Before Christmas I made my monthly trip to Fort Smith to check on things in the North District of the park. With a break in the sub-zero weather my staff decided instead of sitting in the office talking about how we could use the Three Mile Trail as an educational tool, we should go out and walk the trail.
It was a beautiful afternoon, 35 to 40 degrees. It felt as if we were walking through a Hallmark Christmas card, complete with one lone horse digging in the snow for grass. There was a kind of silence that is only possible in winter, broken occasionally by our own discussion and by the fishermen and goose hunters drifting down the river. These voices were held, almost frozen, in the air for seconds and then swept away by the gentle sound of riffling water. Half way down the trail we stopped to rest next to the river near an old cottonwood tree that wind and time had pushed over, creating an arching frame for the landscape just beyond.
Here we sat, a little more than two miles north of the old Fort Smith site and the site where the Bozeman Trail crossed the river. It was not hard to begin to image what winter must have been like for the soldiers at Fort Smith. During their first winter in 1866 they were isolated for several months from the outside world. No mail or supplies came to the fort during the months of December and January. The soldiers were far from family and located at a fort whose purpose was to protect travelers from Sioux attack along the Bozeman Trail. During this time they heard rumors from the Crow of the Fetterman Massacre near their neighboring Fort Phil Kearny, 90 miles to the south, but had no way of confirming the rumors. They wondered: had the fort been burned and abandoned as was rumored. Where they left out here alone? Would they be attacked? They began to boil the grain that was used to feed the animals and wondered when and if supply wagons would come.
From where I stood I could not see a house, road or vehicle. I know it must have been lonely and nerve-racking for the soldiers, but at that moment I couldn’t help but wonder if they saw the beauty in their surroundings that I saw. Did they appreciate the pinks and reds of the sunset reflecting in the river painted through a white canvas of snow? They must have been drawn to their surroundings. Diary entries from the soldiers during this time talk about the weather and one entry from December 19, 1866, describes a soldier preparing his skates for skating on the Big Horn River. A couple days later, the same soldier wrote, “The wind still blowing a hurricane, and the ice all gone.” These entries assure me that they must have.
Standing next to that old cottonwood looking up the river toward where the canyon empties onto the flats, I am convinced I stood in the footprints of and was sharing a view that at least one or two Fort Smith soldiers would have stopped to appreciate. This walk inspired us all and we hope to have an interactive scavenger hunt along this trail soon that can be used by teachers and visitors to share our experience and give a glimpse into the past. I hope if your travels this winter or spring take you in the direction of Fort Smith, you will take a moment to walk a mile or maybe three in our footsteps along the Big Horn River on the Three Mile Trail.