Right outside of Fort Laramie is a historical marker commemorating a horse. While that might sound odd to many people, it’s actually one of the more interesting stories of Fort Laramie and Fort Kearny.
Background to the Ride
Fort Laramie had been the main outpost of the U.S. Government on the Northern Plains. For many years, it was the main meeting point between the government and the sovereign tribes of the Northern Plains, and many treaties had been signed there, including the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, which designated the territory near the fort as Crow land (west of the Powder River).
While the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho had initially accepted the agreement, as the buffalo herds became reduced, they soon began invading Crow land. By 1860, these three tribes had taken over this land.
In June 1866, United States Colonel Henry B. Carrington left Fort Laramie and moved into the area now controlled by these three tribes. He was charged with protecting civilians traveling along the Bozeman Trail. Along this trail, he established Fort Phil Kearny and two other posts.
As the new fort was being constructed, conflict rose between the Native American warriors and the army. On November 3, 1866, a group of cavalry showed up at the fort to reinforce the post. They were led by Lieutenant Horatio S. Bingham and Captains William J. Fetterman and James W. Powell. Carrington had refused to take the offensive, which led to Fetterman criticizing him.
Carrington was eventually forced to take the offensive on November 25, 1866 when his superior ordered him to do it. On December 6, Carrington took the fight to the Native Americans, but suffered great losses, including the death of Bingham. Sobered by this, Carrington became more cautious. The Natives led by Red Cloud, the Oglala Lakota leader, had used a decoy to draw the army into a trap.
Fight on December 21, 1866
Encouraged by their success, Red Cloud decided to attack Fort Kearny. Sent to get timber and firewood for the fort, a wagon train was in an area about five miles away. The Native Americans attacked the train, and Carrington ordered soldiers to help fend off the attack. While Powell was initially in charge, Fetterman claimed seniority and took the lead.
Carrington had told the party not to pursue the Native warriors over the ridge. Fetterman ignored the command and chased the Native Americans over Lodge Trail Ridge. The Fetterman’s and 80 of his men’s bodies were later found mutilated. Wagons were sent to retrieve the bodies.
The Ride of a Lifetime
Because of Fetterman’s folly, more than one-quarter of the fort’s fighting men had died. The garrison was low on quality rifles and ammunition. There were still thousands of warriors in the area.
Carrington asked for civilian volunteers to ride out and ask for reinforcements. John “Portugee” Phillips agreed to do the ride. In the bitterly cold, blizzard-laden night, Phillips took the commanding officer’s own horse and rode out into the night. He arrived at the Fort Laramie parade ground on Christmas night during a full-dress garrison ball.
He quickly told the story of the Fetterman massacre and how Fort Kearny needed their help. Phillips horse died from exhaustion shortly after arriving at Fort Laramie. It had gone 236 miles in two days in a blizzard and freezing conditions.