In 1863, mountain man John Jacobs and partner John M. Bozeman determined to find a better route connecting the Oregon Trail to new gold-strike country in what would later become Montana.
The trail through Wyoming and Montana that they established was shorter, more direct, better watered and altogether a better wagon road than alternative routes, but there was one big drawback: Indians, principally Lakota and Cheyenne, hunted buffalo in the country it crossed. They warned the first wagon train against crossing. Some turned back. Bozeman and others pressed on.
In 1864 and 1865, despite Indian harassment, nearly 2,000 more individuals traveled the Bozeman Trail. In the spring of 1866, government peace commissioners invited the Lakota and others to Fort Laramie in Wyoming to negotiate a treaty.
In a stunningly ill-timed move, during the treaty conference, Col. Henry Carrington arrived with 700 men and instructions to construct three new forts along the Bozeman Trail. Legendary Lakota war chief Red Cloud was livid.
In November 1866, a hero of the Civil War joined Carrington's command. Capt. William Judd Fetterman boasted, "With eighty men I could ride through the Sioux nation." All these elements contributed to an explosive confrontation between whites and Indians.
December 21, 1866, was a clear, cold day. A woodcutting party from Fort Phil Kearny had been attacked, and Fetterman marched out to its aid with a mixed force of 80 infantry and cavalry.
No one knows what Fetterman planned, but Indian decoys drew the soldiers over Lodge Trail Ridge and into a trap laid by Red Cloud. A thousand Indians rose out of the tall grass; Lakota, Oglala and Miniconjou, Arapaho and Northern Cheyenne. All of Fetterman's command fell to the onslaught. Western settlers were outraged and terrified by the news, but many Easterners didn't want a protracted Indian war. In March 1868, Gen. U. S. Grant gave orders to abandon the forts. On November 7, 1868, Red Cloud finally signed a treaty.
He never fought the whites again, but he had closed the Bozeman Trail.