Fort C. F. Smith, Built for Outpost on Bozeman Trail in 1866, Is All Gone Except for a Few Fragments of Adobe Walls That Still Remain in Place; Was Soon Abandoned
(By W. H. Banfill)
On a bluff a short distance from the Big Horn river a mile or two below the mouth of the hundred-mile canyon, are a few segments of an adobe wall, all that remains of old Fort C. F. Smith, one of the three forts which the government built in 1866 to protect the Bozeman trail to the Montana gold fields and abandoned two years later, confessing its defeat by the wily Sioux chieftain, Red Cloud.
Once the scene of feverish activities of soldiers, wood-choppers, and traders, the rendexvous of noted scouts, and the haven of caravans of gold seekers, freight carriers, there are now only these crumbling walls to distinguish it from other sparsely inhabited areas of grazing lands on the Crow reservation.
The Bozeman trail started at Fort Laramie on the North Platte river, ran northwest across the headwaters of the Powder and Tongue rivers, skirted the east side of the Big Horn mountains then crossing the Little Horn and other tributaries to the Big Horn at Fort Smith, passed around the northernmost spurs of the Big Horn and Pryor mountains and then cutting across the Clark's fork and other steams from the Beartooth mountains. It finally reached the Yellowstone river east of the present Livingston. From there by the Bozeman pass, it finally gained the Gallatin valley from whence the trail merged with others going to Virginia City, the mecca of the fortune hunters.
John M. Bozeman and John Jacobs first marked out the trail in the winter of 1862 and 1863. They were captured by Indians who set them adrift after taking all their arms and provisions. They reached Fort Laramie almost famished, having been reduced to a diet of grasshoppers. The same spring Bozeman undertook to bring a large party of freighters over the route from the east. The Indians attacked them and most of the party turned back and made the trip over the longer route to the west of the Big Horns but Bozeman and nine men, traveling by night, made their way by the Bozeman trail to the mines. Apparently on another trip Bozeman and Jacobs were accompanied by the 8-year old daughter of Jacobs. Capt. James Stuart on his Big Horn expedition saw them at a distance.
During the next two years, scores of caravans, several of which Bozeman accompanied, made their way across this shortest and most favored route. Once Bozeman and Bridger, who had blazed the safer trail to the west of the Big Horn mountains, ran a race which Bozeman won by a few hours although Bridger had two weeks the start. The Indians bitterly contested the passage across their favorite hunting grounds and many travelers paid with their lives for their temerity in invading the country north of the Platte.
Experience proved however, that large and well organized parties, well furnished with guns and ammunition and alert and on guard were seldom molested. One train of nearly 500 men, women and children crossed the trail in July, 1864. Often these large caravans came across burned wagons and slain men or oxen by the wayside.
In the year 1865, Gen. Patrick Conner conducted an expedition into the Powder river country and built a fort south of the present Buffalo, Wyo. Details of his troops were attacked and invasion was greatly resented. When the decision of the government to protect the route by building forts and establishing military posts and patrols was made known, Red Cloud, the Ogallala Sioux leader, ended the parley by an open declaration of war against the United States.
Col. H. B. Carrington was placed in command of the force, consisting chiefly of the [hard to read] 18th infantry, about 700 men in all, which was to build and man the string of forts. Conner's fort was reconditioned and named Fort Reno. The central fort, called Fort Phil Kearney, was built in the shadow of the Big Horn mountains on Little Piney creek, a few miles south of the present city of Sheridan, Wyo. It bore the brunt of the Indian attacks.
Col. Carrington and his men started on their expedition in May but it was not until August that he was sufficiently entrenched to send two companies under the command of Brevet Lieut. N. C. Kinney to establish the third fort at the crossing of the Big Horn. A fourth fort which was to have been placed at the Yellowstone crossing was never built.
Accompanying the troops was James Bridger, greatest of western scouts, who had proved invaluable to Colonel Carrington in the work at Fort Kearney. One of Bridger's tasks was to arrange for a conference with the Crow Indians. About 400 of them were gathered at the new fort and offered to take up arms against the Sioux, but the government proved slow and hesitant and little came of the offer. The Crows frequently came in to trade and more than once warned the fort of approaching war parties. They were suspected, however, of trading powder and shot secured at the fort for buffalo skins which formed the medium for still more barter.
Another character of the west from which the commanding officer expected much was Jim Beckwith, a mulatto, who [hard to read] with or [hard to read] into the Crow tribe and reached a position of prominence. After a quarrel with another chief whom he killed, he had left the tribe and wandered to the Pacific coast but finally returned. Beckwith took part in several conferences with the Crows but on a trip down the Big Horn for a parley between the Indians and Capt. John W. Smith, the post sutler, he sickened and died on the way back.
During the building of the fort, several lives were lost through attacks by the Sioux. A contractor and two of his men who were working in the timber were killed [ ] one of these raids.
While [ ] were escorting a train toward Fort Phil Kearney, they were attacked [ ] 40 miles from Fort Smith and their animals stampeded with the exception of one blind mule. Corporal [ ] Driscoll rode the mule at night [ ] the foothills at a distance from [ ] trail.
The next morning the mule was killed and Driscoll was wounded in the foot but he succeeded in getting o the road leading to the wood camp near the fort where he was found unconscious and taken to the fort. A message was found in his pocket and relief was sent to the party.
The forces which were sent to hold the trail proved inadequate for the work which they were sent to do. The manning of three forts, besides providing escorts for a weekly mail service and for the parties of emigrants which had been assured protection, this on a route 700 miles long and in the face of hostile Indians 10 times their strength, was an undertaking too much for the small force of Carrington's command.
Before the year was out, the three forts were in a state of seige while the climax came on Dec. 21 when Capt. W. J. Fetterman while going to the relief of the wood train near Fort Kearney, was himself cut off and his entire force of 81 men and officers slaughtered before relief could arrive. John Phillips, a civilian employee, rode 300 miles in below zero weather to Fort Laramie to bring the tidings of disaster. Reinforcements were sent but Carrington was relieved of his command by Gen. Philip Wessel.
More troops were also sent to Fort Smith under the command of Gen. John E. Smith. Parts of a sawmill which had been burned were carried across the plains on a six-wheeled truck with 12 yoke of oxen and equipped with wooden running gears, proved effective in service.
With the coming of spring, Red Cloud redoubled his efforts against the three forts while travel on the Bozeman trail was all but cut off. For over a year the southern forts had scarcely a word of tiding from Fort Smith except from one band of Crows that reported all was well.
The Gallatin valley settlers were interested in the maintenance of the fort. Nelson Story freighted supplies regularly from Bozeman to the fort in the summer of 1867. Mr. Story had brought 3,000 head of cattle from Texas over the trail in addition to a wagon train of groceries in 1866 and had come through virtually without molestation. Strongly guarding his trains, he had little trouble in reaching the fort, bringing often fresh supplies of vegetables some of which, once or twice, were relayed to other forts.
Rumors that Fort Smith was in danger is said to have started Bozeman on the fatal trip in April, 1867, when he met his death at the hands of the renegade Blackfeet masquerading as Crows. Granville Stuart records that rumors of disaster at Fort Smith led to the organization of a relief expedition in western Montana but the fort apparently was never in as serious danger as Fort Kearney where Red Cloud concentrated his efforts. Fort Smith was towards the western limits of the Sioux hunting grounds and was also in the midst of the Crow country.
On Aug. 1, 1867, a large force of Indians attacked a detachment of about 20 soldiers and civilians who were putting up hay for the fort about two miles down the river. A cottonwood corral had been built for projection and the party sought refugee there and stood off the Indians. Wagon bases which had been set along one side gave further protection.
Lieutenant Sternberg was killed early on in the fight and there were several [undecipherable ] finally repelled. All the horses which had been driven into the corral had been killed, however. The possession of breech-loading Sharps rifles, although the soldiers had not become thoroughly accustomed to their use, appeared to be the decisive factor as the attacking Indians broke when near the corral at the unexpected rapidity of the fire and suffered terrible losses.
The battle was in many ways the counterpart of the famous Wagon Box fight at Fort Kearney in which a large detachment defeated several thousand Sioux under Red Cloud with loses which have been estimated from several hundred to more than a thousand.
These victories prevented any further direct attacks but the war of blockade and warfare went on for another year. A determined policy and several thousand troops at the time would have advanced the settlement of eastern Montana nearly a decade but it was not until after the Custer disaster that such action was finally taken.
Instead the government made terms with Red Cloud which left the "Red Napoleon" victor in the conflict for it was agreed that the forts would be abandoned, the troops withdrawn and the Bozeman trail closed to white travel. In return for the abandonment to the Indian of the vast territory from the Platte to the Yellowstone, the Indians agreed not to molest any roads which might be built south of the Platte river. The Sioux destroyed the three forts immediately after the troops had left the country.
The abandonment of the trail had important bearing on the history of both Montana and Wyoming. The people of Bozeman who had benefited greatly by the trade which its strategic position on the trail gave them, now bent their energies to opening up the alternative route by way of the Yellowstone in competition with the long Missouri route by way of Fort Benton and the Overland and Oregon trail route which brought the caravans by a circuitous way, doubling back from Idaho to Virginia City.
Fort C. F. Smith was named for a union general who was accidentally
killed in 1862. The fort was about 125 yards square, two sides being built
of bluff adobe and the other two of logs. It was located on the east side
of the river and about 500 yards from its bank. It was a few miles above
the present little town of St. Xavier, the seat of the Catholic mission
to the Crow Indians.