Settlement of the Upper Missouri

The Wagon Box Fight, Dakota Territory, August 1867

Native tribes and fur traders dominated the Upper Missouri region during the early part of the nineteenth century. By the 1860s, however, greater settlement had begun. In 1862, prospectors discovered gold at several sites in present-day central Montana. One route to the gold fields traveled through a part of the Dakota Territory (present-day Wyoming) along the Bozeman Trail.

The Lakota (Sioux) people, led by Red Cloud, fought the road's establishment with notable success. Fort Kearney was one of the three forts the United States built to protect citizens using the road. In December 1866, Red Cloud attacked soldiers near the fort, killing over eighty men. The battle represented the most significant Lakota victory prior to Custer's defeat at the Little Bighorn.

Less than one year later, Fort Kearney repelled another attack led by Red Cloud. On August 2, 1867, several hundred Lakota attacked a party of woodcutters outside the fort. Soldiers accompanying the woodcutters successfully repulsed the attack with rapid-fire Springfield breech loading rifles. Red Cloud believed that he had lost some of his best warriors in the battle.

In spite of Red Cloud's defeat, continued Lakota resistance changed military and political policy towards the Bozeman trail. As a result of talks begun in 1869, the forts were abandoned and the Bozeman Trail was closed. The tribes agreed to cease all hostilities when the troops withdrew to the south of the Platte River and east of the Black Hills. It was one of the very few instances where the United States yielded to tribal demands. The Dakota Territory remained free of whites only until the 1874 discovery of gold in the Black Hills.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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