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Building Fort Phil Kearney
Part III

The following article appeared in the National Tribune, on June 21, 1928. It is an eye-witness account of the living conditions in the military forts in the 1860s, written by William Murphy, a survivor of the Fetterman Massacre. This was generously contributed by Mr. and Mrs. Don Houck of Bellevue, WA, and we sincerely appreciate this gift! It was transcribed by Kathie MacDonald, and we appreciate her hard work! This is the third of the four part series.

A Hard Winter — Crook's Plan of Conserving Ammunition.
Scurvy Attacks the Garrison — "Bobtail" Discharges
Acts of Cruelty — The Wagon Box Fight; Relief Arrived in the
Nick of Time — Starting an Agency at the Fort — Hard Life Of the Squaws in Winter

By WILLIAM MURPHY, Co. A, 18th U. S.

Sometime in January reinforcements arrived, marching on foot from Fort Laramie. They had had to shovel snow all the way. Their arrival made our conditions, if anything, worse, for they had no provisions and no feed for the stock.

Two companies of cavalry that came to the relief of the fort returned at once to Fort Laramie. They had brought some extra ammunition with them which we needed badly. Most of the men were badly frozen.

In the early spring we were issued some corn meal ground at the fort. We were not as badly off as the men at Fort C.F. Smith. They were abandoned from the middle of November, 1866, until March 1867, and corn was about all they had to eat. I am of the opinion that the officers thought that the men were all killed at the time of the massacre and no one was left. In one of Col. Carrington's reports he speaks of the "great piles of slabs and firewood." The fact of it was that we didn't have a stick of wood three days after the massacre. The slabs from the mills were used in roofing the barracks and these were all covered with dirt except the officers' quarters and all of the buildings in the stock stockade. The cull slabs were used by the mills to keep up steam. The wood and hay all went to Canada with the Master of Transportation.

About the first of March two Sergeants volunteered to go to Fort C.F. Smith and see what had become of the men there. The snow was very deep and they went on snowshoes. They finally returned, bringing some Crow Indians with them and a lot of mail packed on dogs. The men at all three forts were out of tobacco and some of them seemed to miss that as much as their rations.

In the Spring of 1867 Gen. John E. Smith arrived with recruits. They had been snowed in all Winter on the Platte River, where Fort Fetterman was built later. After his arrival there was a great change at the fort. Men had up to this time worked at all kinds of work.

There were all kinds of mechanics in the Army and they had built the fort, driven teams, etc., but had had no drill or target practice. Gen. Smith put all extra men working at extra pay at 35 cents per day. We had target practice for the first time. This was expensive, as the Government charged 25 cents per cartridge to the men if they were short. We received a couple of orders from Omaha, Department of the Platte, never to "shoot" at an Indian until he shoots at you." It was signed by Gen. Crook. He wanted us to save the ammunition, I suppose.

Scurvy and Scurvy Tricks.

The Spring of 1867 also was the time the effects of the spoiled bacon showed up. All the men that were at the fort at the time it was established got scurvy. Some lost their teeth and some the use of their legs. In the Spring when the grass came up there were lot of wild onions and the scurvy gang was ordered to eat them.

I had to get out on my hands and knees for sometime and then a general order came out not to let the men dig onions, as some of them at Julesburg had been poisoned, but we went out just the same. We thought we might just as well die at once as to die by inches.

The Government carried these men on the roll until their time was up. There were several of my company discharged at Omaha on March 1, 1969. In this way they avoided the necessity of giving a pension, as would have been compulsory if let out as they should have been.

I remember one man they gave a "bobtail" discharge because he got drunk a few days before his time to be discharged. I do not know what became to him, as both of his legs were as stiff as posts from the hips down. A lot of men who should have been discharged for disability were thus carried or gotten rid of by some other means and did not get the pension they were justly entitled to.

At Omaha Barracks I saw another cruelty similar to the one I saw at Phil Kearny in 1866. A member of Co. C had broken some of the rules, just what, I do not know now, if I ever did. His head was shaved and he was branded with a hot iron and drummed out of the Army.

At that time it was suicide to go a mile from the fort for the Indians watched the road constantly, but this did not seem to matter. The day for carrying out the penalty had arrived, so he was drummed out. About that time there was a bull train coming in and I suppose they picked him up.

I had thought that this custom was just a way of the officers of Fort Phil Kearny had of punishment, but by February or March, 1869, there had been four of five men drummed out of the Omaha Barracks. In each instance the men were branded with a hot iron, their heads were shaved, they were marched around the fort with a fife and drum playing "Poor Old Soldier," and then drummed out. The cruelty was not all practiced by the Indians.

Gen. Smith was a strict officer, but he was just. Our rations were better and things went along much smoother. After the massacre the Indians did not show up again until some time in May, owing to the condition of their ponies, I suppose. They then commenced to attack the trains again, but we had more men to guard them by that time.

In the summer of 1866 a detail of about seven men was the limit. In the Summer of 1867 it was about 20 men.

About July 1, 20 men were detailed from Co. A to guard the Gilmore and Porter bull rain. They had the wood contract and had established their camp about six miles from the fort.

They used only the running gear to haul the logs on, so used the wagon boxes to form a corral about 200 or 300 yards from the timber. The logs were hauled out to the corral and the teams circled around the corral and some loaded and some hauled logs and toploaded at the corral. They could haul a full load from the corral to the fort, but only a small load out of the timber.

These logs were some 16 to 18 feet long. Aug. 2, the day of the fight, the Indians charged up to these wood piles, which were 15 to 20 feet from the corral. The wagon boxes were of the "prairie schooner" type, about five feet high, with an extra board about 14 inches high to go on top of the boxes.

On July 31 the Indians had tried to drive off the cattle that were grazing between the Pineys, about a mile from the foot of the mountain. They tried to stampede the cattle, but the men at the corral ran out on each side and stopped the cattle. The Indians tried hard to get a civilian by the name of Brown.

Some of the soldiers at the corral managed to give the Indians a hot time and several were hurt before they abandoned the idea and picked up their men.

A boy about 15 years of age was the civilian and hid in the brush and was not injured. Both this man Brown and the boy in the wagon box fight were the only civilians in the fight.

I was with a detail of six men and a Corporal guarding a train a mile or so from the Gilmore and Porter train. We saw the skirmish, but took no part in it. The corral was burned the day of the wagon box fight and the Indians followed the men to the timber and tried to burn up some of the oxen.

They fastened them to trees, but only killed five or six. During the years we were there, the Sioux Indians never followed the men into the timber, but seven men were killed by the Blackfoot Indians in the timber.

It was on Aug. 1 that Co. C relieved 20 men of Co. A. Co. C was a strong company and Gen. Smith knew the Indians would be after revenge. About 8 o'clock, Aug. 2, the men on the picket hill saw a large body of Indians on the east side of Big Piney and signaled the fort.

The picket hill was south of the fort, and one could see all over the valley and watch the wagon corral and the men from the time they entered the timber or came out and all the way down to the fort.

Wagon box fight The men at the corral saw the Indians about the time the picket did. They cut portholes thru the wagon boxes, scattered the ammunition along the boxes, removed the end gates so they could move freely around the circle and piled ox yokes and logs at the two ends of the corral which was circular in form.

Smith immediately called out most of the available men to go to their relief and though he had been sick for some days, he went with his men as far as the foot of Sullivan's Hill. The relief got there in time and the men at the corral were surely glad to see them. They were a hard lot to look at.

The day was hot and the sun was beating down upon them in the wagon beds. The smoke form their guns had colored their faces and they looked as though they had used burnt cork on their faces. Red Cloud was fooled this time.


Up until the first of June we had been armed with the old Springfield muzzle-loading rifles. The men at the wagon bed were armed with needle guns, single shot using a copper cartridge. They were good for eight to ten shots and after that it was necessary to eject the shell with a ramrod as the ejector cut a groove in the rim of the cartridge.

There were 38 men in the corral and the Gilmore and Porter men that the soldiers were guarding were in the timber — some 50 or 60 men, soldiers and civilians. The Indians did not molest them.

In the summer of 1867 the Government built a log cabin on the banks of the Big Piney, also a footbridge for the Indians to cross. There were about 2,000 Crow Indians on the east side of the Big Piney. About the same time that the Indians came, there were six 6-mule Government teams that arrived with goods for the Indians.

There was an Indian agent at the fort whom we called Doctor. I will not give his name for he is now gone where all good preachers go. The soldiers guarded the cabin, the agent, and his goods. We also had a guard on the end of the footbridge to keep the soldiers from visiting the Indians. The Indians had also put a guard on their end of the bridge to keep the Indians from crossing the Piney.

We thought the goods were to be given to the Indians, but judging from what I saw, the Indians paid several times the value of what they got. For a folding pocket glass about three inches across, a beaver skin or two buckskins was the price.

The goods consisted of beads, calico, blankets, and all kinds of trinkets that an Indian would like. Our interpreter, John Sted, was busy for about 10 days. the six 6-mule teams went back loaded with furs.

When the doctor got back to Omaha he published a long article in an Omaha paper, stating that a foreigner could travel anywhere on the plains and not be molested by the Indians. I noticed however, that he had a guard of 30 men all the way to Fort D.A. Russell.

The Crow Indians were not very well pleased with the treatment they had received and the young ones got quite ugly. When they went away they passed by Gilmore and Porter's wood train and helped themselves to what they wanted. They got a pile of oxbows and two of the Indians would pull to see if they could pull it straight without breaking it.

The bows were of good hickory, but owing to the dry climate, some of them broke, which made Mr. Porter angry, and he knocked one of the Indians down with one of the broken bows. The Indians then went away. It seemed that they wanted the bows to make a bow tamborine.

There were Indian camps scattered about along the Piney all the time after the first winter. The old squaws were inveterate beggars and a hard-looking lot. They were dirty, their hair was matted and most of them had nearly all of their fingers cut off. I had thought at first that they were frozen off, but later learned that this was the way they mourned for their dead.

I still believe that they were frozen off, as they were beasts of burden, picking wood thru the snow, some for long distances, and with poor tools with which to cut the wood. The ? folks and the younger squaws burned the wood as fast as they could get it in the Wintertime.

Iron Bull was the war chief of the Crows at that time and ruled with an iron hand. Gen. Smith asked him to keep the Indians at their camp. He put a guard at the east end of the bridge, but some of them would ford the Piney and get into the fort. The Indian police, armed with rods six or seven feet long, would get after them and if they caught any of the squaws or bucks would give them a good flaving.

I saw one Indian at our quarters whom the Indians had whipped with their switches. He got angry, and as he had smuggled a bow and arrow, he stood them off. One of the police hunted up a chief. When the chief got there he hit the troublesome Indian on the head with his tomahawk and he was a good Indian, maybe, ever after. The Indians dragged him off to their camp.

Go to Part 2

Go to Part 4