Review: The Bloody Bozeman

Review: The Bloody Bozeman

Dorothy Johnson's book on the storied trail

When you’re on vacation, you wind up collecting things as you go.  So much so I think it’s always best to pack lightly because you’re bound and determined to bring home a ton of stuff, whatever it may be.  One of the things in my case is books, and during a visit to the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming, in 1995, history geek that I am, I naturally gravitated towards the gift shop … and came out with this book.

The saga of the Bozeman Trail had already gotten into my blood thanks to Ralph Andrist’s discussion of it in his book The Long Death.   Seeing this book, I jumped at the chance to get the whole story in-depth.  I was not disappointed.

In clear, crisp prose, Dorothy Johnson chronicles the saga of the trail from its conception by John Bozeman's trail-blazing to its demise at the end of Red Cloud’s War in 1868.   Along the way, the whole vast panorama of events on the trail unfolds, from the first trips over the route to Virginia City, Montana, and its gold, to the arrival of the U.S. Army after the Civil War to establish forts and –in theory- keep travelers safe.  The latter of which was easier said than done with tiny garrisons and numerous Indians; people had to travel in large groups for “safety in numbers” which meant the forts were mere islands of civilization as opposed to actively sending out patrols to chastise the “hostiles.  Finally, Red Cloud has his way and the trail meets its demise.

I confess I am disappointed she chooses not to go into too much detail about the event that made the Bozeman Trail truly “bloody” -the Fetterman fight. Instead Johnson goes simply with the known facts as opposed to facts laced with speculation like Andrist and Dee Brown did in their treatments of the subject.  That does not reflect badly on her book, however; it’s well worth a read for all casual and serious students of the American West.