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One of the most dreadful Indian fights in the history of the Middle West is associated with Fort Phil Kearney, on the Platte River, Nebraska, which was in 1848, at the time of its establishment, the only United States post between Port Leavenworth, Kansas, 350 miles distant, and Fort Laramie, 420 miles to the west. It stood midway between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains on the California Overland route and was established for the protection of westbound emigrant trains from hostile Indians.
Fort Phil Kearney was a storm centre during the Sioux War, which began in 1863 and continued intermittently for nearly ten years, and the ” Kearney Massacre ” occurred during this time. On the morning of December 21, 1866, the fort received word that the wood train was being attacked by Indians and was in need of assistance. Immediately Brevet Lieutenant Colonel W. I. Fetterman with seventy-six men was ordered to protect the train.
Colonel Fetterman moved rapidly upon his errand, and the sound of heavy firing soon showed that he was in contact with the enemy. The firing continued so long that the commandant. Colonel Carrington, became alarmed for the safety of the detachment and sent out as many men as he could spare for reinforcement. These men were under Captain Ten Eyck. The rest of the story may be taken up in the words of Senate Document 13, 1867:
Colonel Ten Eyck reported as soon as he reached the summit commanding a view of the battlefield that the valley was full of Indians; that he could see nothing of Colonel Fetterman’s party, and requested that a howitzer should be sent him. The howitzer was not sent.
The Indians who at first beckoned him to come down now commenced retreating and Captain Ten Eyck, advancing to a point where the Indians had been standing in a circle, found the dead, naked bodies of Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Fetterman, Captain Brown and about sixty-five of the soldiers of their command. At about half the distance from where these bodies lay to the point where the road commences to descend to Peno Creek was the dead body of Lieutenant Grummond, and still farther on, at the point where the road commences to descend to Peno Creek, were the dead bodies of three citizens and four or five of the old, long tried and experienced soldiers.
Our conclusion, therefore, is that the Indians were massed on both sides of the road; that the Indians attacked vigorously in force from fifteen hundred to eighteen hundred warriors and were successfully resisted for half an hour or more; that the command then being short of ammunition and seized with panic at this event, and the great numerical superiority of the Indians, attempted to retreat toward the fort; that the mountaineers and old soldiers who had learned that movement from the Indians in an engagement was equivalent to death remained in their first position and were killed there; that, immediately upon the commencement of the retreat, the Indians charged upon and surrounded the party who could not now be formed by their officers and the party was immediately killed.
Only six of the whole command were killed by balls and two of these, Lieutenant Colonel Fetterman and Captain Brown, no doubt inflicted this death upon themselves, or each other, by their own hands for both were shot through the left temple and powder was burnt into the skin and flesh about the wound. These officers had also oftentimes asserted that they would not be taken alive by the Indians.
In its appearance Fort Kearney was typical of the Indian forts of the period, being little more than a stockade on the level prairie with the necessary houses inside. The parade ground occupied four acres and was flanked by a few straggly cottonwood trees. The post was deserted not long after the building of the Union Pacific railroad six miles away, which destroyed the reason of its being; after its desertion fell victim to its ancient enemy, for it was burned by the Indians.
Fort Leavenworth, Leavenworth, near Kansas City, Kansas, whose name occurs so often in the records of Indian warfare of the West, was established May 1827, by Colonel Henry Leavenworth, commanding a detachment of the Third United States Infantry. At first the post was extremely unhealthy, a large part of the command being prostrated by malarial fever. It was evacuated in 1829 and reoccupied in 1830, then, and for several years, being known as Cantonment Leavenworth. Since the latter date the place has never been without United States troops and it is today the largest fixed post in the United States military service.
The first mission of Fort Leavenworth was to protect the emigrant trains which set out from St. Louis, several hundred miles to the east, and passed this point on the way to California, or Oregon, by the famous old Santa Fe Trail, the California Overland Trail or the Oregon Trail, each of which went by this place. As the years went on the fort became more and more a base of supply for the army posts established further west. Its central location, which made it ideal as a distributing point to any part of the West, is the factor, which is at the base of its importance in the present day.
Fort Fetterman, Wyoming, was established in July 1867, and named in honor of the officer who lost his life commanding the detachment destroyed by the Indians at Fort Kearney. In the following month the Indians of the vicinity were actively hostile. The old post was a most picturesque point in its day, being situated on a high bluff, which shows its pointed palisade in fine relief against the sky. It is now deserted.
Fort Bridger, Wyoming, another of the Indian posts of the past, was one of the most important points on the Great Salt Lake Trail. It was located on the Black Fork of the Green River and was established in June 1858. The immediate locality had long been known as Bridger’s Fort because of the situation here of a trading post of James Bridger, one of the most noted trappers and guides of this section. In its establishment it was intended to be a base of supplies for the army of General Albert Sydney Johnston moving against the Mormons in Salt Lake Valley in 1857 to 1858. That winter the entire command encamped in the valley just above the site of Fort Bridger and upon its removal the permanent post was located.
Fort Keogh, Montana, one of the still existing Indian posts, was established, in 1876, on the right bank of the Yellowstone River, two miles above the mouth of the Tongue River, Custer County, on a high elevation above the river bottom, by General Terry during a campaign against the Sioux. It was named in honor of Captain Miles Keogh, killed in the battle of the Little Big Horn, popularly known as Custer’s Massacre, June 25, 1876. The area of the post reservation is 90 square miles. In appearance Fort Keogh is typical of the other forts of its class.
Fort Douglas, Utah, is at the base of the plateau of the Wahsatch Mountains and is part of the suburbs of Salt Lake City. The reservation contains two square miles of territory, and the scenery from any part thereof is extremely fine. The post was established October 1862, by Colonel P. E. Connor, of the Third Regiment of California Infantry.