Yellowstone Genealogy Forum


Northern Pacific Railroad Survey – 1871 to 1873

[Reference: Illustrated History of Yellowstone County, 1907] 

Revised 31 October 2002


The 1871 Survey Plan (Recap)

Northern Pacific Railway was provided a government charter that provided for government protection against hostile Indians during the surveys and construction. In 1871 Captain Hall, along with a company of men from Fort Ellis, were assigned to accompany the NPR surveyors led by Mr. Muhlenberg.

The route survey started out from Bozeman in the late fall, and ran easterly to a point near the mouth of Pryor’s Creek; to a location they called “Place-of-the-Skulls.” The route was on the north side of the Yellowstone River. Here they abandoned their survey effort due to heavy snowfall, and returned to Bozeman. No Indians were encountered, and the troops were disbanded.

The 1872 Survey Plan

In early spring of 1872 NPR initiated action to carry on their surveys in an intensified manner, and called upon the government to provide protection. They planned to run rail lines over a vast region going from the base of the Rocky Mountains to the Missouri River at Bismarck. This route clearly was passing through hostile Sioux Indian land. Two survey parties were established, one starting out from Bismarck, and one from the place on the Yellowstone River that they abandoned the previous year. They also planned to complete a survey of the valley from there to the mouth of the Powder River. Here the two survey teams were expected to meet.

        The survey party that started west had an escort of nearly 1,000 men, commanded by Col David S. Stanley, 22nd Infantry. They had virtually nothing to do with the events that transpired in Yellowstone Valley, and their efforts are not mentioned here.

        Col John Gibbon, 7th Infantry, and District of Montana, assigned Major Eugene M. Baker as the escort commander for the survey party that started east. Companies C, E, G, and I of the 2nd Calvary from Fort Ellis were under his command.

General Hancock, in his 1872 annual report stated: “On the 29th of June I received instructions from the lieutenant general to prepare two commands as escorts for two surveying parties of the Northern Pacific Railroad, one to proceed from Fort Rice on the Missouri River about 240 miles and return, the other to start from Fort Ellis, Montana, proceed to the mouth of Powder river, 310 miles, and return by way of the Mussellshell river.”

On July 13th the respective companies met at Shields River (Presently Park County) and were joined by Col Hayden and his corps of survey engineers. From here they marched slowly downstream to the juncture where they stopped surveying last year. It was an easy trip, and no Indians were encountered. On August 13th, having reached their previous location, they camped on the north side of the river near to where the Pryor Creek enters the Yellowstone.  Not seeing any Indians along the way Col Baker took no special precautions to guard against an attack. However, there were a few Indian dogs in the vicinity, and some of the men in his command believed that “the Redskins” were not far away. [According to Lt James H Bradley, Col Baker became intoxicated that night and was unfit for the performance of his duties.]

Previously, on the 12th of August, a large force of 800 – 1,000 Sioux warriors was making their way upstream to locate and fight the Crows. Their advance scouts discovered the survey party and after a short council, it was decided to check out the security during the night of the 13th, and attack on the morning of the 14th. The camp selected by Col Baker was in an ideal location, and could have been easily defended had precautions been taken. None were established, but through the special efforts of the officer of the guard (Lt William Logan), the forthcoming attack was not disastrous.

“The Sioux attack was well planned. They posted several hundred warriors close to the lower side of the camp, where they were completely screened from view by timber and willow. The main body of the Indian’s force was to attack on the landward side of the camp so as to draw the soldiers in that direction. This would allow the others to ambush from their concealment, cut through the camp, loose the horses, and cause confusion by the rearward attack. On the evening of the 13th, under cover of darkness, they reconnoitered the camp and stole several saddles out of the tents of some prospectors that had joined the party. They also cut lines and made off with six mules picketed near Col Baker’s tent. They also killed a dog that threatened to betray them.”

“Lt Logan, command of 26 men, suspected the presence of Indians, and made all preparations to guard against surprise that were possible under the circumstances. His guard was posted on the flank of the camp, away from the river and some 300 yards distant there form, his sentinels covering the camp as far as possible while the herds of beef cattle and mules of the government and contractor’s trains, which had been left out to graze, were held well under cover of the guard of the island like location of the camp, with a squad of herders over them to prevent straggling or stampede. The horses of the Cavalry were tied at the picket lines within the limits of the camp.”

“About three o’clock in the morning of August 14th, the officer of the guard made the round of his sentinels and found all quiet, the animals having ceased to graze and having lain down in the space between the guard tents and timber growing along the slough. [Where the Indians were hiding] Only a little while after this tour of inspection the Indians made their attack.”

“From the timber at different points along the landward side of the slough the Indians opened fire and advanced upon the island to attempt capture of the herd. In a moment the boldest of them were mingled with the animals, but the few men posted over the herd stood their ground manfully, opening a rapid fire upon the assailants at close range, and at the same time attempting to put the herd in motion toward the corral. The guard was instantly under arms, and by judicious management the animals were driven gently to the rear, the Sioux who had sought to stampede them being forced by the fire of the guard to fall back. A few moments sufficed to enable Lt Logan to throw the entire guard between the Sioux and the herd, where, deployed as skirmishers and lying down in the long grass, the men opened fire upon the moving forms dimly seen before them through the gloom. After the first volley the Sioux maintained a scattering fire, but the unexpectedly hot reception given them by the guard soon caused them to retire from the timber to the open ground beyond, and, within a few moments after the attack began, the ground was cleared of them and their fire had subsided into a few straggling shots.”

According to Lt James H Bradley, after interviews with soldiers, citizens and Indians who took part in the battle, and after a site visit in 1876, concluded: “The camp was pitched upon ground favorable for defense, being located on the margin of the stream, with a timbered slough sweeping in a semi-circular direction around it so as to form in connection with the river that may be termed an island of two or three acres area, the whole at long rifle range from the adjacent bluffs. To have rendered the position wholly secure, however, it would have been necessary to guard the slough that it could not be occupied by the enemy as a preliminary to their attack; but this was not done. Fortunately, it was rather the purpose of the Indians to get possession of the animals of the command with as little fighting as possible than to gain any decisive advantage over the troops, and their plans were laid accordingly.”

For continuation of specific details and listing of personnel wounded in the attack, see “Chapter II of Yellowstone County History.”

After the fight, the survey continued east, and on August 20th at a point about six miles west of Pompeys Pillar, the whole command turned toward the Musselshell River. The survey continued across the valley (Yellowstone County) to the Musselshell and up its south fork. On September 25th the survey expedition was disbanded, the survey plans abandoned, and the troops left for their respective posts. Both parties blamed the other for the failure to complete the survey mission plan.

“On the 13th of July, 1872, Companies C, E, G and I, under the command of Captain C. C. Rawn, left Fort Shaw as part of the force organized for the protection of the engineers of the Northern Pacific Railroad, in their surveying expedition down the Yellowstone River. On the 1st of August the command broke camp, continuing its march without incident until the 12th, when it arrived about twelve miles below the terminus of the surveyof the previous year. On the 13th the command remained in camp near Pryor's Fork. At about 2.45 A. m. on the morning of the 14th the camp was attacked by a war party of Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. The troops were immediately deployed and then advanced steadily, driving the Indians out of the timber and occupying it. The fire was kept up from this time until 7.30 A. M., when the Indians withdrew. From the darkness of the morning it was impossible to estimate correctly the number of Indians engaged, but it has been estimated at from 400 to 800. Only two bodies were found, the gloom enabling the Indians to carry off their wounded and slain. The companies lost two killed and ten wounded. After the Indians had retreated, the march was continued down the Yellowstone, but no further trouble was made that year by the Indians.”[1]


The 1873 Survey Plan


Before the survey effort from the previous year was re-started, Chief Red Cloud, in July of 1873 stated a warning that the railroad should not be laid across his country, and was on hand to oppose the surveyor’s progress.

General DS Stanley was placed in command of the survey support party. He had 1,500 men at his command, plus an abundance of ammunition and supplies. General Custer, who commanded 450 men of the 7th Cavalry, was a part of the force. He was assigned the duty of proceeding up the Yellowstone and looking for a practical road to be used for the supply wagons and artillery. On the 4th of August, near the mouth of the Tongue River, Custer was attacked and the Indians tried to draw m him into an ambush that failed. The Indians [Sioux] then moved up the valley with Custer in chase. On the night of August 9th the Sioux war party of 800 warriors attacked Custer’s men. After a long battle the Sioux were driven back. After this second major attempt to disrupt the survey expeditions, the Sioux did little more than harass the troops just to annoy them.

The survey continued from a point six miles west of Pompeys Pillar, and on September 15th they turned north and went to Fort Peck. At Fort Peck, the expedition disbanded, and the troops went back to their posts.

Other 1873 Expeditions and Minor Surveys

This year was also the first reported attempt to navigate the Yellowstone River. Col Brown headed up a command that consisted of 149 mountaineers, 17 wagons, and a special weapon called “The Big Horn Gun.” The purpose was to prospect for minerals and fight the Sioux Indians. It started out from Bozeman and descended the river as far as the Big Horn. From there they crossed over to the Rosebud River and engaged in fighting the Cheyenne and Sioux warriors. The gun they used was obtained from the Platte to Bozeman march that was made in 1870. It was loaded with cut-up fragments of old horseshoes, and caused much desecration of the Indians who were hit.

The escort party for the surveyors in General Stanley’s command [noted above] made the trip up the Yellowstone River; supplies were brought in by boat, as far as Glendive Creek. The Key West [Packet Boat] made it as far as Wolf Rapids [below Miles City.] Businessmen in Bozeman became excited and wanted to create a wagon road from their village [Bozeman] to the mouth of the Yellowstone River. They also sought federal aid to improve the riverbed. Nothing but plans were made for the road and the river improvement during this year.

1874 Wagon Road

In January active preparations were started to create the wagon road. A large expedition was sent down river to the head of the navigation point on the Yellowstone. The group were supposed to locate that point, and where a connection with the packet boats could be made, and then on to the terminus of the NPR. They also were to make a stockade to defend the site against hostile Indians. The expedition was well armed and provisioned. They had over 200 horses and mules, 28 yoke of oxen, 22 wagons loaded with supplies and provisions for four months. They carried two artillery pieces and 150 rounds of artillery shells. All men were armed with the latest breech-loading rifles, and had over 40,000 rounds of ammunition. They believed that the point they were seeking was at the Tongue River junction, where it was thought that there were rich mines of gold in the area. This was also believed to be the head of navigation on the Yellowstone. They were enroute for three months and traversed 600 miles; had four skirmishes with Indians. The expedition failed in its purpose, no roadway was established, and they simply reported:

        “It seems scarcely possible that anyone would attempt to build a permanent home in that part of the Yellowstone valley … when Indians held the country in full control.


This ends the NPR early route survey expeditions. The Surveyor General had the NPR route and its 40-mile corridor of land acquisition rights [20 sections of land for each mile of track laid] posted on their maps, starting with 1868. The route was fully on the north side of the Yellowstone River, after having crossed near the Powder River junction.

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