The discovery of gold near Virginia City, Montana in the 1860s significantly changed the way of life for Native Americans. For settlers heading to Montana as part of the local gold rush on the Bozeman Trail (nicknamed “The Bloody Bozeman”), survival was a matter of chance, as traveling through Indian lands was dangerous.
I happened to be in Wyoming for my job and noticed signs along Interstate 90 for the Fort Phil Kearny Historic Site, and decided to stop. The grounds of this fort provide visitors an overview of history during the 1860s, as life for Native Americans was about to change. In the 1860s, buffalo were still plentiful in this area as many had been slaughtered elsewhere. Indian survival was dependent on the bison, which served a multitude of purposes (basically a “one stop shop”). The animal could be used for meat, the hide could be used for moccasin soles, masks or rattles and the hair could be used for ropes and doll stuffing. With the discovery of gold, the United States government and local Sioux, Arapahoe and Northern Cheyenne Indians were sadly headed for an inevitable culture clash.
Visitors to the grounds of Fort Phil Kearny will be amazed (1) at how remote this location is and (2) how large the grounds of the fort were. The fort only survived from 1866 to 1868 and life was difficult, as the fort was under constant attack, with various tribes headed by Red Cloud. While Native American groups were fine with settlers traveling through their territories for trading, permanent structures were another matter altogether and buildings like forts were clearly a threat to their lands.
During its operation, the fort comprised seventeen acres with eight foot walls. While some visitors may be disappointed that the fort no longer survives (the remains were burned by Northern Cheyenne Indians in 1868), I found it fascinating knowing what was on this land roughly 150 years ago. With a four dollar admission charge, visitors will find a small museum, as well as signs scattered throughout the area outlining what was on the property. The fort included a bakery, barracks, ice house, chapel, bastion and a saw mill. The best-built quarters were the home of the post’s commander as by 1867, many of the other buildings were in poor shape.
Looking at the displays, apparently among the officers at the fort, there was a lot of infighting as various officers had differing views as to how to handle the attacks. Signs around the property also outline some of the problems typical forts faced liked the reputation of laundresses who washed clothing. At some forts, these ladies also served as call girls or had sketchy reputations, such as misappropriating government rations and selling whiskey or fruit pies on the side. Civilians helping at the fort also had to live outside the fort walls, which at this fort, was risky.
The small museum at Fort Phil Kearny includes a diagram of the original fort as well as displays on tools of battle (both for government troops and Native Americans), uniforms and even an exhibit of how different Indian feathers translate to different feats in battle. Two ten-minute films are also available to visitors.
Be on the lookout for two super friendly dogs (a Jack Russell Terrier and a Border Collie) owned by a neighboring rancher, who roam the grounds. The terrier was so friendly that she followed me around the entire site (and even tried to leave in my car)!
Finally, just a few miles from Fort Phil Kearny are two battle sites—the Wagon Box Fight and the Fetterman Fight. While many students were taught about the Battle of Little Bighorn in American history, these battles were also keys in the skirmishes with the Plains Indians.
I learned a lot just by walking around the grounds of Fort Phil Kearny and the difficult conditions both settlers and Native Americans faced. Even today, the area is remote with few occupants. With the wind blowing and the vast landscape, visitors can imagine a little of what life in this part of Wyoming must have been like following the Civil War and the daily hardships.
Fort Phil Kearny Historic Site
P.O. Box 5013 (Take Interstate 90 to Exit 44 near Kearny, Wyoming)
Sheridan, Wyoming 82801