Eighty-One American Soldiers Were Lured Into An Ambush – 12/21/1866

US History |


On this day in 1866, Indians in northern Wyoming lured Lieutenant Colonel Fetterman and his soldiers into an ambush and killed them all. The massacre was part of their plans to express their disapproval of the ever-increasing America's military presence in their territory.

The region was peaceful until 1863, when John Bozeman discovered the Bozeman Trail, another route for travelers going to the Montana gold fields. The new route was of questionable legality because the government had earlier signed a Fort Laramie Treaty in 1851 promising the area to be hunting grounds for the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe. However, tension began in the region when Colorado militiamen killed over 200 Cheyenne during the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. This event made Indians to begin retaliating on whites all over the Plains and travelers passing the Bozeman Trail. The U.S. government reacted by building a set of defensive fortresses along the trail; the biggest and most important of these was Fort Phil Kearney, built in 1866 in north-focal Wyoming.

Afterwards, the Indians, led by Red Cloud and Crazy Horse started to center their assaults on Fort Phil Kearney, always harassing the soldiers and attacking their wood and supply parties. On December 6, 1866, Crazy Horse surprisingly discovered that he could lead a portion of these American soldiers into a deadly ambush by getting off from his horse and flee as though he was vulnerable and afraid. Realizing the soldiers were much eager to chase after them, he and Red Cloud assumed that probably a much larger troop could be tricked into a similar ambush.

On that fateful morning of December 21, around 2,000 Indians hid themselves along the roads towards north of Fort Phil Kearney. A little band made a diversionary attack on a party of woodcutters from the fortress, Colonel Henry Carrington (Commander-in-charge) immediately ordered Colonel Fetterman to go to their rescue taking along with him 80 soldiers. Crazy Horse and 10 and of his fighters then rode in the direction of the fort. As they near the fortress, Colonel Carrington fired at them, and they all fled as though terrified. The woodcutters made it back to the fort safely, while Colonel Fetterman and his men pursued the escaping Crazy Horse and his band, just as planned. The soldiers unknowing to them rode straight into the trap where some 40,000 arrows rained on them. None of them survived the attack.

Until the Battle of Bighorn that happened in 1876, the Fetterman Massacre remains the army's worst defeat in the West. The Indians continuous attacks finally forced the army to reevaluate its decision in protecting the Bozeman Trail, and in 1868, the military pulled out it forces from the region and abandoned the fortress. This is one of the few Indians victories in the Plains Indian Wars.

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