Share This Article

Red Cloud’s War: The Bozeman Trail, 1866–1868 (two volumes)

by John D. McDermott, The Arthur H. Clark Co., Norman, 2010, $225.

 The Bozeman Trail, a 250-mile pathway from Fort Laramie (in what is now Wyoming) to the goldfields of Montana Territory, seemed like a good idea at the time.Yes, even though it crossed the best hunting grounds of the northern Plains Indians, and even if the Army had to build three forts to protect the would-be prospectors and other travelers. Well, things didn’t exactly pan out for the Army and the government, not once those unhappy Indians—inspired if not necessarily always led by Oglala Sioux leader Red Cloud—began harassing trail travelers and the wood trains sent out from Fort Phil Kearny. The December 1866 Fetterman Fight, in which Captain William Fetterman and his men were killed to a man by a large party of Lakotas, Cheyennes and Arapahos, shocked the nation. The Army later achieved hard-fought victories in the Wagon Box Fight and Hayfield Fight, but they weren’t enough to subdue the armed Indian resistance. In the end Red Cloud and his allies won his namesake war, also known as the Powder River War or Bozeman War. Never before has this fascinating conflict been covered so well and so extensively.

John McDermott was the man for this tall task. An advisory board member of the Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association, he has been researching military aspects of the area for years. His 2003 book Circle of Fire: The Indian War of 1865 ended where this larger work picks up. It helped greatly, as he writes in the preface, that he was able to put his hands on certain National Archives records believed to have been lost—specifically, those of the Mountain District, the military subdivision of the Department of the Platte, which administered the three Bozeman Trail forts. McDermott has used a wealth of other sources as well— including letters, reminiscences, diaries and newspapers—to give a complete picture of war-related events and the regional and national reaction. Other books offer more detailed coverage of certain aspects of the war, but McDermott has delivered the whole story. The Indians’ effective guerrilla warfare might call to mind later guerrilla actions. “Guerrilla warfare has been an anomaly to the American mind,” writes McDermott, “and the inability of military leaders to combat it effectively is one of the lessons learned from the story of the opening and closing of the Bozeman Trail.”


Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here