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Lieutenant Bradley's Introduction to Plains Indian Warfare at Crazy Woman's Fork

By Jon G. James, Former Superintendent of Big Hole National Battlefield

( Editor’s note: Lt. James H. Bradley was to later become a member of the 7th U.S. Infantry, serve with Col. John Gibbon’s Montana Column in the Sioux-Cheyenne War of 1876 and later die at the Battle of Big Hole on August 9, 1877. He is the author of a highly acclaimed journal recounting his observations and insights during the Montana Column’s march, beginning in the spring of that year, from western Montana forts in its journey to endeavor to participate in the fight against the Sioux and Cheyenne, later published as the “ The March of the Montana Column”).

In July 1866, Second Lieutenant James H. Bradley was traveling west to his first duty station on the frontier with the 18th U.S. Infantry at Fort Phil Kearny, Dakota Territory. Located in the Plains Indians’ sacred Powder River Country of Wyoming, Forts Phil Kearny, Reno and C.F. Smith had recently been established by the U.S. Army to protect travelers on the perilous Bozeman Trail. The trail, laid out in 1864, was the fastest route to the new gold diggings in Montana for those who were willing to face the determined resistance of Arapaho, Lakota, and Northern Cheyenne warriors. Bradley’s introduction to the Indians’ fierce opposition came even before he reached his first assignment. Early in the morning of July 20, 1866, Bradley left Fort Reno traveling north on the Bozeman Road as part of a civilian and military wagon train of two army ambulances and nine wagons bound for Fort Phil Kearny. The military detachment consisted of five officers, twenty enlisted recruits, one wagon master, and nine wagon drivers commanded by First Lieutenant George Templeton. Eleven of the enlisted soldiers were armed with Springfield rifle muskets; nine of them had no arms. Two officers owned new Henry repeating rifles. They were reinforcements for the undermanned and besieged garrison at Fort Phil Kearny. In addition, there were twelve civilians in the train, including a former Civil War officer who also had a Henry rifle, a photographer from Philadelphia, the new post chaplain for Phil Kearny, three wives and five children of the enlisted men and officers, and one female servant for an officer’s family. A total of thirty-seven people travelled in the small caravan. Around noon the command approached Crazy Woman’s Fork. Lieutenants Templeton and Daniels rode a mile ahead and to the right of the train to locate a mid-day camping spot with water and good grass for grazing. Templeton described in his diary what happened next:

Just as we turned to leave, not having been able to find a good place, Lieut. [Daniels] remarked ‘look there’ and spured his horse up, going away ahead. I looked over my right shoulder, but could see nothing, but upon looking over my left, I saw between 50 & 60 indians mounted and in full chase, about 150 yds in the rear. I spured up old Pegasus, punched him with my gun and did everything to increase speed, but the horse seemed to me to be moving very slowly. After Mr. Daniels had gone 200 yds. He was shot with an arrow through the back and fell off his horse, the saddle turning. I could do nothing to help him and did not expect to get away myself, so continued on. The indians had almost surrounded me again. I arrived at the Ford of the Creek and [they] were within 20 feet of me. I plunged my horse down an almost perpendicular bank into the creek and as I was half way over the indian closest fired a carbine at me, but fortunately missed.

The lieutenant reached the first wagons on the opposite bank as they reached the ford. Lieutenant Wands, who was riding in an army ambulance that was first in line, saw one warrior just behind Templeton draw his spear, ready to thrust it as he passed by them. Wands immediately had the wagons turn and corralled them on a rise above the ford. Close to one hundred warriors surrounded the party and kept them pinned down for almost an hour. According to one participant, warriors came so close they filled wagon covers with arrows and bullet holes, but miraculously, nobody was injured. As more warriors joined the siege, it became apparent their corralled position on the low rise was untenable. The officers decided to move about a mile up the creek to a more defensible high bluff, separated by steep ravines. Forming a skirmish line, a dozen men with Lieutenant Link made an organized charge toward the bluff followed up by a rear-guard action led by Bradley. In an eyewitness account of the fight, recorded in a newspaper column just days later, Private Samuel Peters described Lieutenant Bradley’s actions:

Here the gallantry of the several officers was manifest, and the bravery and coolness of Lieut. Bradley (but a beardless boy) was almost incredible. Seizing a musket from one of the teamsters, he fought like a hero[,] not a reckless daring, but a cool and premeditative bravery, an example to all soldiers. The Indians were pouring a hot and incessant fire of arrows and bullets into us; yet the gallant and heroic Bradley never flinched; while retreating, he faced to the Indians and maintained a continual fire upon them. Other officers were brave and daring, but gallant and noble Lieutenant Bradley took off the palm[.]

They were able to fight their way to the higher ground, dig rifle pits, and hold out until help arrived that evening. Their casualties were light, only one man killed, but Bradley gained a healthy respect for Indian warfare from this first experience. The lieutenant spent most his time at Fort Phil Kearny doing routine garrison duties and serving escort duty for Assistant Inspector-General of the Department of the Platte, General William B. Hazen. Only a month before the infamous Fetterman Disaster on December 21, 1866, Lieutenant Bradley was transferred to Fort Bridger, Utah Territory.

1John D. McDermott, Red Cloud’s War: The Bozeman Trail 1866-1868, vol. I, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press imprint from the Arthur H. Clark Co., 2010), 98-99.

2George M. Templeton Diary, June 20, 1866, Newberry Library.

3Samuel S. Peters, Columbus Morning Journal, August 24, 1866.


Short biography of the author, Jon G. James:

Mr. James has forty-two (42) years of experience as a career National Park Service (NPS) employee. During his career, he principally focused on working in NPS areas as an interpreter, park historian, resource specialist, supervisor, and manager.

His work history with the NPS includes: Supt. Manassas Nat’l Battlefield Park, VA; Deputy Supt. and Supt. George Washington Memorial Parkway (MD & VA); ); Supt. Big Hole Nat’l Battlefield & Unit Mgr. Bear Paw Battlefield & Canyon Creek Skirmish Site, MT; South Unit interpreter & Chief of Interpretation, Bighorn Canyon Nat’l Recreation Area (MT & WY); Chief of Interpretation, Ft. Larned Nat’l Historic Site, KS; and Park Historian, Jefferson Nat’l Expansion Memorial (Gateway Arch), MO. Mr. James also holds a degree in American History from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA.


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