Category: Wyoming

Following the Oregon Trail

Source: Wikipedia Commons, photo by Mike Tigas

Before I was a romance writer, I was a voracious romance reader. My reading of choice in those early days was historical romance, particularly American-set historicals. There were two facets of American history that drew me more than any others — Colonial/Revolution and Westerns. So it wasn’t a stretch that the first manuscript I ever wrote was set along the Oregon Trail. And since my sister moved to the Northwest, I’ve taken opportunities over the years to go on road trips to see her instead of flying (which I don’t like anyway).

During one of these trips, I got to see with my own eyes several of the Oregon Trail sites that I’d researched and written about in that first manuscript. I was fascinated to travel in the steps of those brave men and women who headed out for a new life, who traveled into the largely unknown landscape that was filled with danger on a daily basis.

Source: Wikipedia Commons, Scotts Bluff National Monument – Panorama. August 2006. Author: Kahvc7

Nebraska and Wyoming are often considered flyover states, but there’s so much to see, so much history to be absorbed if you take to the roads instead. One of the famous landmarks Oregon Trail travelers looked for on their journey was Chimney Rock in present Morrill County, Nebraska. This geological feature made of a combination of clay, volcanic ash and sandstone has a peak nearly 300 feet above the surrounding North Platte River valley. Travelers along the California and Mormon trails also used it as a landmark. You can see it today from US Route 26 and Nebraska Highway 92. Learn more at the Chimney Rock National Historic Site website.

Source: Wikipedia Commons, photo by Chris Light

About 20 miles to the northwest of Chimney Rock, also along Nebraska Highway 92, is Scotts Bluff National Monument near the town of Gering. This collection of bluffs on the south side of the North Platte River was first documented by non-native people when fur traders began traveling through the area in the early 1800s. It was noted to be among the first indications that the flatness of the Great Plains was beginning to give way to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. It’s named after Hiram Scott, a fur trader who died near the bluff in 1828, though the Native peoples of the area called it “Me-a-pa-te” or “the hill that is hard to go around.”

Oregon Trail Ruts near Guernsey, WY. Source: Wikipedia Commons, photo by Paul Hermans

After crossing into Wyoming, another National Park Service site preserving trail history is Fort Laramie National Historic Site, which sits at the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte rivers. It has a rich history as a frontier trading post and then an Army post up until its decommission and transfer out of the final troops in 1890. The fort also has appeared in pop culture, including in the Oregon Trail and Age of Empires video games, the 1955 movie White Feather, and a 1950s CBS radio drama called, appropriately, Fort Laramie. You can learn more at the Fort Laramie NHS website.

Perhaps one of the most amazing things you can still see today along the Oregon Trail are actual ruts made by the thousands of heavily loaded wagons heading west. This physical evidence made me feel closer to those long-ago travelers than anything else. One of the places you can see these ruts is Oregon Trail Ruts, a National Historic Landmark near Guernsey, Wyoming.

To learn more about the Oregon National Historic Trail overseen by the National Park Service throughout seven states, visit their site. I hope to be able to visit even more trail sites in the future. I’d especially like to see Independence Rock in Wyoming and more end-of-the-trail sites in Oregon.

Have you ever traveled to historic sites you’ve either written or read about? What were your favorites? I’ll give away a signed copy of A Rancher to Love, part of my Blue Falls, Texas series from Harlequin Western Romance to one commenter.

Happy trails!

Updated: February 26, 2017 — 2:56 pm

Capt. William J. Fetterman: Fatal Hubris

Kathleen Rice Adams header

 

William J. Fetterman, Capt., U.S. Army

William J. Fetterman, Capt., U.S. Army

“Give me eighty men and I’ll ride through the whole Sioux Nation.”

So said Capt. William J. Fetterman in late 1866 as he assumed command of a U.S. Army detail tasked with defending a woodcutting expedition against Indians in the Dakota Territory. A fellow officer had declined the command after mounting, and failing to sustain, a similar effort two days earlier.

Fetterman overestimated his abilities and severely underestimated his opponent.

Born in Connecticut in 1833, William Judd Fetterman was the son of a career army officer. In May 1861, at the age of 28, he enlisted in the Union Army and immediately received a lieutenant’s commission. Twice brevetted for gallant conduct with the First Battalion of the 18th Infantry Regiment, Fetterman finished the Civil War wearing the brevet rank of lieutenant colonel of volunteers.

After the war, Fetterman elected to remain with the regular army as a captain. Initially assigned to Fort Laramie with the Second Battalion of the 18th Infantry, by November 1866 he found himself dispatched to Fort Phil Kearny, near present-day Sheridan, Wyoming. Since the post’s establishment five months earlier, the local population of about 400 soldiers and 300 civilian settlers and prospectors reportedly had suffered fifty raids by small bands of Sioux and Arapaho. In response, the fort’s commander, Col. Henry B. Carrington, adopted a defensive posture.

Red Cloud, ca. 1880 (photo by John K. Hillers, courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

Red Cloud, ca. 1880 (photo by John K. Hillers, courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

Fetterman immediately joined a group of other junior officers in openly criticizing Carrington’s protocol. Although the 33-year-old captain lacked experience with the Indians, he didn’t hesitate to express contempt for the enemy. His distinguished war record lent credence to his argument: Since the Indian raiding parties consisted of only twenty to 100 mounted warriors, the army should run them to ground and teach them a lesson.

Fetterman’s voice and continuing raids eventually convinced the regimental commander at Fort Laramie to order Carrington to mount an offensive. Several minor scuffles, during which the soldiers proved largely ineffective due to disorganization and inexperience, merely bolstered the Indians’ confidence. Carrington himself had to be rescued after a force of about 100 Sioux surrounded him on a routine patrol. Even Fetterman admitted dealing with the “hostiles” demanded “the utmost caution.”

Jim Bridger, at the time a guide for Fort Phil Kearny, was less circumspect. He said the soldiers “don’t know anything about fighting Indians.”

On December 19, an army detail escorted a woodcutting party to a ridge only two miles from the fort before being turned back by an Indian attack. The next day, Fetterman and another captain proposed a full-fledged raid on a Lakota village about fifty miles distant. Carrington denied the request.

On the morning of December 21, with orders not to pursue “hostiles” beyond the two-mile point at which the previous patrol had met trouble, Fetterman, a force of seventy-eight infantry and cavalry, and two civilian scouts escorted another expedition to cut lumber for firewood and building material. Within an hour of the group’s departure from the fort, the company encountered a small band of Oglala led by Crazy Horse. The Indians taunted the army patrol, which gave chase … beyond where they had been ordered not to go.

The great Sioux war leader Red Cloud and a force of about 2,300 Lakota, Arapaho, and Northern Cheyenne waited about one-half mile beyond the ridge. In less than twenty minutes, Fetterman and all eighty men under his command died. Most were scalped, beheaded, dismembered, disemboweled, and/or emasculated.

Plaque at the site of the battle (courtesy Phil Konstantin)

Monument at the site of the battle (courtesy Phil Konstantin; used with permission)

The Indians suffered sixty-three casualties.

Among the Sioux and Cheyenne, the event is known as the Battle of the Hundred Slain or the Battle of 100 in the Hands. Whites know it better as the Fetterman Massacre, the U.S. Army’s worst defeat on the Great Plains until Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer made a similar mistake ten years later at Little Big Horn in Montana.

Whether Fetterman deliberately disobeyed Carrington’s orders or the commander massaged the truth in his report remains the subject of debate. Although officially absolved of blame in the disaster, Carrington spent the rest of his life a disgraced soldier. Fetterman, on the other hand, was honored as a hero: A fort constructed nearly 200 miles to the south was given his name seven months after his death. A monument dedicated in 1901 marks the spot where the officers and men fell.

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A war of another kind erupts within the pages of Prodigal Gun, the only novel-length western historical romance ever nominated for a Peacemaker Award. A Texas fence war pits cattlemen against sheepmen and barbed wire, bringing a notorious gunman home sixteen years after the Confederate Army declared him dead. The book is available in trade paperback and all e-formats at virtual bookstores everywhere. (An excerpt is here.)

 

 

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