Powder River Expedition (1865)

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Powder River Expedition
Part of the Sioux Wars, American Indian Wars
The Powder River in Johnson County, Wyoming.jpg
Powder River in present-day Johnson County, Wyoming north of Fort Connor
Date July 1 to October 4, 1865
Location Powder River Country, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska, United States
Result inconclusive
United States United States Sioux
Commanders and leaders
United States Patrick E. Connor
United States Nelson D. Cole
United States Samuel Walker
United States Frank North
Red Cloud
Sitting Bull
Roman Nose
Dull Knife
George Bent
2,300 soldiers, 179 Indian scouts, 195 civilians ~2,000 warriors
Casualties and losses
31 killed, 15 wounded ~100 killed, 10 wounded, 21 captured including women and children
This event should not be confused with the Big Horn Expedition during the Black Hills War.

The Powder River Expedition of 1865 also known as the Powder River War or Powder River Invasion, was a large and far-flung military operation of the United States Army against the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians in Montana Territory and Dakota Territory. Although soldiers destroyed one Arapaho village and established Fort Connor to protect travelers on the Bozeman Trail, the expedition is considered a failure because it failed to defeat the Indians and secure peace in the region.


The Sand Creek massacre of Cheyenne in November 1864 intensified Indian reprisals and raids in the Platte River valley. (See Battle of Julesburg) After the raids, the Sioux, Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho congregated in Powder River country, remote from white settlements and confirmed as Indian territory in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

The Indians also perceived that the Bozeman Trail, blazed in 1863 and traversing the heart of Powder River country, was a threat. Although roads through Indian territory were permitted by the Fort Laramie Treaty, the Sioux, mostly Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho harassed miners and other travelers along the trail in 1864 and 1865. In July 1865, 1,000 Indian warriors in the Battle of Platte Bridge attacked a bridge across the North Platte River near Fort Caspar and succeeded in temporarily shutting down travel on both the Bozeman and the Oregon Trail. After the battle the Indians broke up into small groups and dispersed for their summer buffalo hunt. A weakness of Indian warfare was that they lacked the resources to keep an army in the field for an extended period of time.[1]

Major General Grenville M. Dodge ordered the Powder River expedition as a punitive campaign against the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho. It was led by Brigadier General Patrick E. Connor.

Brigadier General Patrick E. Connor

Dodge ordered Connor to "make vigorous war upon the Indians and punish them so that they will be forced to keep the peace."[2] The Connor expedition was one of the last Indian war campaigns carried out by U.S Volunteer soldiers. One of Connor's guides was Mountain man Jim Bridger. Connor's strategy was for three columns of soldiers to march into the Powder River Country. The "Right Column" was composed of 1,400 Missouri soldiers, mostly mounted, led by Colonel Nelson Cole. It marched from Omaha, Nebraska and was to follow the Loup River in Nebraska westward to the Black Hills and meet up with Connor near the Powder River. The "Center Column" of 600 men was commanded by Samuel Walker of the 16th Kansas Cavalry and was to head north from Fort Laramie and traverse the country west of the Black Hills.[3]

Fort Laramie was General Connor's starting point for the expedition. Plains Indians often visited and camped near the Fort.

The "Left Column" of 675 men was composed of the 6th Michigan Volunteer Cavalry Regiment under Colonel James H. Kidd, recently transferred from the Civil War battlefields of Virginia. This command included 95 Pawnee Scouts and 84 Omaha scouts and a wagon train full of supplies with 195 civilian teamsters.[4] General Connor would personally accompany Kidd's column and would move along the Powder River with the goal of establishing a fort near the Bozeman Trail. All three columns were to unite at the new fort.

Connor's orders to his commanders were, "You will not receive overtures of peace or submission from Indians, but will attack and kill every male Indian over twelve years of age."[5] Connor's superiors, Generals John Pope and Dodge attempted to countermand this order, but too late as Connor's expedition had already departed and was out of contact.[6]

The expedition was troubled from the start. The number of men to be involved in the campaign was reduced from 12,000 to 2,300 because many soldiers were mustered out of the army at the end of the American Civil War. The remaining soldiers were "mutinous, dissatisfied, and inefficient." Few of the men and officers had any experience fighting Indians or travel on the Great Plains. Procuring supplies was also a problem.[7]

Connor's expedition[edit]

Brigadier General Patrick E. Connor, Colonel Kidd and their 675 soldiers, Indian scouts, and teamsters left Fort Laramie, Dakota Territory, on August 2, 1865, to unite with the column's of Colonel's Nelson D. Cole, and Samuel Walker. Connor's column proceeded northward, and established Fort Connor, on the upper Powder River.

The Battle of Crazy Woman's Fork[edit]

On August 13, 1865, Captain Frank J. North, of the Pawnee Scouts, was riding with some of his Pawnee Scouts near the Crazy Woman's Fork of the Powder River. Captain North and his scouts then spotted a small group of Cheyenne warriors, and commenced to chase them. In the pursuit, North became separated from the U.S. Scouts by about a mile. The retreating Warriors then turned to engage North. One of the Natives wounded North's horse, so the Captain got behind his downed animal and used it as a barricade from which position he then fought off his attackers. Bob White, a Pawnee Scout, came upon North, and joined him. Several more Pawnee Scouts arrived, and the small party then shot at, and Wounded a few of the warriors, who then quickly fled. The Battle of Crazy Woman's Fork was the first engagement of the Powder River Expedition.[8]

Four of the Pawnee Scouts.

Powder River Massacre[edit]

For two days, Captain Frank North and his Pawnee Scouts had trailed a band of Cheyenne, who were heading north. The trail showed that the Cheyenne had about 40 horses and mules, along with one travoi. At 2:00 a.m. on August 16, 1865, the Captain and his Scouts caught up with the group, on Powder River, about 50 miles north of Fort Connor. The Cheyenne had made their camp for the night, and were asleep. North decided to wait until dawn to attack. In the morning, Captain Frank North's group closed on the camp. Spotting the scouts, the Cheyenne thought the approaching Indians were not the Pawnee Scouts, but friendly Cheyenne, and made no hostile moves. However, the Pawnee suddenly charged in on the Cheyenne, surprising them and killing all 24 Cheyenne men and women, including Yellow Woman, who was the stepmother of George Bent. North's scouts lost 4 horses, but captured 18 horses and 17 mules, many with government brands showing they had been captured in the recent Battles of Red Buttes and Platte Bridge Station that had both occurred on July 26, 1865, near present-day Casper, Wyoming.[8]

The Battle of the Tongue River[edit]

Connor marched north from Fort Connor, and on August 28, his Pawnee scouts found an Arapaho village of about 600 people on the Tongue River near present-day Ranchester, Wyoming.

The mountain man Jim Bridger was a guide for Connor during the Powder River Expedition.

The next day, August 29, Connor attacked the village, whose leader was Black Bear, with 250 cavalrymen, and 80 Pawnee Scouts. The people in the village were primarily women, children, and old men. Most of the warriors were absent, engaged in a war with the Crow on the Bighorn River. The surprised Indians fled the village, but regrouped and counterattacked and Connor was dissuaded from pursuing them. The soldiers destroyed the village, captured about 500 horses, and 8 women and 13 children who were subsequently released. Conner claimed to have killed 35 Arapaho warriors, a probably exaggerated estimate, at a cost to himself of 2 killed and five wounded. Connor then turned around and returned to Fort Connor, harassed by the Arapaho en route. The Arapaho, who had not been overly hostile before, now joined the Sioux and Cheyenne.[9][10][11]

Sawyers' expedition[edit]

Meanwhile, an expedition commanded by Lieut. Col. James A. Sawyers consisting of train of 80 wagons, engineers, supplies, and escorting soldiers of Companies C and D of the 5th U.S. Volunteer Infantry was en route to meet Connor on the Powder River with the plan to continue on to Montana. Sawyers' group was to construct a new road for the use of emigrants to the Montana gold fields.

The Battle of Bone Pile Creek[edit]

On August 13, 1865, the soldiers, civilians, and wagon train of the Sawyers Expedition were moving west. The soldiers accompanying the train included a battalion of the 5th U.S. Volunteer Infantry, Companies C, and D, under the command of Captain George Williford. In the evening near Pumpkin Butte, Cheyenne and Sioux Native American Warriors attacked the train, killing Nathaniel Hedges, a 19-year-old civilian employee. Later in the evening of the thirteenth, the wagons were corralled near Bone Pile Creek, and Hedges was buried at the center of the corral. The next morning, the warriors returned and attacked again. The warriors again attacked the corralled wagons on the fifteenth, but they could not overtake the wagon train. Chief Red Cloud of the Sioux, and Dull Knife of the Cheyenne, accompanied by George Bent and Charles Bent of the Cheyenne negotiated with Lieutenant Colonel Sawyers for a safe passage of the wagon train in exchange for one wagon's load of supplies. Soldiers of the 5th U.S. Volunteer Infantry reported that at this time that the Cheyenne warrior George Bent was dressed in a United States military uniform. Sawyers agreed to give the supplies, which included a wagon full of sugar, bacon, coffee, flour, and tobacco. When the wagons began moving again, the Natives attacked again, killing Privates Anthony Nelson, and John Rawze. The soldiers fired back, killing two warriors, and the Native Americans quickly withdrew from the corralled wagons. After burying Private Nelson beside Nathaniel Hedges, and being unable to locate the body of Private Rawze, the Sawyers Expedition continued on.[12]

Sawyers' fight[edit]

On September 1, 1865, Arapaho warriors, infuriated by the destruction of their village on the Tongue River, attacked Sawyers' wagon train, killing three men. Two of the Arapaho Warriors were killed. The wagon train was held under virtual siege for two weeks when it was finally rescued by Connor's forces.[13]

Cole's and Walker's expedition's[edit]

The two columns set out[edit]

Colonel Nelson D Cole, left Omaha, Nebraska, on July 1, 1865, with over 1,400 Missourians and 140 wagon-loads of supplies. His column followed the Loup River upstream and then marched across country to Bear Butte in the Black Hills, arriving there on August 13, 1865. Cole's command, during the 560 miles (900 km) of traveling, suffered from thirst, diminishing supplies, and near mutinies. Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Walker and his 600 Kansas Cavalrymen left Fort Laramie, Dakota Territory on August 6, 1865, and met up with Cole's Expedition on August 19, 1865, near the Black Hills. He had likewise suffered from shortages of water, and had lost several of his soldiers of the 16th Regiment Kansas Volunteer Cavalry from bad water. The two columns marched separately, but remained in contact as they moved west to Powder River in Montana Territory. By this time, some of the men were barefooted and many of the horses and mules were growing weak.[14]

March on Powder River[edit]

On the morning of September 1, 1865, the over 1,400 United States soldiers and civilians, of Colonel Nelson D. Cole's column of the Powder River Expedition, were encamped on Alkali Creek, a tributary of the Powder River. This was in Montana Territory, in present-day, Custer County, Montana. In the early morning, over 300 Hunkpapa, Sans Arc, and Miniconjou Lakota Sioux Warriors attacked the camps' horse herd. The first of the soldiers to respond were seven men of Battery K, in the 2nd Missouri Light Artillery Regiment. Shortly after leaving the camp, Warriors ambushed this party, and in the following battle, five of these seven soldiers became casualties, with two killed, one mortally wounded, and two wounded. Later that night, two unknown U.S. soldiers in a hunting party were killed. The known Sioux Casualties during the battle of Alkali Creek, are four unknown Warriors killed, and four unknown Warriors wounded.[14]

On the next day, Saturday, September 2, 1865, there were at least three small skirmishes with warriors. In the first, at least one warrior was killed in the fight. In the second, no casualties were reported. In the third, later in the day, two soldiers were killed, while returning to camp after a hunting trip. In desperate need of supplies, Colonel Cole and Walker decided to follow Powder River north, to search for Brigadier General Patrick E. Connor's column, and his wagon train. The expeditions continued north to the mouth of Mizpah Creek in Custer County, Montana. There, the two Colonels decided to turn back around and retrace their steps south up the Powder River, to search for Connor's left column. The Indians attacked again on September 4 and 5, 1865, in present-day Custer County, Montana. They continued to harass Cole and Walker as the soldiers moved south up Powder River.[15]

The Cheyenne warrior Roman Nose fought at the Battle of Dry Creek on September 8, 1865. Avstereoscopic image of Roman Nose.

On September 8, 1865, the over 2,000 United States soldiers and civilians of Colonel Cole's and Walker's column's were marching South, up Powder River in Montana Territory. Unbeknownst to them, a village of Over 2,500 Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho including the Cheyenne chief Roman Nose, were camped less than ten miles away. When discovering this, the Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho Warriors, not wanting the soldiers to attack their village, attacked the soldiers first. The soldiers' lead guard, was marching about one quarter of a mile ahead of the column. This command was hit first. Out of the 25 men of the lead guard, two men became casualties. After seeing this first confrontation, Lieutenant Colonel Walker sent a courier back to inform Colonel Cole of the attack. At the time, Cole was overseeing the crossing of his wagon train to the east bank of the Powder River. Cole ordered the train, out of the timber and corralled, and the 12th Missouri Cavalry to skirmish through the woods along the river bank, and to drive out a body of Indians in the woods. The soldiers pushed the Warriors off the battlefield. Near the end of the engagement, another Private was wounded. At least one Native American was killed in the engagement. A snowstorm during the night of September 8–9, 1865, caused further problems for the soldiers, most of whom were now on foot, in rags, and reduced to eating raw horse meat.[15]

On the morning of September 10, 1865, Cole's, and Walker's column's were encamped near the confluence of the Little Powder River and the Powder River when Native American Warriors appeared. There were volleys and some sporadic firing. On September 11, there was more light skirmishing. On September 13, two scouts from Brigadier General Connor's column found Walker's and Cole's column's on Powder River and informed them of the newly established Fort Connor on Powder River east of Kaycee, Wyoming. Cole, Walker and their soldiers arrived there on September 20, 1865. Connor deemed the soldiers unfit for further service and sent them back to Fort Laramie where most of them were mustered out of the army.

The soldiers in the Powder River Expedition followed Powder River from near its mouth to its headwaters.


Colonel Cole reported that the Eastern column sustained twelve men killed and two men missing. Lieutenant Colonel Walker reported that the Center column suffered one man killed and four men wounded. Cole claimed that his soldiers had killed two hundred Indians. By contrast, Walker said, "I cannot say as we killed one." Indian casualties were likely light.[16]


Connor finally united all the components of his expedition on September 24, 1865, at Fort Connor. However, orders transferring him to Utah were awaiting him when he arrived there. The 16th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry remained to staff Fort Connor and all other troops withdrew to Fort Laramie, most to be mustered out of the army.

Although achieving some successes, the expedition failed to defeat decisively or intimidate the Indians. The Cheyenne warrior, George Bent, a participant in the Battle of Dry Creek, on September 8, 1865, stated that the Lakota would have annihilated Cole's and Walker's column's had they possessed more good firearms. Indian resistance to travelers on the Bozeman Trail became more determined than ever. "There will be no more travel on that road until the government takes care of the Indians," a correspondent wrote.[17] The most important consequence of the expedition was to persuade the United States government that another effort to build and protect a wagon road from Fort Laramie to the gold fields in Montana was desirable. That conviction would lead to a renewed invasion of the Powder River country a year later and Red Cloud's War in which the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho would emerge victorious.[18]

Officers accompanying the Powder River Expedition[edit]


Right Column[edit]

  • Colonel Nelson D. Cole, Headquarters, 2nd Missouri Artillery.
  • Colonel Oliver Wells, Headquarters, 12th Missouri Cavalry.
  • Major (retired) Lyman G. Bennett, Chief Engineer, 4th Arkansas Cavalry.
  • Major Clemenz Landgraeber, Headquarters, 2nd Missouri Artillery.
  • Surgeon George Washington Corey, Headquarters, 12th Missouri Cavalry.
  • Captain McMurray, Headquarters, 2nd Missouri Artillery.
  • Captain Samuel Flagg, Battery B, 2nd Missouri Artillery.
  • Captain Jefferson Miller, Battery E, 2nd Missouri Artillery.
  • Captain William C. F. Montgomery, Battery H, 2nd Missouri Artillery.
  • Captain Edward S. Rowland, Battery K, 2nd Missouri Artillery.
  • Captain Charles H. Thurber, Battery L, 2nd Missouri Artillery.
  • Captain Napoleon Boardman, Battery M, 2nd Missouri Artillery.
  • First Lieutenant John H. Kendall, Battery L, 2nd Missouri Artillery.
  • First Lieutenant Charles H. Springer, Company B, 12th Missouri Cavalry.
  • First Lieutenant William Rinne, Battery C, 2nd Missouri Artillery.
  • Second Lieutenant Frederick J. Amsden, U.S. Signal Corps, Department of the Missouri.
  • Second Lieutenant George R. Thorne, Acting Assistant Quartermaster
  • Second Lieutenant William T. Shaver, Headquarters, 12th Missouri Cavalry.
  • Second Lieutenant Hiram L. Kelly, Battery A, 2nd Missouri Artillery (Wounded in action).
  • Second Lieutenant Philip Smiley, Battery H, 2nd Missouri Artillery.
  • Second Lieutenant Abram S. Hoagland, Battery K, 2nd Missouri Artillery.
  • Second Lieutenant James A. Ferren, Battery K, 2nd Missouri Artillery.

Central Column[edit]

Left Column[edit]

  • Colonel James H. Kidd, Headquarters, 6th Michigan Cavalry.
  • Captain Frank North, Company A, Pawnee Indian Scouts.
  • Captain Albert Brown, Company M, 2nd California Cavalry.
  • Captain Osmer F. Cole, Company L, 6th Michigan Cavalry (Killed in action).
  • Captain George Conrad, Company L, 2nd California Cavalry.
  • Captain Jacob L. Humphreyville, Company K, 11th Ohio Cavalry.
  • Captain Levi G. Marshall, Company E, 11th Ohio Cavalry.
  • Captain Edwin R. Nash, Company A, Omaha/Winnebago Indian Scouts.
  • Captain N. J. O'Brian, Company F, 7th Iowa Cavalry.
  • First Lieutenant John S. Brewer, Company F, 7th Iowa Cavalry.
  • First Lieutenant Michael Evans, Company A, Omaha/Winnebago Indian Scouts.
  • First Lieutenant Charles A. Small, Company A, Pawnee Indian Scouts.
  • Second Lieutenant Joseph Willard Brown, U.S. Signal Corps, Department of the Missouri.
  • Second Lieutenant Gavin Mitchell, Company A, Omaha/Winnebago Indian Scouts.
  • Second Lieutenant James Murie, Company A, Omaha/Winnebago Indian Scouts.
  • Second Lieutenant Alonzo V. Richards, U.S. Signal Corps, Department of the Missouri.
  • Second Lieutenant Eugene F. Ware, Company F, 7th Iowa Cavalry.

Order of battle[edit]

United States Army, Powder River Expedition, July 1,-October 4, 1865.

Division Column Regiments and Others

Powder River Expedition, Brigadier General Patrick Edward Connor, commanding.

Left, Western Column

   Colonel James H. Kidd

Central, Middle Column

   Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Walker

Right, Eastern Column

   Colonel Nelson D. Cole

Native Americans

Native Americans Tribe Leaders

Native Americans







  • Black Bear
  • Medicine Man

See also[edit]


  1. ^ McGinnis, Anthony "Strike & Retreat: Intertribal Warfare and the Powder River War, 1865-1868" Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Vol 30, No. 4 (Autumn 1980), pp. 32-34
  2. ^ Hampton, H.D. "The Powder River Expedition 1865" Montana: The Magazine of Western History,Vol.14, No. 4 (Autumn 1964), p. r
  3. ^ Hampton, p. 7
  4. ^ Hampton, p. 8; Countant, Charles Griffin, "History of Wyoming, Chapter xxxvi, http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~wytttp/history/countant/chapter36.htm, accessed 6 Aug 2012
  5. ^ http://rootswebancestry.com/~wyttp/history/countant/chapter34.htm
  6. ^ Hampton, pp. 8-9
  7. ^ Hampton, p.6
  8. ^ a b Grinnell, George Bird The Fighting Cheyennes Norman: U of OK Press, 1915, pp. 177
  9. ^ "Powder River (Montana) http://www.enotes.com/topic/Tongue_River_(Montana)?print=1, accessed 9 Aug 2012
  10. ^ Hampton, p. 13
  11. ^ McDermott, John Dishon (2003). Circle of Fire: The Indian War of 1865. Stackpole Books. pp. 112. ISBN 978-0-8117-0061-0
  12. ^ Doyle, Susan. Journeys to the Land of Gold: Emigrant Diaries from the Bozeman Trail, 1863-1866. 
  13. ^ Grinnell, pp. 208-209;McDermott, p. 124-127
  14. ^ a b Hampton, p. 10
  15. ^ a b Wagner, David E.; Bennett, Lyman G. (2009). Powder River Odyssey: Nelson Cole's Western Campaign of 1865, The Journals of Lyman G. Bennett and Other Eyewitness Accounts. Arthur H. Clark Co. ISBN 978-0-87062-370-7. 
  16. ^ Hyde, George E. Life of George Bent: Written from his Letters Norman: U of OK press, pp. 240-241
  17. ^ Brown, Dee. "The Fetterman Massacre Lincoln: U of NE Press, 1962, p. 15
  18. ^ Hampton, p. 14