Fort Fetterman Historic Site

My first day’s goal was Sheridan, about a seven-hour drive from home. I hunted for places to stop along the way and found this state park seven miles outside the town of Douglas.

The fort was established in 1867 to protect travelers on the Bozeman Trail who were heading to Montana to look for gold. It was named for Captain William J. Fetterman who was killed in a battle with Indians in northern Wyoming.

The fort was built on a plateau above the Platte River. It turned out to be a miserable place to be stationed, especially in the winter because of the constant gales. After the Treaty of 1868, which ended Red Cloud’s War, the more-northern forts on the Bozeman Trail were abandoned. Fort Fetterman became the most advanced army presence on that frontier. It was considered a hardship post. Many soldiers deserted, and the fort was often without supplies and equipment. In the drawing below, the ordnance warehouse is the building half cut off on the left. The officers’ quarters is the closest building in the row on the left end of the parade grounds.

Fort Fetterman was the base of General George Crook’s Powder River Expeditions, including the one that ended with the Rosebud Battle in 1876. After that battle, Crook returned to Fetterman with his army, setting the stage for Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn.

The military abandoned Fort Fetterman in 1882. The fort buildings became the short-lived town of Fetterman. Owen Wister’s town of Drybone in The Virginian was based on Fetterman. By 1886, the railroad  passed through the area. The town of Douglas was built along the railroad, and Fetterman disappeared. Most of the fort buildings were sold, dismantled, and moved to other places. Only two buildings remain—an officers’ quarters and an ordnance warehouse.

Three views of the officers’ quarters—when the fort was active, just before the state took over (a back view), and now.

There was one other car in the lot. The curator of the museum in the officers’ quarters was talking with a guy who claimed to have visited the fort many times as a boy to dig for artifacts. When that guy left, the curator came over and greeted me by name. If I had known how good of friends we were to become, I would have paid more attention. During this first conversation, he just asked where I was from, told me what there was to see in the two buildings, and told me to stop by the front desk on my way out of the building because he “had a water for me.” (I had my own water, so didn’t bother.)

The old parade ground is laid out with paths, and markers explained where the fort buildings had been. I imagine there are times when walking the grounds would be unpleasantly hot, but on this day, it was almost chilly when the clouds covered the sun.

A gazebo sits on a knoll overlooking the Platte. The view of the river valley, the Wyoming plains, and the approaching rain showers was pretty in an open, empty way. The recent spring left everything green.

The ruins of an old water cistern, used to supply the fort, can be seen on a knoll next to the gazebo. (It’s visible in the panorama above.)

A monument marks the spot where the Bozeman Trail passed through the fort grounds.

As I walked back toward the museum, the curator walked out and met me. I don’t believe there was anything creepy about him, but he was certainly intense about making sure I got my money’s worth. (There was no admission fee.) First, he offered to walk with me out into the tall prairie grass to see some Indian paintbrush flowers he’d seen a day or two earlier. Then he began telling me about where he grew up 50 miles or so to the west. Then he told me about roads I could take up into the Laramie Mountains (visible off to the west)—but not in my car. When I asked the elevation of the tallest peak, he told me he would look it up “when we get back inside.” I was finally able to escape when another visitor showed up and said he wanted to buy a book.

I toured the displays in the ordnance warehouse, then headed on my way.

An aerial view of the fort.

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