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‘Promise: Bozeman’s Trail to Destiny,’ by Serle L. Chapman

Cheyenne and internationally acclaimed author and photographer Serle L. Chapman meticulously pieces together various accounts from all sides of the American Indian wars saga that would revolve around the Bozeman Trail in the mid 1860s in his seventh book, “Promise: Bozeman’s Trail to Destiny.”

From accounts of various tribal historians, to descendants of famous warriors whom the stories were passed down orally, to ancestors of immigrants who traveled this trail during this time, the reader is treated to an indulgence of often never been told before views of how the 1860’s American west really was in present day Montana and Wyoming.

For the first half of the book, Chapman pieces together two historical fiction narratives from what the times were like from a conceived immigrant women’s perspective, then a Cheyenne brave’s. Every name, place and event is carefully documented. In this manner, Chapman is free to open convey intimate as well as sociological manners of the time as learned throughout his extensive studies. I often found myself glancing at the back index and finding a cache of additional information that Chapman even explained further.

Along with the narratives were the actual words and photos of warriors and soldiers involved. A lot of famous and infamous words were spoken during this tense time. U.S. troops of the region included Captain William Fetterman, who boasted that with ‘80 men I could ride right through the Sioux Nation.’ Also included were the quotes and diary excerpts of Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, who outright advocated genocide to American Indians after the humiliating defeat of Fetterman.

On the American Indian side were plenty of heroes like the Sioux Crazy Horse, American Horse, Sitting Bull and Red Cloud, who said that the whites made more promises than he could remember, “…but they kept only one. They promised to take our land, and they took it.” This time frame is also commonly referred to as Red Cloud’s War.

Also included were Cheyenne warriors like Roman Nose and Little Wolf, as well as Crow warriors, who sided with the whites and inhabited the area.

The area of the Powder River Basin was one of the last areas that wasn’t encroached upon by the whites as it still had tens of thousands of buffalo and other game roaming uninhibited. This changed when gold was discovered in Montana Territory, and John Bozeman’s convenient route to get to it by wagon would be to go right through this area, and those people passing through would be protected by the U.S. Army.

The incident that punctuates the Bozeman Trail the most is the Dec. 21, 1866 Fetterman Massacre, in which 80 armed soldiers and men were killed and mutilated severely. The American Indians involved would refer to this battle as the Hundred-Soldiers-Killed-Fight.

In this battle, the U.S. soldiers were quickly overwhelmed after Fetterman led his men from their fort straight into an ambush of an estimated 1,600 Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors led by Oglala war chief Crazy Horse. The desperate troops fell into a position of rocks, and volleys of arrows soon enveloped them until it fell to hand to hand combat to finish them off. The American Indians at that time had few guns, as one Army physician estimated that only 6 of the soldiers died from gunshot wounds, and a few of those were self-inflicted.

Key and often overlooked is the Crow tribe’s role in the wars. The very presence of the Crow, who were friendly to the whites that they saw as a potential ally against the surrounding enemy tribes, likely kept the soldiers who weren’t at all experienced in fighting plains Indians from being pushed out beforehand. Legendary ‘mountain man’ Jim Bridger even scoffed and said the soldiers fresh from the Civil War were ill-suited to fight any Indians.

The Crow were insistent that if the U.S. troops were to maintain a foothold in the region and go on actual offensives outside of the forts, they would need more soldiers than they had – regardless of Fetterman’s dubious claim. The end result of the Bozeman Trail wars was a victory for the American Indians and the ill-fated Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 that called for peace between the tribes and whites.

With that, the second half of the book is about ‘reflections’ of the Bozeman Trail. Giving those reflections are a barrage of tribal historians and experts who are seemingly encouraged to give a wide range of thoughts, feelings, disperse myths, and give general opinions of the timeline surrounding the events, as well as how relates to the present day.

It is interesting to note that the Powder River Basin that the Bozeman Trail ran through is now mined heavily with coalbed methane drilling (natural gas), and the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, which has been encircled by this mining, have fought for the water rights being affected through legal litigation.
Crow historian Dr. Joe Medicine Crow noted that after the Indian wars the Crows were essentially left alone and got to keep most of their land after the events, whilst the defeated Cheyenne and Sioux were treated as virtual prisoners of war.

With all of the dazzling photographs throughout the book, it is odd that there was a lack of a map to further enhance the region’s stories. However, in spite of this setback, Chapman has created an enriching detailed book worthy of any casual reader of the era or Indian War scholar’s bookshelf.

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