July 13

This Day in History

Old West

Jul 13, 1866:

Construction begins on Fort Phil Kearny

Colonel Henry Carrington begins construction on Fort Phil Kearny, the most important army outpost guarding the Bozeman Trail.

In 1863, a Georgia-born frontiersman named John Bozeman blazed a wagon road that branched off from the Oregon Trail and headed northwest to the gold fields of western Montana. The trail passed through the traditional hunting grounds of the Sioux, and Chief Red Cloud attacked several wagon trains to try to stop the violation of Indian Territory. Despite the questionable legality of the Bozeman Trail, the U.S. government decided to keep it open and began building a series of protective army forts along the route.

Colonel Henry Carrington was assigned the task of designing and building the largest and most important of these outposts, Fort Phil Kearny. A talented strategist and designer, Carrington planned the fort with care. He selected a site in northern Wyoming that was near a source of water and commanded a view over a good section of the Bozeman Trail. He began building on this day in 1866, setting up a timbering operation and sawmill to supply the thousands of logs needed for construction.

By fall, Carrington had erected an imposing symbol of American military power. A tall wooden palisade surrounded a compound the size of three football fields. Inside the walls, Carrington built nearly 30 buildings, including everything from barracks and mess halls to a stage for the regimental band. Only the most massive and determined Indian attack would have been capable of taking Fort Phil Kearny.

Unfortunately, Carrington's mighty fortress had one important flaw: the nearest stands of timber lay several miles away. To obtain the wood essential for heating and further construction, a detachment had to leave the confines of the fort every day. The Indians naturally began to prey on these "wood trains." In December, a massive Indian ambush wiped out a force of 80 soldiers under the command of Captain William Fetterman.

Despite this weakness, Fort Phil Kearny was still a highly effective garrison. Nonetheless, the U.S. Army found it nearly impossible to halt completely the Indian attacks along the trail. In 1868, the government agreed to abandon all of the forts and close the trail in exchange for peace with the Indians. Immediately after the soldiers left, the Indians burned Carrington's mighty fortress to the ground.

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