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God’s Country – Part Four

July 16, 2008

If you missed the prior pieces, they’re here:  Part One, Part Two, and Part Three

We spent the next day visiting local historical sights.

Wyoming’s history is rich with locales and lore that jog the imagination. Not so very long ago, it was a major thoroughfare for folks hoping to strike it rich in the gold fields of Montana and it was also home to many different Indian tribes–Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Shoshone, and Crow. The Bozeman Trail, named for trailblazer John Bozeman, cut through the middle of the Powder River Basin, hunting grounds of the Northern Plains Indians. Skirmishes between the Indians and those trying to find their dreams in Montana led to military occupation at several locations along the Bozeman Trail, including our first stop–Fort Phil Kearny.

There isn’t much remaining at the Fort itself. A dusty parking lot sits at the top of a hill just outside Story, Wyoming. A small museum, filled with artifacts, pictures, and maps serves as the Welcome Center. We stopped there and the kids roamed through each room, fascinated by an authentic headdress–its feathered resplendence still like new with deep golds and reds, and the tomahawks, spears, and knives used as weapons by the Indians. Velma was particularly taken with a ceremonial item called a Crow, worn on the back, fastened by a belt around the waist. This one was also made of feathers, fastened together in the middle and radiating out, red and yellow feathers at the ends, as bright as if they’d just been dyed yesterday.

Shaggy was fascinated by a Howitzer, and a military uniform–a castoff from the Civil War that was standard fare for military personnel at that time. Just inside the door was also a replica of a covered wagon. Inside the wagon were the supplies a family might take with them if they were to travel along the Bozeman Trail. It was sparse. A couple of changes of clothes, a bolt of fabric for sewing new ones, a small assortment of dishes, a washtub, a butter churn, flour, dried fruit, beans, rice, sugar and coffee, dishes, and a washtub–all squashed into a 4 foot by 10 ten foot space. Add to that all of your family members, jostling along in the wagon box, feeling every bump and rut, terrified of an impending Indian attack at any second, and it must have made tough characters out of anyone who made the journey.

We watched a short movie that described the history of the Fort in some detail. I wondered what it must have been like for the inhabitants of the Fort. It wasn’t very large, only 600 by 800 feet, and it contained enlisted, cavalry, and officer’s quarters, a hospital, a Sutler’s store, a guardhouse, a laundress’ quarters, a schoolhouse, a quartermaster and commissary supply, commander’s quarters, and a magazine. What stands there today is a large, grassy field… no remnants of the buildings that once stood or the people that once lived within the walls of the Fort, nothing that might indicate it was once a bustling center of activity, or the centerpiece of a horrible massacre. If the museum weren’t there, if they had not painstakingly walked the grounds and laid out boundaries and signage to point the way, it would just be another grassy bluff, like all of the others.

The view from the bluff where the Fort once stood as a bastion of safety for travelers and military folks alike was spectacular. It was warm, but not too warm, a gentle breeze stirring the air just enough that it wasn’t cloying. There were more of the fluffy, cottony clouds we saw on the drive up, dotting the sky and casting shadows over the neighboring hills.

The clouds were moving swiftly, and the shadows lengthened and stretched across the hills, moving from one to another like a wagon train fleeing from Indian attack. The kids spent time running along the newly built front walls of the Fort, giant freshly sharpened pencils standing at attention, shoulder to shoulder against each other. They peeked through the windows cut into the sides, hung on fresh hinges, and over the top, scrambling up onto the wooden planks, similar to the planks the guards would have used to see over.

Too soon it was time to go. On the way into town for lunch, we stopped by a monument built to Portugee Phillips. It was a small monument, built from smooth, rounded river rocks, caked together with cement, that reached up towards the heavens like a miniature pyramid. The inscription read:

In Honor Of
John (Portugee) Phillips
Who Dec. 22-24, 1866, rode 236 miles
in sub-zero weather through
Indian infested country to Fort
Laramie to summon and for the
Garrison of Fort Phil Kearny
beleaguered by Indians follow-
ing the Fetterman Massacre

The story goes that a Sioux leader, Red Cloud, staged a decoy strike on a wood train running near the Fort. Captain Fetterman, at the command of Colonel Henry Carrington, rounded up 79 men–the number he had previously said he would use to massacre the entire Sioux nation–and set out for victory. As they approached the attacking Indians, the Indians began to run away and the soldiers gave chase. As the soldiers reached the crest of the hill, they realized that the fleeing Indians had been decoys. There, on the other side of the ridge, were 2000 Sioux warriors. Fetterman’s meager 79 didn’t stand a chance. Within 20 minutes, Fetterman and all of his men were dead.

When news of the massacre reached the Fort, Portugee Phillips volunteered to ride for help. As the sign reads, so goes the legend. They say that he rode 236 miles on horseback, in a raging blizzard, to get to Fort Laramie for help. He rode so hard, and so fast, and so far, that the horse he was riding died just after their arrival at Fort Laramie.

The kids were awestruck by the idea. As I explained what that distance would be by car, their eyes widened. It was a great history lesson, fun to reminisce, fun to picture the whole thing in my mind’s eye. I was glad the kids got to be a part of it, to see this, and to think about what life might have been like before the Wii, before CDs, before cable TV.

I don’t know if they’ll remember it forever. My Dad tells me that I was there as a kid, too, and I don’t remember a moment of it. But I do know that the rich history of places like this was planted somewhere deep down in my soul–an appreciation for those that went before us, for the struggles, the achievements, the love, and the laughter that went into making today what it is.

As I stood watching them run around the monument and feel the stones with their hands, I tilted my head toward the sky, closed my eyes against the sun, and thought for a second I could hear the gunshots, the war cries, the pounding of horses hooves.

I hoped, even if for just a moment, that my kids could hear it too.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2008 11:01 am

    What a great post, and what a fabulous vacation. Truly, it sounds like you found a bit of rest this vacation week.

    Good for you. I envy you!

    BTW, the kids and I will be there 8/2 through 8/11. Wanna get together?

  2. July 16, 2008 11:34 am

    Beautiful post Steph. It’s all exactly as I remember it! You should post some more of the awesome pix you took there!

  3. July 16, 2008 2:35 pm

    A beautiful post.
    My father’s side of the family is Winnebago-Sioux, or Ho-Chuck. I heard many of those stories, only from the Indian point of view. I have never made it to that part of history, I would love to one day. To feel the spirits of the land. I could almost hear them while reading your post.

  4. July 16, 2008 9:11 pm

    Reading this post was officially the most relaxing and the best part of my day! Thanks Steph. I am sure they took in so much more than they realized. And one day they will take their kids through there and be able to tell them the same history and stories you told them.
    I love WY. I love the beauty of the land. I grew up camping, and hiking, and fishing up in the Tetons. It’s time I take the kids….

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