Powder River Expedition (August-September, 1865) – Also called the Powder River War, Major General Grenville M. Dodge ordered this military campaign as a punitive operation against the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho for their raiding along the Bozeman Trail. Dodge also ordered that the first fort on the trail be established along the Powder River. Led by Brigadier General Patrick E. Connor, it was one of the last Indian war campaigns carried out by U.S. Volunteer soldiers. The chief guide in the operation was none other than the legendary frontiersman Jim Bridger, who would establish a new route of the Bozeman Trail from the North Platte River near present-day Douglas to just south of Buffalo, Wyoming.
General Connor divided the expedition into three columns to rendezvous on Rosebud Creek on or about September 1, 1865. The “Right Column” was to march up the Loup Fork of the North Platte River in Nebraska and then march around the northern edge of the Black Hills to the rendezvous. Made up of Missouri Volunteers led by Colonel Nelson Cole, the column was composed of 140 wagons and approximately 1,400 soldiers, ordered to attack any hostiles they met along the way. The “Center Column,” operating north from Fort Laramie, Wyoming, and west of the Black Hills, was led by Colonel Samuel Walker of the 16th Kansas Cavalry. Walker’s column was composed of 600 of his men.
General Connor and the “Left Column” marched up the Bozeman Trail with several objectives, including building a fort along the trail. With some 675 troops, the soldiers left Fort Laramie, Wyoming, on July 30, 1865. The troops reached the Powder River on August 11, where Colonel James H. Kidd, leading 200 men of the 6th Michigan Volunteer Cavalry, was tasked with building a new fort. First called Camp Connor, and later, Fort Reno, work began immediately. Connor then divided the remaining 475 soldiers into two groups. Connor accompanied the first, led by famed Pawnee scout, Captain Frank North, which consisted of 90 men each of the 7th Iowa and 11th. Ohio Cavalries and 95 Pawnee scouts. This group would continue north, encountering only minor skirmishing until it reached the Wyoming Chief Black Bear camp, where the Battle of the Tongue River took place on August 29. The second group was commanded by Captain Albert Brown of the 2nd California Cavalry and consisted of 116 volunteers and 84 Omaha Scouts. This group continued up the North Platte River to the Platte Bridge before heading northwestward to the Wind River and finally eastward to join up again with Connor.
After the army’s victory at the Battle of the Tongue River, the raids on the Bozeman Trail and overland mail routes ceased for a time. However, it would also drive the Arapaho into an alliance with the Sioux and Cheyenne, eventually growing into Red Cloud’s War.
At the same time, James A Sawyers was leading a federally-funded expedition authorized to build a road from Niobrara, Nebraska, on the Missouri River, to Virginia City, Montana. With a military escort, the expedition was traveling over the Bozeman Trail while Connor was campaigning in the Powder River Basin. Sawyers failed in his mission to improve the Bozeman Trail as the expedition was turned back in the face of Indian attacks.
The U.S. Government claimed that treaties signed at Fort Sully, South Dakota, in 1865 had restored peace to the area. However, many Sioux leaders did not sign them and were unaware of a provision allowing the government to build roads and forts in the territory.
Crazy Woman’s Fork (August 13, 1865) – The Powder River campaign against the Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux had been in the planning stages all spring and early summer of 1865. It finally got underway after interminable supply delays when Brigadier General Patrick E. Connor led the “Left Column” out of Fort Laramie, Wyoming, on July 30, 1865. While part of the troops looked for a place to build a post, Captain Frank North led his Pawnee scouts down the Powder River. On August 13, near Crazy Woman’s Fork, Captain North chased a war party until he became separated from the rest of his troops. Shooting his horse out from under him, North found himself in a desperate situation. However, he was saved when another Pawnee scout named Bob White rode up upon him. Though North ordered White to go for help, the scout refused, saying, “Me heap brave, me no run, you and me kill ’em plenty Sioux, that better.” A brief skirmish ensued where the scouts were thought to have wounded a few warriors before the other scouts arrived, and the skirmish ended. The battle site is located near Buffalo, Wyoming.
Battle of Bone Pile Creek (August 13-15, 1865) – Hoping to pioneer and publicize a shorter route to Montana during its gold-filled heydays, a prominent Iowa merchant James Sawyers organized an expedition. The expedition team was comprised of 53 men, 15 wagons, and 90 oxen. Joining them was an emigrant train of five wagons and 36 freight wagons owned by C.E. Hedges & Company of Sioux City, Iowa. This large group was escorted by Captain George Williford, leading 143 men of the Volunteer Dakota Cavalry. The party traveled slowly up the Niobrara River, struggling through sandhills with temperatures climbing over 100 degrees. By the time they reached the badlands of the upper White River, Captain Williford was running out of provisions and sent 15 men to Fort Laramie, about 75 miles southwest, for needed supplies on July 21, 1865.
By August 9, the expedition had reached the Belle Fourche River and decided to strike northwest to the Powder River. However, they found the next 30 miles very rough with little water, which convinced Sawyers that it was not the place for a wagon road. He turned the wagon train around. Along the way, they were harassed by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. On August 13, the expedition planned to camp on Bone Pile Creek, about ten miles southwest of present-day Gillette, Wyoming. However, before they arrived, a band of Cheyenne killed Nathaniel D. Hedges, a 19-year-old partner in the freighting firm, and ran off eight horses about 1.5 miles from the intended campsite. When they reached the campsite, the group corralled their wagons, and dug in to protect themselves from further attacks. They buried Hedges in the center of the corral and concealed the grave. The next day the Indians reappeared and dashed for the horses but were driven off. On the 15th, about 500 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors circled the camp and began shooting. The expedition men wanted to negotiate with the Indians and give them supplies. Captain George Williford objected to this idea, doubting that it would work; however, a wagon load of supplies, which included sugar, bacon, coffee, flour, and tobacco, were given to the warriors. When the wagons began to move again, Williford proved correct. As they were getting underway, a large group attacked the train killing two soldiers – John Rawze and Anthony Nelson. Fighting back, two of the warriors were also killed. Nelson’s body was the only recovered, and he was buried alongside Hedges. Rawze’s body could not be found. The Indians backed off, and the expedition continued.
Powder River (August 16, 1865) – While Captain Frank North, leading a group of volunteers and his Pawnee Scouts, kept up a vigilant search for hostile Indians in northeastern Wyoming, they trailed a band of Cheyenne who was heading north. The trail showed they were tracking a party of 40 horses and mules along with a travois. They caught up with them on the Powder River about 50 miles north of Fort Connor. Spying the troops, the Cheyenne thought the approaching Indians were friendly and made no hostile moves. However, the Pawnee suddenly charged in, surprising the Cheyenne, and killing 27, including Yellow Woman, who was the stepmother of George Bent. North’s scouts lost four horses; but captured 18 horses and 17 mules, many with government brands showing they had been taken in the Battle of Platte Bridge Station.
Battle of Tongue River/Connor Battlefield (August 29, 1865) – During the Powder River Expedition in the summer of 1865, Brigadier General Patrick E. Connor led a column of troops from Fort Laramie into the Powder River Country of northern Wyoming with the specific objective to make war on the Indians, punish them, and force them to keep the peace. Connor led his Left Column north from Fort Laramie on July 30, 1865, and moved up the Bozeman Trail to the Powder River. Arriving at the Powder River on August 11,
They scouted for a suitable site to build a new post, and construction of Fort Connor (later Fort Reno) began. On August 22, Connor and his men, consisting of about 180 soldiers and 95 Pawnee scouts, continued north, trailing along the east edge of the Bighorn Mountains to the Tongue River and moving downstream toward the rendezvous scheduled with the other parties of the expedition. The group encountered only minor skirmishing along the way. However, on August 28, the Pawnee scouts brought word of an Arapaho village some 40 miles upstream at the head of the Tongue River. The column was then located on Prairie Dog Creek, and Connor prepared to make an attack.
Following a night march, the U.S. Cavalry attacked Chief Black Bear’s Arapaho camp early in the morning of August 29 while the Indians were packing to move on. Chief Black Bear and many warriors were away fighting the Crow along the Big Horn River, but Medicine Man and some older men, women, and children were still in camp. The warriors made a stand while their families scattered. The soldiers overran the camp, destroyed the village, and pushed the Indians 10 miles up Wolf Creek. The Indians fought a desperate rearguard action, protecting their families, and only artillery saved the soldiers from disaster.
Captain Henry E. Palmer of the 11th Kansas Cavalry said of the fight: “I was in the village amid a hand-to-hand fight with warriors and their squaws, for many of the female portions of this band did as brave fighting as their savage lords. Unfortunately for the women and children, our men had no time to direct their aim… squaws and children, as well as warriors, fell among the dead and wounded”.
Indian casualties included 54 warriors and several hundred ponies. Another 500-1000 horses were also seized, and the soldiers captured 18 women and children but later released them. Connor lost two soldiers and three scouts, with another seven soldiers were wounded. As the soldiers withdrew, the Indians advanced, recapturing several ponies, and continued harassing the column for several days.
In the meantime, while Connor’s Left Column of the Powder River Expedition was having some moderate success, his Center and Right Columns led by Colonel Samuel Walker and Colonel Nelson Cole, respectively, were not. During their expeditions, they were troubled by mutinous soldiers, terrible weather, lack of quality guides, low supplies, and attacks on the Powder River in Montana.
Even though the expedition generally achieved inconclusive results, the army saw it as a tactical victory, and it effectively ended the Powder River Expedition. The ability of the Arapaho to threaten the overland routes was reduced, and emigrant travel became safer for a while. However, the attack caused the Arapaho to join forces with the Sioux and Cheyenne.
No physical evidence of the battle remains. The battleground is preserved in the Connor Battlefield State Historic Site about a mile south of Ranchester, Wyoming. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Sawyers Fight (August 31, 1865) – On August 31, 1865, an expedition was surveying the route of the Bozeman Trail. The group, led by Colonel James Sawyer, was attacked by Arapaho Indians in retaliation for the attack on Black Bear’s village (Connor Battle.) The party was besieged for 13 days until the surveyors were rescued by General Conner’s Powder River Expedition Force. The battlefield monument is alongside U.S. Hwy 14, about three miles from Dayton, Wyoming, where the Bozeman Trail crosses the present highway.