No Indian wars’ battle stands alone. All had roots in years previous as the white frontier moved relentlessly westward, pushing the Plains Indian tribes into increasingly less territory. This caused conflict with the white intruders and increased that which had already existed for many years among the tribes. It was the job of General Patrick E. Connor, Commander of the Powder River Expedition, to make war upon the Indians and punish them, so that they would be forced to keep the peace. Guides for the Conner expedition included famous frontiersmen Jim Bridger and Mitch Boyer.
On August 29, 1865, less than a year before the establishment of Fort Phil Kearny, 125 cavalry with 90 Pawnee scouts, under the command of Brigadier General Patrick E. Connor, attacked Chief Black Bear’s Arapaho Indian camp along the Tongue River in Northeastern Wyoming. According to Capt. Palmer, “Unfortunately for the women and children, our men had no time to direct their aim; bullets from both sides and murderous arrows filled the air; squaws and children, as well as warriors, fell among the dead and wounded.” The warriors made a brief stand while their families scattered. The Indians fled up a small stream, Wolf Creek, and Connor followed at a gallop, only to be driven back. While the troops destroyed the village including tents and food supplies for the winter, the Arapahos launched an aggressive counter-attack, which drove Connor down the Tongue River.
Only the use of howitzers, holding the Indians at a distance during the defensive withdrawal, saved the out-numbered soldiers from serious loss, though several soldiers died from injuries later. This was the single most important military engagement of the three-pronged Powder River Expedition of 1865, which included the expeditions of Cole and Walker. It caused the Arapaho, thought now to be non-hostile previous to the attack, to attack Sawyers’ Expedition shortly after, and to join forces with Sioux and Cheyenne at the Fetterman Battle in December of 1866.
The Arapaho village of Black Bear is often considered non-belligerent by historians today, though by reading the diary of Captain H.E. Palmer (from Coutant’s History of Wyoming) it is apparent that the soldiers were not aware of this.
Connor’s attack was probably influential in causing the Arapaho to attack the Sawyers’ Expedition shortly after, to ally with the Sioux and Cheyenne at the Fetterman Fight the next year near Fort Phil Kearny, and to fight at the Rosebud Battle and the Battle of the Little Bighorn more than a decade later. The far reaching effects of these conflicts continued into the development of the reservation system (which placed the Arapaho Tribe on the Wind River Reservation west of the Big Horn Mountains) and into relationships between tribes and non-Indian governments today.
–by Mary Ellen McWilliams
Learn more about the Connor Battlefield at http://www.philkearny.vcn.com/connorbattlefield.htm