The mid to late 1800s are some of the darkest decades of our country’s history. The war the government waged on Native American tribes was ruthless and tragic.
Often, it’s a part of American history the education system doesn’t teach in public schools. Powder River tells a story of a surprise attack that ended the lives of 24 Cheyennes in the northwest territory.
Today, the area is more known for its coal production than for this massacre. Let’s learn more about what happened at Powder River in Wyoming.
About Powder River
At about 375 miles in length, the Powder River is a tributary of the Yellowstone River. It flows through northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana.
Additionally, it drains into Powder River Country. It’s an area of the Great Plains between the Bighorn Mountains and the Black Hills.
It also joins the Little Powder River near Broadus, Mont., and the Yellowstone River outside Miles City, Mont. Powder River County in southeastern Montana is a rural and agricultural area used for grazing.
Why Is It Called Powder River?
The Powder River’s banks consist of sand that resembles dust. Thus it got the name “Powder River.”
However, a historical marker in Broadus on US 212 in Powder River County explains that the origin of its name may be a bit more obscure. It reads, “In July 1806, Captain William Clark christened it the Red Stone River.”
Later renamed the Powder River, historians suppose it took its name from the dark gunpowder-colored soil and sand along its banks. But army scout, William Drannan, maintained that the river was inadvertently named by Vierres Roubidoux, a French guide.
He shouted, ‘Cache la Powder!’ (Hide the Powder!) when a group of soldiers he was escorting was attacked by Indians.”
What Happened at Powder River in Wyoming?
In 1865, the Powder River Expedition was an operation of the United States Army against the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians. Major General Grenville M. Dodge ordered the campaign against the northern plains tribes. He also named Brigadier General Patrick E. Connor the leader of the expedition.
In August 1865, Captain Frank Joshua North and a few dozen soldiers were searching for hostile Indians in the Dakota Territory. For two days, they trailed a small band of Cheyenne.
On August 17, the soldiers caught up with the group of 24 Cheyennes on the Powder River. The Indians had made their camp for the night and were asleep. Captain North waited until dawn and closed in on the camp.
Because there were Pawnee Scouts with the soldiers, the Cheyenne thought they were just more friendly Cheyennes approaching. They made no moves to attack or protect themselves.
However, the Pawnees suddenly charged in, surprising the Cheyennes and killing all 24 Indians. This event is known as the Powder River Massacre.
Why Did the Powder River War Happen?
One of the primary routes in this area was the Bozeman Trail. Numerous incidents involving Native Americans and white pioneers occurred along the trail because it ran through Native American territory. Considered hostile Indians, the United States Army sought to control the trail by force.
The Powder River Expedition is also known as the Powder River War. It was led by Connor to protect the development and growth of the U.S. in western territories. He had to keep the roads open, safeguard the mail, and keep the telegraph lines operating.
He also mounted an offensive into the Powder River country to attack any Indians in the area.
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Can You Fish the Powder River?
You can fish the Powder River, but there are better choices for anglers looking for a big catch. Because the river is so shallow, sport fishing isn’t common.
The riverbanks are also very erosive and the river is laden with sediment. That makes them less desirable habitats for fish.
In 2004, Dave Zafft, Game and Fish’s fish population supervisor, told the Gillette News Record, “There are very few sport fish in the Powder River. We have some channel catfish, and every once in a while some sturgeon come into the Powder to spawn. But not many game species.”
Plus, the temperature of the Powder River doesn’t provide a hospitable environment for cold water species like trout.
Who Owns the Powder River Basin?
The largest coal-producing region in the U.S., the Powder River Basin includes the country’s two most productive coal mines, the North Antelope Rochelle Mine and the Black Thunder Coal Mine.
In 2019, the North Antelope Rochelle Mine produced over 85 million tons of coal. About 40% of the coal used in the U.S. comes from the Powder River Basin.
The federal government owns most of the land within the Powder River Basin. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) leases it out to coal companies like Peabody, “the world’s largest producer and reserve holder of coal in the Powder River Basin with 2.3 billion tons in reserves.”
The Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 and the Mineral Leasing Act of 1947 give the BLM authority to manage coal resources. According to the BLM’s website, its role is to “conduct lease sales,” to “administer those leases,” and to “inspect Federal and Indian use authorizations to ensure compliance.”
Its role is also to “provide pre-lease evaluations of mineral tracts when requested by the Bureau of Indian Affairs” and to monitor production.
How Much Coal Is Left in the Powder River Basin?
A publication by the United States Geological Survey in 2015 estimated the remaining resources in the Powder River Basin are about 1.15 trillion short tons. Although this sounds like a lot of coal, an Associated Press release in 2016 explained that the lifespan of Powder River coal is about 40 more years.
Of the almost 1.1 trillion tons of coal buried across the 20,000-square mile Powder River Basin, “only 162 billion tons is within coal seams considered thick enough and close enough to the surface to make extracting them worthwhile.”
Is the Powder River in Wyoming Worth Visiting?
If you’re planning a trip through northeastern Wyoming along Interstate 90, there isn’t really much reason to stop in the Powder River Basin area. But perhaps you’d like to venture up to Arvada, Wyo. It’s the present-day site of the Powder River Massacre. You can take Highway 14/16 in Gillette northwest for about 50 miles to reach Arvada, a town of about 33 residents along the Powder River.
The Powder River runs through remote areas of Montana and Wyoming. It’s not conducive to sport fishing and lacks the aesthetic appeal of many popular rivers in the country. But if you’re looking for a quiet place of rest, perhaps a visit is just what you need.
Will you be visiting the Powder River anytime soon?
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