Beginning retaliatory campaigns after the defeat of Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn the previous summer, General George Crook received reinforcements and began to move up the Bozeman Trail to the Powder River, looking for Crazy Horse and the rest of the hostile Indians. The expedition consisted of 11 companies of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th Cavalries, under Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie; 15 companies of the 4th, 9th, 14th, and 23rd Infantry, plus four companies of the 4th Artillery, under Lieutenant Colonel Richard Dodge; and about 400 Bannock, Shoshone, Pawnee, and Lakota allies. Including civilian packers and volunteers, there were almost 2,200 men and 168 wagons.
The command marched to old Fort Reno on the Powder River, where Mackenzie split off with the cavalry. Soon, scouts informed him that a large Cheyenne camp was situated along a canyon on the Red Fork of the Powder River, west of Present-day Kaycee, Wyoming. There were 200 lodges under Chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf, with 400 warriors. The Cheyenne warriors were having a celebration because of a recent victory over the Shoshone Indians.
Mackenzie waited until dawn on November 25, 1876, when he and 1,100 horsemen surprised the camp and drove the Indians from their village, without their clothes, blankets and buffalo robes into the frozen countryside. Afterward, the village and all its contents were entirely destroyed and about 500 ponies were captured.
During the fight, the Cheyenne suffered 40 killed and perhaps another 40 wounded. Mackenzie’s casualties were six men killed and 26 wounded. The soldiers took more than 600 horses and burned all the lodges, leaving the Cheyenne to face the long winter without food and shelter. The night after the battle, the temperature dropped to 30 below zero, and 11 babies froze to death.
The battle ended Cheyenne resistance for all practical purposes. Dull Knife’s followers were left in the freezing weather without sufficient clothing, and many soon froze to death. Most surrendered shortly after, although several holdouts eventually joined the camp of Crazy Horse. However, these survivors along with Crazy Horse and his people surrendered in the spring at Fort Robinson, Nebraska.
Today, the battlefield is a picturesque setting among rugged hills on a privately owned ranch. It is marked by a stone monument, on the side of a hill. It is located in Johnson County, just off an unimproved road, about 23 miles west of Kaycee.
By Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated February 2020.