Fort Fetterman Built to Help Gold Miners Get to Montana
Gold in Montana! After the California Gold Rush (1849) and the Pike’s Peak Rush (1852), came the Montana Gold Rush (1862) in what was then known as Idaho Territory. The US Government established Fort Fetterman to provide supplies and escorts to travelers on the Bozeman Trail.
As you may know, the US had negotiated treaties in 1951 and 1968 with the Plains Indians (Sioux, Cheyenne) at Fort Laramie. These treaties were designed to assign the Sioux, Cheyenne and several other tribes to settle within the Black Hills reservation in the Dakota Territory. The treaties included agreements that whites could create roads across the land to get to the mines in Montana and immigrants to move on to Oregon. Although the treaties allowed such travel, many of the Indians did not believe their leaders could speak for them. The road to Montana was seen as a breach of those treaties.
Fort Fetterman, about 45 miles east of Caspar Wyoming, was built to supply and escort those travelers through what had become hostile Indian Territory.
Harsh and Dangerous Conditions
There were several times when troops formed up at the fort in order to attempt to control Indian Tribes in the Dakota Territory. For example, in 1876, General George Crook led a march from Fort Fetterman to Southern Montana to fight Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux Indians. They were stalled there at a battle that would later be known as the Battle of the Rosebud, and were prevented from joining Custer’s troops at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
It was not only the dangerous assignment that made life difficult at the fort. The winters were hard and cold. The summers were hot and windy. The fort was hundreds of miles from anything approaching a town. This was desolate, even for Wyoming!
There was no well on the property. Water was hand dipped into a wagon and hauled up the hill to the cistern. Because of the slight rise to the cistern, the fort had running water throughout the primary buildings.
Soldiers Escape a Tough Life at the Hog Ranch
As was common near all forts, a Hog Ranch was built less than a mile away from the fort. This was the classic “house of ill repute” including all the liquor, gambling and girls that you would expect. It was one of the more infamous of such places, and the soldiers loved it.
Unfortunately, it was located across the North Platte River, known for its high flows, especially in the winter. Because the soldiers were not permitted to go there, they could not use the ferry. Instead, many swam the river, drank their fill and then attempted to swim back. Many drowned in the effort to have a good time!
Not only did Fort Fetterman lose men by drowning, the number of desertions and suicides was also very high. Spending six months in a snow bank with not much to do was certainly considered “hardship duty.”
In 1882 the military no longer needed the Fort and closed it. But the local residents saw an opportunity to re-use the buildings as a civilian town, to be called “Fetterman City.” They heard the railroad would soon be coming through and it made perfect sense to build the track through Fetterman City! Of course, nothing happens as planned. The Railroad chose land five miles away to build the station, creating a town now called “Douglas”. Practical people through and through, the citizens of the short-lived town of Fetterman City, picked up their buildings and moved them to Douglas! There are only two buildings left in Fetterman, which were left behind because they were constructed of adobe. It’s tough to re-locate adobe buildings!