last Stand” – Fort Phil Kearny faced a surprise attack by Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Lakota tribes that devastated the fort and left survivors to bury 81 men in December of 1866. Tribal leaders Red Cloud and Crazy Horse viewed Fort Kearny as an encroachment on tribal land, and they led nearly 2000 warriors in an early morning ambush along a road leading north from the fort.

Fort Phil Kearny

A party of American settlers, who were chopping wood in the area, was attacked by a small group of Indians. After hearing news of the attack, Carrington ordered Lt. Col. William Fetterman to strike back with 80 additional soldiers. Crazy Horse led 10 decoys galloping in front of the fort to lure the soldiers into an open spot just within sight of Fort Kearny. The soldiers fired a 12-pound artillery round, and the Indians fled.

Fetterman and his men trailed Crazy Horse three miles from the fort, where they were ambushed. Historians say about 40,000 arrows poured from the sky onto the American soldiers. Legend has it that bugler Adolph Metzger bravely fought off his attackers with nothing but his bugle.

When the dust settled, Metzger’s body was the only one left intact – covered with a bison hide – a show of respect by the Native Americans. There were no survivors. The Fetterman Massacre was the U.S. Army’s worst defeat in the West, until the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.

The Wagon Box fight on Aug 2, 1867 and a number of smaller skirmishes also took place between tribal warriors and the U.S. Army during Red Cloud’s War. A party of 26 U.S. Army soldiers and six civilians were attacked by several hundred Lakota Sioux Warriors. Red Cloud, the legendary Lakota leader, waged the most successful war against the Army – indeed, the most successful war ever by an Indian nation. Their story lives on at the Fort Phil Kearny Interpretive Center.

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Derek Phillips and Robert Taylor, actors in the Longmire television series, hold microphones while making a presentation seated at a table on a stage with a full audience in the foreground at the Bomber Mountain Civic Center gymnasium in 2023.