Visiting Fort Phil Kearny State Historic Site
Located about 20 miles south of Sheridan in northwest Wyoming, Fort Phil Kearny State Historic Site stands guard over the area it was erected to protect in 1866. The fort, the largest of three established by the U.S. Army along the Bozeman Trail to protect travelers, sits at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains.
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the fort is now home to an interpretive center where visitors can pick up resources for self-guided tours of the site and surrounding battlefields, and gain insight into the conflicts that took place between U.S. Army troops and the area’s American Indian tribes.
Things to Do in the Area
Inspect Fort Phil Kearny’s archeological remains, including some of the 4,000 logs used to construct the original stockade, and stroll through a cabin refurbished to depict the quarters of an officer’s wife and a non-commissioned officer’s quarters.
The Fetterman and Wagon Box Fight battlefields, each about three miles from the interpretive center, are where major scuffles occurred between the area’s tribes and Fort Phil Kearny’s soldiers. Interpretive trails running through grassy fields at the sites supply information on the conflicts and perspectives from both sides.
During the “Fetterman Fight,” the fort faced a surprise attack by Arapaho, Cheyenne and Lakota tribes, and 81 U.S. soldiers, including their captain, William J. Fetterman, were killed. Fort Phil Kearny State Historic Site’s interpretive center tells the stories of the devastating battle, along with others that occurred in the area.
The round-topped Bighorn Mountains supply a striking backdrop to the fort. For more views and the chance to spot wildlife, take the shady nature trail that runs along Lower Piney Creek.
History of the Fort and the Bozeman Trail
In the early 1860s, the Bozeman Trail was developed to connect gold-rush territory in Montana to the Oregon Trail, a major route to the West Coast that ran through central Wyoming. The trail passed directly through territory occupied by Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes and sparked bloody skirmishes between the American Indians and traveling groups of settlers.
In addition to protecting Bozeman Trail travelers, Fort Phil Kearny’s other purposes included preventing intertribal warfare between American Indians in the area and distracting tribes opposed to Westward expansion from the construction corridor of the transcontinental railroad to the south.
The fort, named for a popular Union general killed in the Civil War, operated for two years before it was closed along with the Bozeman Trail in 1868. The Union Pacific Railroad made it possible for travelers to get to Montana by traveling through Idaho, so the Bozeman Trail became insignificant. The site was abandoned, and then burned by members of the Cheyenne tribe.