Powder River Expedition (August-September, 1865) – Also called the Powder River War, this military campaign was ordered by Major General Grenville M. Dodge 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, which were to rendezvous on Rosebud Creek on or about September 1, 1865. The “Right Column,” which 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 which were ordered to attack any hostiles that 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 own 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 11th, where Colonel James H. Kidd, leading 200 men of the 6th Michigan Volunteer Cavalry were 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 camp of Wyoming Chief Black Bear where the Battle of the Tongue River took place on August 29th. 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 was to continue 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 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, which would eventually grow 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. The expedition, with a military escort, was traveling over the Bozeman Trail at the same time 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. After interminable supply delays, it finally got underway 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 13th, 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, at times 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 9th, 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 13th, 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, 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 made a dash 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 then began to move again, Williford proved to be correct. Just 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 on.