Bozeman Trail: History & Map

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the Bozeman Trail. A western route to the gold mines of the Montana Territory, the Bozeman Trail encroached on traditional Native American hunting grounds and was closed in 1868.

Best Intentions

Sometimes, even when you have the best of intentions, plans can blow up in your face. For example, let's say you buy the girl you have a crush on some flowers, only to discover she's allergic to pollen. You were only trying to be nice and get closer to the object of your affections, but instead sent her on a trip to the emergency room.

Nobody claims that nineteenth-century Americans in the American West did anything to Native Americans with good intentions, but John Bozeman's short-lived Bozeman Trail was not intended to encroach on Native land. Regardless, it still blew up in the settlers' faces.

Founding of the Bozeman Trail

John Bozeman and his partner, John Jacobs, originally cleared the Bozeman Trail in 1863. The Trail struck north from the Oregon Trail in the vicinity of the North Platte River, just west of Fort Laramie in Wyoming Territory. The trail continued north and west into Montana Territory.

Large parts of the trail were already a well-traveled route used by the Lakota and other Native American tribes, and Bozeman and Jacobs simply cleared the trail and fortified it for transporting wagons. Bozeman and Jacobs cleared the trail in order to allow settlers to leave the Oregon Trail and travel northward to the areas around Virginia City, Montana Territory, which had recently experienced a minor gold rush.

Bozeman himself led the first wagon train of approximately 2,000 settlers up the Bozeman Trail in 1864, and an additional 1,500 settlers used the trail from 1864-1866. Unfortunately, the trail cut directly through some of the last remaining, highly prosperous and sacred hunting grounds of the Lakota, Arapaho, and Shoshone tribes in the Powder River Basin.

Though Bozeman's first wagon train made the trek largely unscathed, increased harassment and attack from local Native tribes made safe transportation along the trail virtually untenable, and settlement in the Montana Territory gold fields ground to a halt within a couple years.

The Bozeman Trail, highlighted in yellow
The Bozeman Trail, highlighted in yellow

War and Failure

In 1866, negotiations for safe passage along the Bozeman Trail between the local Lakota chief, Red Cloud, and the U.S. government broke down, and Red Cloud declared war. In response, the U.S. Army built three forts along the trail and maintained regular patrols along the Bozeman Trail to protect settlers. Despite the protection offered by the three new forts, wagon trains and settlers continued to be attacked by Red Cloud and the Lakota.

For example, in December 1866, a group of 79 soldiers and 2 civilians were annihilated by a Lakota war band just outside of Fort Kearney along the Bozeman Trail. In August 1867, in an event that became known as the Hayfield Fight, 19 soldiers and 6 civilians cutting hay held off approximately 500 Lakota warriors for more than 8 hours before help arrived.

The U.S. government soon decided that the protection of the Bozeman Trail was not only costly but largely unsuccessful. The three forts along the trail were abandoned and the infantry units dispatched to patrol the trail were recalled. In 1868, the Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed between the U.S. government and the Lakota led by Red Cloud, acknowledged the Powder River Basin as the exclusive hunting grounds of the Lakota tribes and their allies. Many historians see the event as the only time in the history of the American West where Native Americans achieved their goals as a result of war with the U.S. government.

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