Early Trails in Clark’s Fork - Pryor Creek Region


Revised 30 March 2003 [Added Sawyer’s 1st Trail Comments by General Dodge]

Wednesday, May 30, 2012 – Added French’s gravesite 1864 reference.


Early pioneers and fortune seekers traveling into the area for settlement (or just passing through) created trails that have been presented by most genealogical researchers in generalized verbal or visual form. These renditions vary from publication to publication, and soon it becomes difficult to understand where these settlers traveled. This small section describes precisely where the major trails and wagon roads used by the white man were actually located. The lands surrounding the Clark’s Fork Bottom (Yellowstone County – Crow Indian Reservation) are mainly rugged vertical sandstone bluffs rising about 500 feet above the Yellowstone River’s stream bed. The remainder of the land east of the river contains steep rolling hills, deeply cut with streambeds and creeks. In the spring these waterways are generally full of water, but by early summer they are dry. The soil itself is typically hard-packed when dry, but extremely soft and clayey when wet. Travelers, even those walking on this type of soil, can destroy the sparse vegetation growth for decades, traveling by wagon and horses will leave impressions that last for centuries.


After settlers gained a strong foothold in the area, including the Indian landowners, the face of the land started to dramatically change: trails and small streams were plowed under and flattened to accommodate farming needs; permanent roadbeds were created for easier travel, and rail lines established for the movement of freight. If one wanted to “walk” the path of an immigrant settler, it is essential to first identify where the probably roadway was, based upon available letters, diaries, and maps. Then by extracting the trail; from the original survey notes available at the BLM and creating a personal map of the route, it is possible to overlay the current area map to determine exactly where that trail existed. Virtually all of these trails are embedded within private homeowner’s lands, and permissions to cross will be required. The BLM maps contained within the surveyor’s field notes typically depict exact directions of objects, precise locations and widths of streams, heights to plateaus, gullies, streambeds and the like. Generally these are created in a quarter-section grid for the area being surveyed.




TRC Mariah Associates in preparation of the Annals of Wyoming created this map for the: “The History Journal”. It is a very good general depiction of where the trails to Bozeman are located. The solid lines represent the Bridger Trail; the dots represent two Bozeman trail routes. This map provides an excellent starting point for creation of your own map.














This is a portion of the Jim Bridger map he created and was used in the Powder River Expedition as presented by Stanley Vestal in 1946. There are other sections to the map that shows the route leading to Bozeman, but all are very sparse of details and one would need a guide to follow it. Lake De Smet depicted here was named after Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, a Jesuit missionary to the Indians. The trail passes through the Dakota Territory (From Wyoming into Montana).






















This is a typical 36-Section Plat of a parcel of land east and south of the Yellowstone River that was surveyed in 1878. The hills are shaded, and the dashed wriggly lies represent streams. The solid lines are trails that existed in the area. Some of these go into settler lands. Each section is approximately one mile square. These maps were created from the surveyors’ notes. The BLM files these maps first by Range, then Township. Copies of each map currently costs about $1.15 to reproduce, and is about 2 ft square in size. Microfilm copies of the field notes and maps were prohibited as of April 2002. The BLM has currently posted the survey images on their web site.


The early local area maps were created from field survey notes from surveyors, Walter W. de Lacy, William McElroy, Malcolm A. Swan, Samuel Burdock, Loomis E. Minott, and many others. They span survey years from 1878 to 1902. To understand where the actual trails were, it is necessary to connect the trails together from several maps before establishing the most probable route. The trails are quite often identified by name on the survey, but since these maps were created months apart, the names are sometimes slightly different. For example: There are three specific trails to Bozeman depicted in the area, but historians generally refer to the last one with the shortest route created by the Sawyer Expedition in 1866 as the “Bozeman Trail”. The others are various Trails to Bozeman, including the one used by John Bozeman & John Jacobs when they led settlers through the area.


Generally the trails follow the streambeds, or preferably traverse the rocky hillside plateaus wherever they can. It wasn’t until the Sawyers’ Expeditions graded real roads (had the wagon trains keep in single-file to leave wagon ruts was their primary method) through the area, that an understanding of where the water source was, and what obstacles had to be overcome for travelers. Of course, all this came at the time when Indian Tribal Treaties prohibited the creations of the roadways, and war broke out.






Clark’s Fork Valley & Pryor Creek Area Trails




“For centuries Indians and other travelers used a trail up Bitter Creek. In 1900 it became the “Coburn to Billings Road’. This stage and freight route originated at the Coburn Depot, connecting the Railroad Line with Billings .The trail up Pryor Valley went around the Pryor Mountains into Northern Wyoming by two routes. The easterly route left Pryor Creek at Hay Creek, continuing through East Pryor Country and joined the Sioux, Shoshone, or Bad Pass Trail through the Dry Head Area. The other trial went past Pryor Agency, through Pryor Gap and Bowler Flats on the “Big Horn Basin wagon road’. The trail going through Pryor Valley has also been referred to as “Billings to Mee-Tse-Tse road’ on early survey maps. (Late 1800’s) Two other trails that crossed near the Pryor Mountains were the Bozeman and Bridger Trails. These, as well as many other routes, were originally buffalo trails traversed by explorers, Indians and trappers [1].”[The Bitter Creek connection to the Yellowstone River from Pryor Creek appears to not have been used by wagon trains following the trail created by John Bozeman in 1863, but used by name for the 1865-1866 travels. Instead they traversed west over the ridgelines. The route passing through Hay Creek at the Pryor Creek junction is the primary subject of this investigation. It appears on the 1868, 1871 and 1872 Surveyor General maps of Montana.]


 Area Trail Summary


There are several separate and distinct trails identified in various early maps and early years, and identified as either the Bozeman Trail, or the Bridger Trail; but often known as “the Montana Road.”. The detailed findings explained in the following pages and attached links show where most of these trails are specifically located, although since these roads didn’t all have boundary & route markers, the few settlers and freighters who used them wandered about quite a bit, depending upon the weather, and if they had a clear understanding of where it was that they were headed. There wasn’t much to go on, especially without a guide who was intimately familiar with the area. This accounting concentrates on the Sawyers Expeditions.


John Bozeman & John Jacobs (Guide) - 1863 Trail             


They traveled east from Bannock without wagons, in an attempt to open up a shorter route to the gold fields [via the North Platte River & east of the Big Horn Mountains area]; thus establishing the beginnings of what was later to be known as “the Bozeman Trail.” They crossed the Yellowstone River west of Billings, and proceeded down river on its south side until they reached the Sacrifice Cliff area. Here they ascended the cliffs, probably in the large rift between the river and the Indian Caves. From there they headed almost due east across the Indian Badlands, until they reached the junction of the Little Big Horn River & the Big Horn River. From there they proceeded nearly due south. This trail is noted on the 1865 map created by Walter deLacy for use in Montana’s first territorial legislative session. They attempted in the summer to lead a wagon trail westward into the gold fields, but were turned back by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors after they had traveled only about 120 miles from North Platte. John Bozeman returned with some other men and they traveled without wagons into Montana.


John Bozeman Wagon Trail - 1864 Trail


John Bozeman returned to the North Platte trailhead and successfully led a wagon train to Virginia City following his newly created route. [The definitive location of this route in the local area has not been researched, since it was not part of the Sawyers Expedition investigation.] This was, however, the only wagon train that he led or accompanied. Apparently the wagon train missed the Little Big Horn River (either by accident or deliberately) and ended up following War Man Creek to the Big Horn River; thus establishing the trail the was first used by the settlers who followed. From there they crossed the River, and traveled northwest across the Indian Badlands, and reached Pryor Creek almost due east of the Sacrifice Cliff area. From there they traveled to the north side of the cliff area, returned back south up the cliff gentle north slopes, and then down the rift into the flat land on the south side of the Yellowstone River. According to some military reports, John Bozeman had marked the trail with sticks. [Note: Detailed study of the two trails is required before a final determination of the exact route can be platted.]


Just off the trail, as it passes through Carbon County, a small grouping of rocks form a rectangular indentation, about 20 inches by 40 inches, forming a child’s coffin-like appearance. Two rocks, wedged in vertically at each end, mark the head and foot of a grave for “Florence Allyson French”, who died from “brain fever.” The story of the French family, and how this girl came to have died and buried there in 1864, and the grave located, was reported in the Billings Gazette, 10 July 2001; “Sad, sorrowing way.”


Jim Bridger Wagon Trail - 1864


Jim Bridger was a long time guide and trapper in the area, and knew the area quite well. After Bozeman created his route on the eastern side of the Big Horn Mountains, Bridger established a safer, more secure route on the west side in an area called the Pryor Mountains. This trail passed through a split in the mountains [Pryor Mountain and West Pryor Mountain] called Pryor Gap. After reaching the valley floor between the South Hills and the mountains, the trail traversed north near the junction of Machetta & Willow Creeks, then through either Four-Corners or joined with the Cottonwood Creek Trail, and up onto the South Hills plateau in the vicinity of the Twin monuments, and over to Silesia, following the edge of South Hills’ rims. Later, he created a cutoff that traversed on the west side of the mountains, referred to as “Bridger Cutoff.” These routes are ploted on the survey maps.


John Bozeman Wagon Trail - 1864 to 1865


Some emigrants seeking quick passage to the gold fields started to travel the 1864 trail established by John Bozeman. From diary excerpts, it appears that most of these trains got lost or confused in the landscape as they made their way across the Indian lands. However, it appears that they all made it through the same general area as laid out by John Bozeman. Instead of traveling north of Sacrifice Cliff, they approached it from the southeast, and ended up at or near the Hill Climb (Off-Road Vehicle) area, and then down to the flat land on the south side of the river through the use of ropes.


Bozeman Wagon Trail - 1865 to 1866 (Sawyers First Expedition)


This was a government-funded road building expedition. He initially received $20,000 from Congress, although the total reported amount received for the effort was $50,000. He followed War Man Creek up to its junction with the Big Horn River, and then north about two miles, where he then crossed. He hired a guide to assist in the westward journey, but his services were useless. He had to follow the trail left by the wagon trains that preceded him. He traveled northwest across the Badlands, reaching Pryor Creek near to Wetts Creek, where he crossed. From there he ascended the South Hills plateau [Blue Creek Road] and traveled nearly due north into the hill climb area, where had to cut passage through the gaps in the hills to descend with the wagon trains into the land area just east of where the old south bridge [1884] was constructed. From there he followed the natural curvatures of the land southwest, crossing Clark’s Fork near Davis Creek. He then continued on to a point on the north side of Rock Creek, about six miles from Edgar, where he joined up with the Bridger Trail. Sawyers noted that had he traveled due west from the Big Horn crossing, he could save several miles.


During the Powder River Campaign, under General Connor, he issued orders in July to send companies of the Fifth US Volunteers, with two howitzers, under Captain G. W. Williford, to act as escort for Col Sawyer’s road construction party. The route was established to be from Sioux City along the Niobrara, via Fort Connor and the Big Horn Mountains, to Virginia City in Montana Territory. They suffered many difficulties and were attacked three times by a large force of Cheyenne’s near Powder River, but succeeded in driving the attackers off. The wagon train had 80 wagons, emigrants and others. Sawyer’s was to make a wagon road, but his expedition was a failure as far as constructing a road was concerned. “The group had a heavy train belonging to private parties, and while the prime objective was to survey and make a road through a country comparatively unknown, its real purpose seems to have been to take the train through, and to that end its efforts were devoted, instead of making a road, building bridges, etc[1].” Captain Williford was assigned only as escort and took no part in the command until he was obliged to do so at one point in order to save the train. General Connor sent word to Col Sawyer’s group not to attempt to penetrate the country as it was deemed impenetrable. Col Sawyer ignored the command from General Connor, and the advise of his guides, and continued on. They made it to the Bad Lands of Powder River, and at that point about 60 miles north of Fort Connor, were extracted by Capt Williford and taken back to Fort Connor. Col Sawyer’s guides were unfamiliar with the countryside they were to pass through. Captain Williford, in his letter [Extracted below] dated August 29, 1865 about the events:


“In compliance with orders dated April 25, 1865, Companies C and D proceeded via Steamer JH Lucy to the mouth of the Niobrara River for the purpose of escorting a party of engineers opening a wagon road from that point westward. On the 13th of June we started out, marching about ten to fifteen miles a day. On the 16th Lt John R. Woods and 24 men belonging to Company B, First Dakota Volunteers, reporting to me, joined us. When we reached within 20 miles of Powder River it was determined by our guide that the country was too rough to advance the way we were going. We retraced our steps. On the 2nd day of our retreat we were attacked by several thousand Indian warriors, who kept us corralled for nearly four days. After the siege they left, and we pursued our journey to a point some 60 miles farther south, where we struck General Connor’s trail on the 22nd. On the 23rd our command was found to be only 15 miles from Fort Connor, and received orders from General Connor to report with the detachment to that post for duty. The order relieved me of command and ordered Colonel James H. Kidd, of the Sixth Michigan Cavalry to furnish suitable escort for the engineering party. In the engagement with the Indians Orland Sous (John Rouse), Anthony Nelson from Company B; and Nathan D. Hedges, sutler with the Sawyer train, were killed.”


General Dodge reported that a fine wagon road already exists from Sioux City to Montana via Fort Laramie [South Pass Trail.] He stated further, “that Col Sawyer’s wagon party endeavored this season to find a road on the route directly to Montana via the Powder River and north of the Little Horn River. The obstacles were too great and they abandoned the attempt, struck south and took the road made by General Connor from Fort Laramie to the base of the Big Horn Mountains. Then to Three Forks, and on to Virginia City… From the Platte [North Platte River] is a fine natural road and with the exception of running water for 100 miles from the Platte to Powder River, is abundantly supplied with clear running water, grass, wood and game. The road is marked on the military maps.”


This road previously used to reach Virginia City followed the North Platte River to South Pass, then up the Snake River. This is a trail used by the fur trappers in the 1830’s. The newer road, on which Fort Connor is situated (renamed Fort Reno on November 11, 1865), saves about 350 miles in journey. From Fort Laramie to Three Forks the distance saved is 450 miles. The military operations under General Connor opened this road in the summer of 1865. It was planned that all travel from the Platte to Montana would use that road in the future, after the Indian operations were concluded. Congressional funding requests were in process to improve this road initially called “the Connor Road.” Fort Connor”, is about 70 miles north of North Platte River, on the east side of the Big Horn Mountain Range. Sawyer followed the road northwest until they intersected the emigrant trail seven miles south of Clear Creek. Col Kidd placed Captain Don G. Lovell in charge of the military escort. Connor’s guide for part of his campaign during this time period was Jim Bridger, and he left a note for Sawyer on Prairie Dog advising them to turn left at the fork, and take the old Bozeman Road (emigrant trail.) They followed his instructions and crossed Goose Creek before reaching the Tongue River on August 31st.


Major Jim Bridger was General Connor’s guide when the military created the new road (Connor’s Road); a name that was almost immediately forgotten, and almost instantly became the Montana Road or Bozeman Trail. The section from North Platte (essentially at Fort Laramie), and north to Fort Connor (at Dry Fork of the Powder River), then on to a point a few miles south of Clear Creek (Buffalo, WY) about one mile east of the Big Horn Mountains, was where it intersected the emigrant trail established mainly by Jim Bridger in 1859. This is the section of road referred to by General Dodge in his summary letters to Congress, and on his map was noted as “Road a-a”. This replaced the former piece of road used by the earlier emigrants who traveled down Salt Creek (the east fork of the Powder River) traversed due south of Fort Connor, about 20 miles to the west of the newer road. From there north the road was the route used by the emigrants to reach the Big Horn River, crossing about six to eight miles downstream of the Big Horn Canyon, then across in a northwest direction to Sacrifice Cliff, and on to Virginia City. In the following year, the route went straight west from the Big Horn River crossing until it reached Clark’s Fork River. The reported claims that there was a good wagon-road all the way to Virginia City as stated by General Dodge, was misleading, as is shown in the following details of the route through Yellowstone & Big Horn Counties. There is no evidence that from the Big Horn River west that the military did any road construction during this year, or the next.


“On August 29, 1865 in a dawn attack, General Connor led 330 troops and scouts against Chief Black Bear's Arapahoe village that was camped on the Tongue River. The Indians lost 250 lodges and 1,100 horses. Connor was victorious over superior numbers; however, he had carried the fighting to women and children, apparently indirect violation of his stated agreement with his superiors of August 11th. For this, Connor was relieved of his command and returned to the military District of Utah where he was discharged as a Brevet Major-General in the spring of 1866. From August 31 to September 1865, a thirteen-day time span, the Arapahoe Indians fought and harassed Colonel J.A. Sawyer's road building expedition at the Tongue River Crossing on the Bozeman Trail. This fight was undoubtedly in retaliation for Connor's dawn attack made two days earlier on the Arapahoe village four miles to the east. Sawyers abandoned his road project and was attempting to return to Fort Connor when a relief party from General Connor’s command came to save him, and then they escorted them on towards the Montana gold fields.[2]


Bozeman Wagon Trail - 1866 (Sawyers Second Expedition)


This expedition was not funded, but he was determined to establish a route due west across the Indian lands that lay in the Prior Mountain area. At the time he started out on his journey, the local area was almost at war, travel was restricted, and many wagon trains were being attacked by the Sioux Indians who were off their allotted reservation from the 1851 treaty. He was heavily armed, and was granted a pass to proceed through the area. His was apparently the only wagon train that passed through unmolested. He followed the War Man Creek trail until he was about three miles southeast of the Big Horn River. He then cut across the land and ended up about two miles north of the canyon entrance, where he crossed. [This was about six miles south of his previous year’s crossing.] From there we went almost due west, passing through the valley just south of the South Hills Plateau, and crossing Clark’s Fork where Edgar is located, and onto the intersection of his earlier trail on the north side of Rock Creek. He saved about 29 miles over his previous route. This trail was very short-lived as it was soon to be closed.


Bozeman Wagon Trail - 1866 (Jim Bridger Train & Military Road)


Col. Carrington was under orders to establish three forts in the Indian Lands. [These were to eventually be named: Phil Kearny, C. F. Smith, and Fisher.] The first two forts were established, and Jim Bridger was assigned the responsibility to establish the route for the Bozeman Military Road from Fort Phil Kearny to the gold fields. He laid out the trail to Fort C. F. Smith; about two weeks after the Sawyers Second Expedition had passed through. He then was assigned to lead several very large wagon trains across the Indian lands and on to the gold fields, and then establish the site for Fort Fisher on the Yellowstone River, and the route for the road itself. He crossed the Big Horn at Fort C. F. Smith, and then proceeded to follow the Sawyers Second Expedition across the Indian Lands. He made a few minor changes in the Sawyers route after reaching the South hills area, but arrived at the same Edgar location. This was where he initially planned for Col. Carrington to establish Fort Fisher. [The fort was never created.] This was essentially the end of emigrant travel on the trails, as all such traffic was stopped. Bridger identified the Bozeman Trail - Military Montana Road in detail, and the listing was reported in Col. Carrington’s report of military affairs on the reservation, along with an accompanying map. This route was defined as being the one he used to traverse the area.


Fort C. F. Smith Wagon Supply Route - 1867 to 1868 (The Last Bozeman Trail)


Jim Bridger returned to Fort C. F. Smith on 29 September after completing the journey above, along with some military escort, bringing news that the gold fields had played out. The rushed need for the military route vanished. In returning, he was spotted on the edge of South Hills bluffs west of Pryor Creek. The trail hasn’t been recorded as such in journals, excepting for this one comment. Nelson Story and Perry McAdow established a trade contract with Fort C. F. Smith in early 1867 to supply them with produce and other food supplies from Gallatin Valley. They held this contract until the fort’s closure in 1868. The road used by them is defined in early Surveyor General Maps for the years 1868 to 1872. There is considerable distortion in the exact location of the major creeks in the area, due to the fact that no “land survey” had been accomplished until 1878 and later; but the relative locations of creek junctions are clearly identified, from which the trail-road locations can be transcribed onto the early survey maps of the region. This road crosses Clark’s Fork near Silesia, travels along the ridge lines of the South hills area, passing through the Twin Monuments location, the north end of Cottonwood Creek Road, through the summit of Yellowstone County, onto McCormick’s Hill, and down Monument Creek to Pryor Creek, where it crosses and through Devil’s Gap [an area with straight sided walls along side of Hay Creek], and o to the Big Horn River. This is a fairly smooth road to travel, and can be traversed almost in its entirety by automobile, although permission to traverse has to be obtained from current landowners. This route is almost completely defined on the early survey maps. In traveling from the Twin Monuments, and on to McCormick’s Hill, there is a wide arrangement of stone trail markers, that border what appear to be aged wagon wheel ruts following close along the cliff edges. At McCormick’s Hill there is evidence of minor road construction at that point to make the trail more accessible for two-way traffic. Going eastward, one can descend the cliff edges at McCormick’s Hill with wagons, but would not be able to ascend without the prepared cut. It is believed that the name Monument Creek, and monument Trail came about from these route markers that border the trail across this eastern section of land. After 1868, all traffic was stopped until after 1878, when all Indian wars were essentially stopped. Soon thereafter, freighting started in earnest, and was used to support supplies needed by the Crow Indians, and the land lease grazing permittee holders in the area. Paul McCormick in the early 1880's and on through the early 1900's was a major lease holder, as well as contractor for feed and supplies. Lease proposals on the Crow reservation used his fence line as reference points for their location. After the 1884 South Bridge was constructed, freighting apparently increased, and the Monument Trail became known by the Crow Indians as “McCormick’s Trail..At the top of McCormick’s Hill, before settlers arrived, Red Eye Smith’s saloon located on the flat area at the top, was a respite for the sheep herders.




Location of the South Hills - Sawyers Trail Routes


The area routes depicted below identify the common trails in use during the1880’s. The main travel route, shown on the north side of Yellowstone River existed for many years as an Indian and trapper trail. In mid-1880 various river and railroad surveyors used it as they traversed the area. By this time the mode of travel shifted from walking and horseback to the use of numerous wagons retained by the army guards. This probably started to leave deep ruts into the landscape, and need for creation of close-by parallel paths for smoother travel. Review of the detailed survey notes show the existence of pieces of the parallel trails. (Currently all covered with houses and tilled farmland.) This trail became a full-fledged road when the area was officially opened for settlement, after the area plat map was submitted to the Bozeman Land Office in April 1877. Survey for the map was performed in 1876, but no land markers were created. Stage travel was established between Bozeman and Tongue River (Miles City.), and the maps indicated that the route was established and so named by October 1878 [Bozeman to Tongue River.] One of the first persons to travel the planned stage route was William Alonzo Allen in September 1877, when he was asked to “check out the route.” Prior to that time, the existing Indian trail’s name hasn’t been identified. Allen at that time was hired on to be a blacksmith for the stage line, and he resided in the Coulson area. This route traversed the low land lying to north side of the Yellowstone River, and for the most part was quite near to the river itself. Parts of this trail were reported to be impassable during rainy seasons. A parallel, drier trail was in existence that traversed the higher elevations along the rimed mountainous areas a few miles further to the north. This trail also provided better protection from possible enemies, but was longer in distance. Very little evidence of its existence or exact locations remains. Heavy freighter wagons , as well as the stage lines, used these trails to haul merchandise between the settlements.


There are numerous biographies about John Bozeman and the trail he founded that led gold seekers into the territory through a shortcut he created. Portions of that trail passed through the area that eventually became Yellowstone County. The 1878-1902 surveyed locations of that trail are presented in the map [scaled down from a much larger one], and overlaid with the corresponding Sawyer Expedition road construction diary locations for 1865 and 1866. These diary notes locate three versions of the “Bozeman Trails” as they became shortened in length and slightly improved for the travelers. [Note: the survey maps and notes depict pieces of the Bozeman Trail to be in various locations. By joining these pieces together one can identify specific trails that were probably used by the settlers and gold seekers before the road through the Indian lands was closed in 1868]. The trail histories compiled from various biographies[i] leading to the trail’s conversion into a road for easier travel are presented below. There are numerous other definitive facts about the trail outside of the local area that are well discussed in the Montana History site:


1) The1851 Fort Laramie Treaty (really a series of treaties with several tribes) was to have guaranteed peace between the US and many of the Indian tribes in a huge area east of the Rocky Mountains, all the way to Minnesota, and north of the Texas-New Mexico lines. In setting up the “Big Council of 1851 on Horse Creek”, at the Indian town where white traders with Lakota Tetons Indian wives (Western, buffalo hunting Sioux) lived in a fort whose gates were open to all. Early on there was a white man’s road past the fort, but travelers didn’t stay. The trail had started with a trickle of white men and women and grew to many. None came back, and the Sioux wondered how could there be so many people? The soldiers bought the trading post and now encamped in their midst. The treaty started when a young Minneconjou with Great War honors said: “these soldiers of the whites who have pushed into our country with their wagon guns are not many. They are really only a very few, a puff of the breath in the middle of the dark cloud in our warriors.” But before he could reach the others and prepare for war, other Sioux met with the soldiers and signed the peace paper[2]. The gates to the fort were then closed to Indians. [Father Pierre Jean de Smet had earlier in the summer met with the various Indian Tribes and encouraged them to attend a treaty. The Oregon Trail, passing through the trading post (Fort Laramie) by 1850 had over 100,000 emigrants on it. This mass of humanity had cut the hunting grounds in half, and the wagon trains and their stock had decimated the prairie. Buffalo would no longer pass over the trail [Medicine Road]; thus two herds were created, a north and a south herd. Much of the land was lost due to the trails effect, and the plain was turned into a desert. To assure continued safety for the fur trade and the ease of transportation from the trapping grounds, Fort Laramie was chosen as a Treaty site. Invited were: Sioux, Crows, Assiniboines, Mandans, Hidatsa and Rees. Not invited were the Shoshones (Snakes), who came because of their friendship with Jim Bridger, and the desire to assure they would not lose any land. Col Mitchell demanded that the Indians select one chief to represent each tribe. Col Mitchell picked Stirring Bear, and he had to accept, knowing that it meant his tribe would kill him, or be branded a coward. As feared, the treaty gave the Crows a part of the Snake County, the Big Horn Country clear to the Wind River Range.]




The basic agreement was:




The US agreed to pay $50,000 per year (proportional to the populations of each Indian nation) for any damages resulting from the provisions of the Treaty, which included:


"ARTICLE 2. The aforesaid nations do hereby recognize the right of the United States Government to establish roads, military and other posts, within their respective territories." [This was a matter of later dispute, with Red Cloud (Oglala), Sitting Bull (Hunkpapa), and Dull Knife (Cheyenne), maintaining that this was a violation of the 1851 Treaty, as they had understood it. (They didn’t sign Treaty.) ]


The Treaty included the right of travel of citizens of the US:


"ARTICLE 4. The aforesaid Indian nations do hereby agree and bind themselves to make restitution or satisfaction for any wrongs committed, after the ratification of this treaty, by any band or individual of their people, on the people of the United States, whilst lawfully residing in or passing through their respective territories."


The Lakota territory was delineated, including the Black Hills, and the Powder River Basin area to the Big Horn Mountains was assigned to the Crow.


The US government was also responsible for maintaining peace and protecting the Indians of all the signatory tribes from depredations by Americans.


2) From 1851-1862, the Lakota, in alliance with the Northern Cheyenne, fought against the Crow, eventually cutting them off from American posts, which were providing them with supplies, and eventually drove the Crow completely out of Wyoming and up into Montana. Eventually, from 1872-1875, the Lakota, with their Cheyenne and Arapahoe allies, then drove the Crow out of eastern Montana, because of competition for the shrinking hunting grounds for buffalo.


3) Some Indians thought there should be no travel through their lands, and would openly attack civilian wagon trains passing through, which were permitted by the 1851 Treaty. This led to the US providing military escorts to emigrants traveling to Oregon through the Powder River Basin (from the Black Hills on the east, to the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming on the west). This then resulted in battles between Indians and the US military as well as the emigrants.


4) Because of the fighting, and the desire to reach gold fields earlier, caused some American civilians to turn north from the Power River Basin in Wyoming to go up to the gold fields in Montana via the trail to Bozeman created by John Bozeman in 1863. About 1500 emigrants used this original trail[3].This was a clear violation of the 1851 Treaty, according to the Indians, but as understood by the US government, travel was permitted. However, what really was not permitted was the intention of those who traveled the trail to Bozeman via the shortcut, to remain on the Indian Territory and dig for gold. This led to more armed conflicts which reached a breaking point in 1865. The Lakota and Cheyenne gathered in force during March and April of 1865 to attack every white settlement, steamboat, stagecoach, and emigrant wagon train that invaded their territory. They were defending their way of life against the growing invasion of whites. The whites didn't see it that way, and called for help. The US government and military responded with troops.


5) Ignoring the Indian attacks on the settlers using the trail to Bozeman, in March 1865, Congress issued a $50,000 grant to James Sawyer to construct a good wagon road from the mouth of the Niobrara River (on the Missouri River) to Virginia City in Montana Territory[4]. He led four wagon trains of equipment and about 50 men along the Bozeman Trail to clear it for suitable travel. Eight military escorts accompanied him. He had very little intelligent route details to assist him in the planning, and apparently his guides weren’t much better. On September 19th he reaches the Yellowstone River, south of “Hell Gate’s Rapids”, later identified in June 1875 as such by Col. Grant. [At the entrance to Clark’s Fork Valley Bottom Land, north of where the NPR currently crosses the river.] It appears that his road construction crew activities helped to trigger the forthcoming hostilities regarding travel across the Indian Territories, and precipitated the abandonment of the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty.


6) Concurrent with the road construction activities, the US Government sent emissaries in the fall of 1865 in an attempt to negotiate with the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians living in the vicinity of the Bozeman Trail. This attempt was ineptly managed and since the army was already in process of securing the road by military means, the effort was fruitless. Also the Crow Indians were deliberately left out from the negotiations, although the road ran straight through the heart of their lands. The main objective was to gain permission for use that portion of the trail to Bozeman that passed through the Indian lands. Second in their minds was to quietly abandon the 1851 treaty.


7) In August & September 1865, General Patrick Conner led a 3,000-man US military invasion of the Powder River Basin. He ordered his troops to: "Attack and kill every male Indian over twelve years of age."His troops attacked a large Arapahoe village, killing about 50 men, women, and children, and destroying the entire supplies of the tribe (Battle of Tongue River). The Sioux under Red Cloud and Sitting Bull, and the Cheyenne under Roman Nose and Dull Knife, fought the army troops and drove them out of the Indian Territory. During this time, the army essentially closed the emigrant trail to Bozeman during the period of their fighting. [It was re-opened to settlers later in 1868[5].]


8) In June 1866, the negotiators met with the Tribal leaders at Fort Laramie and started to discuss a new treaty and use of the trail. Unfortunately on June 13, 1866 Col. Henry B. Carrington, commander of the 18thInfantry, arrived at Fort Laramie to take military control of the trail. The Indians left the negotiations in anger and on June 17th the Bozeman Trail War was underway[6].


9) Completely ignoring the anger caused by the military action and the ensuing war, the government hired James Sawyers in the summer of 1866 to improve the wagon route from Big Horn River to the cutoff leading west to Bozeman. This action created what is generally referred to as the official “Bozeman Trail”, and is the third in the series of major trails passing through the local area that lead to Bozeman, and the one people generally consider being the real trail that is so heavily publicized. On 3 August 1866 the Sawyers’ crew reached the Clark’s Fork River, were the trail joined with the westward passage route. During this time frame in 1866 the army constructed two forts on the trail, Fort Phil Kearny and Fort Reno, followed by Fort CF Smith on the Big Horn River. Shortly after 12 August 1866, while at the location where Fort CF Smith was to be constructed, Col Carrington ordered Jim Bridger to map out a road leading to the gold fields (Virginia City). This route was from Fort CF Smith, straight to Clark’s Fork, and on to Bozeman & Virginia City. Thus two government road constructions were underway at essentially the same time. Sawyers’ trail [not a formal road] is depicted on the 1871 Surveyor General’s Map of Montana crosses Clark’s Fork at Edgar; the Army constructed road leading from Fort Kearny to Fort CF Smith and across to Clark’s Fork where it joins the Bridger Trail is shown on the 1871 and 1872 maps. It crosses the Clark’s Fork first at Silesia, the approximately at Rockdale. [The John Bozeman trail was reported by the Sioux Indians to be lined with guide markers.][7]


10) On December 21, 1866 the Fetterman Massacre at Fort Kearny took place. The Sioux Indians called this “Hundred Men Fight”. All 81 men in the army command were killed. The Crows learned of the battle before others in the army command. The Crows were afraid that the army would abandon the new forts, and the Sioux, who hated the Crows, ordered the Crows to leave the area. This caused much friction between the Crow factions. Before the fight several Crows would carry messages for the army, but after the battle none would do so[8]. Crows who had been partial to the Sioux now turned on them and took five Sioux scalps and stated to their elders “they would kill every Sioux who fell into their hands[9].”


11) In February 1867 Orville Browning, Secretary of the Interior, convened a six-member board to gather information about the Fetterman Battle and to investigate the causes for the Bozeman Trail conflict. Judge John Kinney was assigned to mediate. He took no immediate action, but most members preferred Sioux control over the Crow’s treaty rights. Judge Kinney viewed this action as an opportunity to transfer the Crows from a nomadic lifestyle to a sedentary “Christian” lifestyle.


12) On August 2, 1867 the Wagon Box fight near Fort Kearny took place.


13) On March 19, 1868 the Horsecreek Station battle, led by Crazy Horse took place. Following this action the new Fort Laramie Treaty was signed. The two new forts were abandoned, and use of the trail was again permitted.


Details of the Trails and Early Roads through Yellowstone County Vicinity


Depending upon when your ancestor passed through the area, or settled in Clark’s Fork Valley, the trail they probably used would be dependant upon the time they arrived. Settlers arriving before 1877 would probably remained on the east side of the river, as it was generally unsafe for them to cross over, as they would be in land that essentially belonged to the Sioux. Not shown on the maps below are the trails leading into the area from Bismarck. According to the diary accounts of Alice Reed that trail was not well defined and their large wagon train (summer 1877) had difficulty in knowing where to go. They eventually crossed the Tongue River, near to its mouth on the Big Horn River. Wagon trains arriving after 1877 were mainly destined for settlement in the area north of the Yellowstone River, before that time, settlement, traders and gold field seekers headed towards Bozeman and the gold camps. The Yellowstone River was a formidable foe to cross. In the early spring the average water flow reported by Col. Grant in 1875 was about 5-8 miles an hour, and was typically 7-8 feet deep. Later in the season (probably October and later) the water level would have dropped sufficiently so that wagon trains could cross without too much difficulty. Soon after Perry McAdow settled in the area (Coulson Stage & Post Stop), he had his sawmill operating[10]. He constructed a well-built ferry that was operated by John Schock, and John Reed. Thomas McGirl operated another Ferry at Pryor Creek (Baker Ground). The McGirl ferry was reported to be a flimsy affair, mainly planks used to float the wagons, but he successfully garnered more business in river-crossing trade by having placed a signpost at the trail junction leading to Coulson that informed emigrants that he had a ferry, thus most travelers continued on to Pryor Creek.


There are numerous trails in the area, but prior to the Sawyers’ Expeditions, they were mainly small-narrow affairs, used by dog sleds, horses and foot traffic. Sawyers provided a Road Plow to assist in cleaning up the slopes to make the journey more passable. Two of his expeditions are of importance, since they create physical “land cuts” from which future travelers would reap the benefits. His first expedition followed the early John Bozeman route north to some extent, but after it was created, it was quickly abandoned since he discovered that a shorter way was possible by going directly west from the Big Horn River crossing and connects with the Rock Creek crossing. Even this didn’t last, as improvements were again made. These two expedition routes are plotted to provide plausible evidence that his crews didn’t pass through the McCormick Hill territory at the south edge of South Hills, in Billings. There are two large rock-Cairns [called Twin Monuments] located there that mark two trail divisions and a way up to the plateau some 150 feet above the basis floor. Their builder and eventual purpose is under investigation. Vernon Drake is conducting this investigation.


Current investigation shows the Twin Monuments to be located in Section 5, Township 4 South, Range 25E. It appears that wagon trains passing to the east would typically traverse the South Hills ridgelines to this point, then descend to the valley floor, travel along the Fourth-of-July Creek, and eastward from there. Conversely, those traveling west would ascend the ridge line using the Monument Trail route, which can be reached by either Four-Corners [in the valley floor], or from Pryor Creek near to the Hay Creek junction.


The trail locations shown on the following map segments were created from the field survey notes, survey maps generated predominately of the local area in 1879 & 1879, and specifically from the comments provided by the members of Sawyers’ Expeditions. The mileages and specific trail directions and characteristics provided by the survey teams were used to provide an overlay onto the current area map. Photographs were taken in 2002 to assist in locating the routes using current local area roads as guideposts for those interested in viewing where the trails were.


 Sawyers Expedition June 13, 1865 [Route through the Yellowstone County Regions from 18 to 26 September]


This route starts just before he reaches the Big Horn River, and continues through where he connects with the “Old Bridger” trail near Edgar. Sawyers contracted with CE Hedges and Company freighting firm to provide transportation and he arranged for military escort. The expedition left Niobrara City, Nebraska on June 13, 1865. He had 80 wagons and over 600 head of stock at the start. Included also were five emigrant wagon wagons, but one soon turned back. Ten emigrants in the four remaining wagons stayed with the group, and were generally stuck in the middle of the freighter wagons. Sawyers forced all wagons to travel single file, and didn’t allow them to spread out across the countryside. His road crew (about 50 men) went ahead of the train to “clear the way.” The road construction was minimal, and consisted mainly of scraping down slopes at coulees, creeks and small bluffs. The train traveled through the midst of the Powder River Indian Campaign, they faced real danger, and several were killed. Sawyers was under the mistaken impression that his “road building” achievement was a success, but in reality his efforts faded away. [See Susan Doyle’s’ book, referenced in the sources listed at the bottom of the page. It is an exceptional publication, and a “must” for anyone interested in the Bozeman Trail.] He had expected to improve upon and perhaps surpass John Bozeman’s achievements in finding a trail across the territorial areas that reached Virginia City and other gold mining towns. Some of the wagons in his train were pulling another wagon, (double-wagon), and these required additional turning room. The route shown is a culmination of each segments mileage, and these plotted trails distances agree with the reported total mileages recorded in the diaries. Most of his travels ended up following a good portion of John Bozeman’s early trail.


In General Dodge’s report to Congress on his Powder River Indian Expedition for the period from December 9, 1864 through November 1, 1865 he reported that there are four great roads for emigrant travel to the western lands. The first led to the gold fields of Montana, but for all four he described the routes best to use as: “Up the great valleys and over the higher tables are the best natural roads in the world, and nature has so constructed them that this great belt there are four great water courses traversing it at right angles at distances from each other of from 100 to 200 miles. The first overland route, on the north, is known as the Niobrara, up which stream runs the road to its source, and up to this time crosses the Platte, terminating at Fort Laramie. Colonel Sawyer’s wagon party endeavored this season to find a road on this route through directly to Montana, via Powder River and north of Little Horn River, but obstacles met with determined them to abandon it, and they struck south and took the road made and explored by General Connor from Fort Laramie to the base of the Big Horn Mountains; thence to Three Forks of the Missouri and thence to Virginia City. This from the Platte is a natural road …...” He further reported that this route saved 450 miles in travel between Fort Laramie and Three Forks. He also stated that his military operations in the summer of 1865 opened up the road, but that additional funding would be needed to expand it after the Indian operations are concluded.


Comment: He denies in his report that James Sawyer’s efforts did little to create a road, but that General Connors (Major Jim Bridger as guide) created the road. He identifies the road as “a-a” on his attached map of operations with his report. Full details of military dispatches are summarized in an attached note describing events related to the Bozeman Military Road.


The trail locations taken by Sawyers are plotted with small blue dots. The trail is not viewable today, except in certain locations, and these locations are noted in the following segments with an indicator mark; photos taken from these spots are attached. The map used for the trail overlay was created by the BLM in 2001. (Note that the Josephine River Packet Boat is improperly date located on that map. Should read “1877”.)


Trails plotted by the BLM (GLO) 1867, 1871, and 1872 maps for the region all refer to the trail to Bozeman essentially created by Sawyers’ Expedition in 1866 and the Army command under Col Carrington after 1866. These trails/roads became known as the “Bozeman Trail”, and are so noted on the 1878 - 1903 detailed Survey Maps for the region. Additionally, the trail used by Sawyers in his 1865 Expedition was not specifically identified, but the trail has been changed to a road, and is plotted on the survey maps. Only portions of this route used the original 1863 and 1864 John Bozeman wagon trails. These John Bozeman 1863 initial trails for the area near the northern junctions of the Coburn Road and the Yellowstone River junctions have not been located. Only the “Bozeman Trail” southern route created by Sawyers is plotted on the maps for reference. As more details become available, the other routes will be plotted, but insufficient information currently exists to link the segments together for the northern routes. One should also note that the wagon road from Fort Keogh (Miles City) to Bozeman, is generally labelled as “Bozeman Trail”. Going the other direction it is typically called Road to Fort Keogh. The first mail delivery / stage coach carriage from these two points used that governemnt created route.


Travel distances reported by the Expedition (Sawyers mileage records) for the area passing through the plotted areas are:


Segment 1 18.0 miles


Segment 2 19.5


Segment 3 11.0


Segment 4 37.5


 86.0 Total (86.5 according to Lee)




Segment 1 – Reaching the Big Horn River


We pick up the trail as he leaves his campsite of the 18th on War Man Creek. To arrive at this point, Sawyers created a new trail for the wagon train, and they had to make a steep descent into the valley, crossing Soap Creek, and then camped a short distance from the Big Horn River crossing.


The yellow dots indicate the previous day’s journey and camping on the War Man Creek. The early maps indicated that War Man Creek split at the juncture of where they camped. This north-flowing small branch is not indicated on the current BLM Lodge Grass map used to plot the trail, and there appears to be no indication of what happened to it. This is of no importance in establishing the route.


Key factors used from the diaries to assist in plotting the route were:


1) Sawyers stated: came six miles [up the Bighorn River] over good roadbed in the valley, and grading down the banks, forded the Big Horn River[11]. This stream is about 400 feet wide, and in most places, at the time we were there, would swim a horse, but after repeated trials we found a place with only 3 ½ feet of water


2) Smith stated: came north six miles and crossed the Big Horn in good shape, river is about 300 feet wide and three and a half deep in channel.


3) Lee stated: this is the largest stream we have crossed yet. Most places it will swim a team. We crossed over onto a small island. Came six miles.


4) The Survey Notes showed: the trails identified as “the Bozeman Road” following on the west side of War Man Creek, and crossing the river where Sawyers made a sharp turn to the east. There are several other trails in the area, including the Black Coulee Road three miles to the west of the Bozeman Trail.


5) Doyle stated: At the Bighorn crossing Sawyers hired Huber Rouleau, one of Connor’s guides who was with the escort. It was soon apparent, however, that Rouleau was totally unfamiliar with the region, which forced Sawyers to follow Bozeman’s 1864 route west of the Bighorn. [According to the diary notes, Sawyers either created or followed Indian Trails to Pryor Creek. The Bozeman Trail went virtually due west, while the Expedition traveled northwest from their campsite of the 19th .]


Leaving the 18th campsite the Expedition followed what was called “the Bozeman Road” (shown in yellow dots) in a northwest direction to the Big Horn River as shown in Sawyers 2nd Expedition. The trail continues essentially due west directly on the opposite side of the Big Horn River, but the crossing was not possible, The group traveled along an existing Indian trail that led to the crossing shown that has a large island in the center of the stream. [The Indian trail continues eastward just below the crossing used by Sawyers.] They traveled six miles to reach the crossing, and camped on the opposite side. The three trails shown (Indian, Bozeman, and Black Coulee) appear to cross at the same locations, depending upon the water conditions in the Big Horn River.

















The travels from the campsite of the 19th continue the next day in a northwest direction towards the Yellowstone River. The group pass over semi-barren land that has alkali soil in the morning [called Bad Lands], and in the afternoon the conditions get better. There are numerous trails and cross-trails in the area, and the main ones were identified in the survey notes. By combining the variable trail segments that pass through the area, along with the Sawyer Expedition diary remarks, only one combination surfaced as the possible route. This led to an intersection point a short distance above Wet Creek (Wetts Creek) on the Pryor Creek, eleven miles below their next day’s journey. They appeared to closely follow the terrain ridges, and descended into the Pryor Creek bottomland quite easily at this juncture. There are few places along Pryor Creek where one can descend with wagons to the creek bed below.



Key factors used to describe the trail were:


1) Sawyers stated: Fine day, many buffaloes in sight; crossed one creek [Hay Creek] by bridging and another by fording [Beauvais Creek]; traveled eighteen miles over a country requiring considerable grading in places to make it passable, and camped on a creek [Little Woody Creek] leading into the Big Horn. Grass, water, and wood poor at this camp.


2) Smith stated: Came 18 miles and camped on a dry creek [Little Woody Creek] with water about in holes. No grass or hardly any. Roads in forenoon fine but quite broken in the afternoon. Country more like the Cheyenne than any we have seen. Some buffalo about. Crossed two small muddy creeks [Hay Creek and Beauvais Creek] with bad bottoms.


3) Smith stated on the 21st: County fair laying land. 19 ½ miles northwest to Pryors Fork [Pryor Creek] where we camped [This was the next day’s remarks.]


4) Lee stated: Started early and traveled 18 miles and camped on a dry branch [Little Woody Creek] in which water stands only in holes at present. No wood and very little grass. During the forenoon the road was very good and level and through a good country. But in the afternoon it was the most miserable rough hilly, crooked, and sideling [road]. The country barren and considerable of alkali. Crossed two branches [Hay Creek and Beauvais Creek]that would make good camping streams but very short drive from Big Horn of eleven miles.


Having crossed downstream of the Bozeman Trail (where it crossed a few miles southwest), Sawyers struck out due west for about a mile, then headed northwest towards the Yellowstone River. He traveled along the ridgelines except for fording creeks and ravines. This trail is noted on the early maps, and their distances match the reported mileages and terrain characteristics from the Expedition. None of the other routes for the numerous trails in the area provide a match.




The location where they camped on the 20th, is just inside of current day Yellowstone County southern border, and on the south branch of Little Woody Creek [barely visible on the BLM map.] Distance traveled is 18.0 miles. Portions of this route closely follow the current “improved” trail [small red line] plotted by the BLM on their map. The next day the group continues onto the Pryor Creek valley.









Segment 2 – Reaching Pryor Creek






Sawyers started out from the previous nights camp on a branch of Little Woody Creek and traveled northwest towards the Yellowstone River. He followed the ridgelines as much as practical. The entire trail shown by the blue dots is extracted from the 1904 survey maps. He crossed Woody Creek about eight miles from camp. Later this trail became a road known as “Billings to Mission Road”. The mission was St. Xavier, and there was a fair amount of freight and passenger traffic between the two locales. There are two main supply routes leading into St. Xavier, and connections were made to the northern most trails.




The critical factors that created Sawyers’ route depicted here:




1) CM Lee reports that the country has very much the appearance of having once been under water, at least most of it.


2) CM Lee reports that the hills for miles being perpendicular clay or rock [sedimentary sandstone] like the banks of most of the streams.


3) The diaries state they traveled 19 ½ miles to reach Pryor Creek.


4) The trails identified in the WR Randy survey maps place the trail directly upon the ridgelines leading in the most part to just north of Wetts Creek branch on the Pryor Creek.


















[Trail continues to campsite of the 21st)




There are two power lines and one pipeline currently passing through the area, and roughly paralleling the Sawyers route. These lines converge near the Pictograph Cave. There are currently numerous roads in the area, and virtually the entire trail is on private reservation land and off limits to public viewing. Points of interest where one may stop and view the trail are indicated on the two section maps created for this segment of the journey. The day’s journey’s end appears to be south of the present day Wetts[3] Road that connects with Pryor Road.















Segment 3 – Reaching the Yellowstone River








Sawyers started out on the morning of September 22nd, after having spent a night on the Pryor Creek, opposite of Wet Creek (Wetts Creek). [This trail marked by small blue dots] They bridged the cliffs to the west of the Mee-Tse-Tse Trail creek bed route by traveling up a sloping hill to the plateau on top of South Hills. These cliffs on the east face of the plateau are about 300 to 500 feet above the creek bottom. When he camped for the preceding night at Pryor Creek, he must have been close to or on the Mee-Tse-Tse Trail. This is probably the trail that John Bozeman traveled the year earlier, and it runs about 20 degrees east of north, following along the west side of Pryor Creek. It terminates at the Yellowstone River, a sort distance north of the South Hill Rims. The east side of Pryor Creek is essentially impassable by even foot traffic due to numerous ravines, cliffs, marshes, and dense undergrowth. The valley area itself appears to have been created from the time of the Ice Age, and looks like it was “scooped” out from the earth. The creek meanders slowly north along its journey to the Yellowstone River. The west bank of the creek is similar to the east bank, thus the Mee-Tse-Tse Trail was located mostly upon the slight low-level plateau (approximately 10-30 feet high) that parallels the creek bed some quarter mile distant. Travel across the numerous feeder creek exits from the South Hills foothills and into Pryor Creek would be passable by wagon trains, since the gullies cut by the mouths of the creeks are very shallow, but with some difficulty.


 There are several critical factors that created Sawyers’ route depicted here:


1) By traveling northeast he would be unable to cross the high plateau to the west (South Hills) and into the east bank of the Yellowstone. He would have ended up intersecting the Yellowstone River north of Sacrifice Cliff (called “Eagle Buttes” by Col’s Grant and Forsythe in their 1875 trip up the Yellowstone, stopping beyond Duck Creek), and then would have to cross into territory generally considered by the Sioux Indians to be theirs exclusively. That would have meant almost certain death, or at least a real battle if caught. There was no apparent attempt by Sawyer to ever cross over into that region west of the Yellowstone River.


2) None of the persons who made notes about their journey reported traveling over any creek beds. In all of the other segments of the journey each faithfully recorded the various crossings and creek conditions. Blue Creek is normally dry in the fall, and is not a major source of concern to cross over, and might even have been thought to be a gulch where they crossed.


3) Two records of the passage indicated that the route was north, or more north than west, and that the distance was eleven miles, with the last five miles very rough. Sawyers had to do considerable grading during the last part of the day’s journey in order to descend to the river bottom, especially to make the trail wide enough for the “double-wagons.”


4) Lewis H. Smith defined the last portion of the trail in fair detail, stating that they had to descend about 200 feet through a 65-degree slope, cut by Sawyers, to reach the camp at Yellowstone River. On the left were high bluffs, and on the right was a high hill.


5) Travel up or down coulees is not possible due to their extreme depths, heavy undergrowth, and sharp drainage angles of over 60 degrees.


There is one apparent locatable and probably passable route that matches these criteria. The exit from the OHV area down to the river bottom is not precisely located, but should be quite close to the placement. There is much damage to the terrain since the site was used for motorcycle hill climbing in early 1940’s before its location was moved to the west about ½ mile distant. They would have ascended the foothills on the north side of Wetts Creek through an old Indian Trail, and onto the South Hills plateau; a gentle climb of about 160 feet over a three-mile distance. This is all now private property. Reaching the top they would have traversed the crests of the hills (deep ravines that are cut into the surface of the plateau prevent direct travel to the river), and onto a ledge overlooking the river. They would have passed through the “South Hills OVH Area”, and descended into the flat plateau immediately east of Riverfront Park. It was reported by Smith in his diary “the River here is quite a respectable stream with a rocky and gravely bottom and a very swift current. Not a great deal of timber. Cottonwood, Willow, Elm.” The survey notes created in 1904-stated “Sandy River bottom (farm land), scattered timber, and loam 1st rate, River channel is along left bank of river, leaving wide rocky bench on right bank (rocky bottom).” The following segment distances coincide with this location, and the area where they stopped was on the future Wilkerson’s homestead, near to where the “Old South Bridge” was located. There was plenty of land available for the wagon train to camp, and the area is suitable to the Sawyers Expedition for a campsite. This location is also just north of the main Hill Climb area. Virtually this entire segment is closed to travel and viewing, and nearly all land have been converted to farm use, off-road recreational fun, or homes.


Note: After Perry McAdow settled in the area (May 1877), and a variety of other settlers arrived, it became important to get a shorter route across the South Hills, or at least a decent one that would accommodate stage travel and freighter routes traveling in both directions leading to Pryor and other eastern communities and farmers. Dr. Allen, who by this time knew the area quite well, reportedly established some of these routes. [The roads created by him haven’t yet been actually identified as such in current literature, but the survey maps created later in the 1800’s show trade routes identified as “roads” that essentially parallel some of the existing area roads.] One of these roads starts at the Old South Bridge and passes through the north boundary area of the Off Highway Vehicular (OHV) area shown on this map, and connected directly east with Pryor Road. This road is fully described in the Freighter & Stage Trails Section, but passage is no longer possible.






Segment 4 – Reaching Rock Creek Camp Site




Sawyers started out from the campsite near the Old South Bridge and traveled southwest along the south banks of the Yellowstone River. After traveling about 5 to 5 ½ miles he found that he couldn’t continue in that direction and had to traverse over the hilly South Hills plateau ridges for a short distance. This entire trail is located on the 1878-1879 survey maps, except for a one-mile section passing over the “Keller Road loop”, e.g., small loop in section 13, township 2 S, range 25 E. The trail passes over only 1/3rd mile of the existing roadway, that being at the start of Duck Creek Road. Soon after the survey was completed in 1879, the area filled with settlers and most of the land was closed to random travel, and many fences were erected. New roads were cut along section line boundaries (Portions of the Keller, Collier, Fritz, Stratford, Price & Cormier; Hillcrest, Duck Creek, and Blue Creek roads closely followed the earlier trails, but were partially straightened for ease of travel.)


Key factors used to locate the trail were obtained from:


1) Lee reported that they followed up the river five or six miles. Then ascended the bluffs making quite a detour to the south to head of some ravines. Part of the time they were not over three or four miles from yesterday’s trail [heading north to their campsite]. They descended from the bluffs into a dry creek bed [Duck Creek] a short distance from the river. They then traveled down to the river and proceeded up the valley four or five miles and camped on the bank of the stream.


2) The distances recorded by two persons was 18 miles; one person, Smith, reported they traveled 5 miles to the juncture where they ascended into the hills, and that they traveled 8 miles total. [This summary distance must be a transcription error, and should read “18” miles.]


3) All reported they camped near the riverbank [could have been the Yellowstone, the Clark’s Fork, or its junction, the area location is the same.]

The route over the South Hills follows the crest contours according to the 1879 survey maps, and very few small gullies exist along the route. The Sawyers’ scouts must have examined the terrain quite carefully before proceeding, since most of the area looks the same.


This view shows the rolling hills to the west from near the center of South Hills. Each of the “tree-lines” defines the start of a coulee, which in turn quickly leads into a creek, or water shed stream. These deeper areas are not passable, even to foot traffic. The banks quickly erode away to about a 70-degree angle, and portions of the banks have deer and other game animal tracks. (Photo 1977-Kimmel)


Travel is possible only along the ridgelines, but at the end of ridges are steep bluffs that descend to the river. Very few places exist where the slope to the river is gradual enough to permit two-way travel by wagon. The soil becomes increasingly rocky (small sandstone slabs in the top soil) as one moves southeast across the plateau. This makes for good wagon roads, and the wheels don’t leave deep depressions.


The bulk of the soil contains a great deal of bentonite, and a type of weak shale that is six to ten feet below the surface. This shale provides for rainwater drainage and occasionally the drained water appears in the land surface as “springs” throughout the region.




Sawyers remained at the Clark’s Fork junction for two nights (Saturday & Sunday), and then continued southwest for 19 ½ - 20 miles to Rock Creek.


This trail segment is plotted on two map sections, created from three BLM maps. They cross the river as indicated, however, the crossing could have been one mile further southwest where there is a currently existing crossing. [There is no direct evidence of where this crossing was made.] The train then follows the land contours according to the detailed 1878 maps, and essentially is in the same location as Highway 310/212. These old maps indicated that the trail as plotted was the “Trail to Bozeman.” They turn and follow on the north bank of Rock Creek at Rockvale. The trail going south from that junction was the “Bridger Trail”, and it joined with the Trail to Bozeman heading northeast. The train continued on this trek until they reached their campsite.




Key factors used to locate the trail that ended for the night of the 25th, six miles west of where Edgar is currently located, were:


1) They camped on the main branch of Clark’s Fork [Rock Creek] on the west side.


2) They crossed Clark’s Fork a mile or two from the 24th night’s camp and followed the bluffs between it and Yellowstone River during the afternoon.


3) Passed an old trail to the right where John Bozeman undertook to reach the Yellowstone [over the bluffs] and could not get down to the river [and he] had to come back onto the same trail.[12]


4) The road was reported to be very good and the train traveled south quite rapidly and not much west. Little road construction effort was reported.


5) The 1878 survey maps plotted all but 1 ½ mile of the trail, and it was identified as both the Bozeman and Bridger trail.


6) At the stopping point (Campsite of the 25thSeptember, 1865) Sawyers and Lee noted that they probably could have saved time[13]if they went directly west from the Big Horn, rather than going the way they did. In 1866, Sawyers did go west and intersected the earlier Bozeman Trail. [The belief is that Lee came up with the shortcut idea.]


John Bozeman, earlier in 1864 had attempted to take a shortcut across the hills, and discovered he was unable to get through, and had to retrace his steps. The “RED” squares depict the spot where he probably attempted the shortcut. This portion of a trail that leads to nowhere, but later joins up with a completed trail that makes the journey shorter, is shown on the 1878 maps. Later, several farm trails were created. John reportedly placed a stick at the juncture of his departure, warning travelers not to take the western shortcut. Sawyers located the stick on his 1865 journey.



This small section has been enlarged for better viewing. The camp appears to be at 19 ½+ miles, according to the 1878 trails reported in the survey notes. This camp is about 1 ½ miles upstream from the juncture of Cow Creek and Rock Creek. [In the 1800’s and early 1900’s Rock Creek was formally called Rocky Creek.] This juncture point is a point of contention according to the Sawyer’s diaries.


Identification of the trail that follows the survey notes’ coordinates were taken from these comments:


1) Sawyers stated: came southwest nineteen and a half miles, crossing Clark’s fork, and camped on Rocky fork [Rock Creek]. Clark’s fork is about one hundred and fifty feet wide at the crossing, by one and a half foot deep, with very swift current, and the water, at the time of our crossing, was quite muddy, probably from snow melting on the mountains, or from the immense herds of buffalo that were crossing above.


2) Smith stated: came southwest 19 ½ miles. Camped on Rocky Creek [Rock Creek] 1 ½ miles above fork with the Clarks Creek [Clarks Fork[14]]. Face of country good to travel over and days travel fine. Generally country hazy so that we couldn’t see around much. Grass at camp poor. Wood and water fine.


3) Lee stated: Monday, Cool in morning. Traveled 20 miles to day and camped on the main branch of Clark’s Fork [Rock Creek] on the west side. Crossed Clark’s Fork a mile or two from last night’s camp and followed the bluffs between it and Yellowstone during the afternoon. Passed an old trail to the right where Bozeman undertook to reach the Yellowstone and could not get down to the river [and he] had to come back onto this trail.[15] The road very good. [We] are traveling south pretty fast and not much west.


[The distances reported take the group to the point indicated, and it agrees with the trail crossings noted in the survey files. The next day’s journey is plotted in RED, and its mileage and campsites correspond to the diary notes for that day. This would indicate that they did camp approximately at the location noted by the BLUE triangle. However, there is one inconsistency that needs to be addressed: Smith’s statement about the camp said “ Camped on Rocky Creek 1 ½ miles above fork with the Clarks Creek.” This is not a possibility, as the group, according to all the other indicators followed Rock Creek to their campsite for the night of 25 September 1865. This places them about eight to nine miles due west from the town of Edgar, which is on Clarks Fork. The “fork” being referred to must be Cow Creek, a fork on Rock Creek. Their campsite is about 1-½ miles above (upstream of) that location according to the 1878 maps. If additional details about the campsite are known, please advise ; and corrections will be made as needed.]




R. W. Clark (Dick) Travel Remarks on Bozeman Trail (1866)


Clark followed the Bozeman Trail in 1866 before the 2nd Sawyer Expedition had started on their journey. He and others arrived at Fort Laramie in May 1866 and had 40 wagons with four-horse teams, 60 men, and the officer in charge of the fort. The wagons were fully loaded and they had 40 barrels of whisky. Jim Bridger advised Dick Clark and others that they had to wait until the Indians were dispersed, since they were out to kill all whites. Three women were with the group; Billy Fletcher’s wife, a lady about 18 and a girl of 14. John Reed was picked as captain, and all agreed to obey his commands[16]. They arrived in Bozeman on August 1, 1866.


“Crossing the Big Horn was the biggest job of all. They were ten days crossing and had to build rafts out of dry cottonwoods. The river was high but the crossing was made in good shape. The only accident was one of the women fell off the raft and an Englishman who was along rescued her.”


“We left the Bozeman Trail [south of Billings] going down a steep hill they had to set a big post as snubbing post to let the wagons down the hill with a rope.”


“The main idea in making for the Yellowstone was that the report was they could not find the Clarks Fork at the Bridger Crossing. They found the Yellowstone high and were pleased with the large flat section of land over the river. They pulled back up the Clarks Fork, crossing the Fork [by Bridger]. From there they followed the Bridger Trail and came out to Yellowstone [River, about 30 miles this side of Livingston.] There was a ferry near where Hunters is now [1928.] They arrived in Bozeman on August 1stover the Bozeman Pass.”





Sawyers 2nd Expedition [Route through the Southern Yellowstone County Regions] forming the “Bozeman Trail”


Continued in Section 2.








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 [1] Preface to Trails and Trails


[2] Crazy Horse, Sandoz, pp 6 & 7. Two southern camps from the Teton Circle of Sioux, Minneconjou, Hunkpapa, No Bows, Two Kettles and Blackfoot signed.


[3] .John S. Gray, “Blazing the Bozeman and Bridger Trails,” Annals of Wyoming, 49 (Spring 1977), 23-51. The identity of the Indians who stopped Bozeman and Jacobs has never been satisfactorily determined. See Susan Badger Doyle, “Journeys to the Land of Gold: Emigrants on the Bozeman Trail, 1863Ð1866,” Montana The Magazine of Western History, 41 (Autumn 1991), 56-59.


[4] Extracted from “Journeys to the Land of Gold”, see footnotes for details.


[5] Hyde, Red Cloud’s Folk, 56-81


[6] Colonel Henry B. Carrington, “Indian Operations on the Plains”, 1866, 50th Cong., 1st Session, 1887-1888, S. Doc. 33, serial 2504, pp. 5-6. Margaret Carrington, “Ab-sa-ra-ka, Home of the Crows”, (Philadelphia, 1868), 72-80.


[7] Crazy Horse, Sandoz, 1961.


[8] Templeton diary, December 28, 31, 1866, January 2, 1867; “Captain N. C. Kinney Report, February 9, 1867, an Investigation.”


[9] “What Half-Yellow Face Knows.” [Historical Society article at Bozeman.]


[10] Details of how the sawmill arrived need to be established. Witnesses state it was in operation before September 1877, four months after he arrived.


[11] They went six miles up the east side of the river and forded at “Emigrant Trail” crossing. {Also called Spotted Rabbit Crossing}


[12] This is where Bozeman had backtracked the previous year and left a note telling the trains following him not to turn here.


[13] The 1866 trail made by Sawyers 2nd Expedition did save miles. See comments in that section.


[14] This must actually be Cow Creek, not Clarks Fork itself.


[15] This is where Bozeman had backtracked the previous year and left a note telling the trains following him not to turn here.


[16] Refer to RW Clark biography dated 1928 as prepared by ID O’Donnell “The Bozeman Trail Story” for additional details.

 [i]F769.F62C58, “Civilian, Military, and Native American Portraits of Fort Kearny” by members of Fort Phil Kearny, Banner, WY, 1993.


F594.J68.2000, “Journeys to the Land of Gold”, Emigrant Diaries from the Bozeman Trail, 1863 – 1966. Edited by Susan Badger Doyle, Helena, MT


F591.H4.1978, “The Bozeman Trail”, by Grace Raymond Hebard, 1861-1936. (AMS Press, NY)


F731.J6, “The Bloody Bozeman”, by Dorothy M. Johnson, Missoula, NT Mountain Press 1983.


F767.094L69, “The Bridger Trail”, by James A. Lowe, Spokane WA, 1999


F594.W75M33, “Beyond the Bozeman Trail”, by Walter K. McAdam, West Lebanon, NH, 1996


921.B76, “Jim Bridger, Mountain Man”, by Stanley Vestal, 1946



[1] Report of the campaign by General GM Dodge, compiled from the official records of the War of the Rebellion, published 1896.

[2] Fort Phil Kearny, published in June 2002 (Summary of events reported in the War of the Rebellion) Sheridan, WY Official Web Site by’ Laura’

[3] Currently spelled “Wets”, Crow Chief Wetts had his cabin at this site.