THE ENGLISH WESTERNERS' SOCIETY
MARCH 2012 BOOK REVIEW
This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Summer 2009, Volume 55, Number 3)
FORT ROBINSON AND THE AMERICAN WEST 1874-99
By Thomas R. Buecker. Red River Books. University of Oklahoma Press 2003. 265pp. Illus. Maps. Bibliography. End notes. ISBN 0-8061-3534-4. Softcover $19.95
Few of those who watched the films and western television series 40-60 years ago ever learned of Fort Robinson. It featured in the film Cheyenne Autumn and should have been mentioned at the end of Valley of Fury as the place where Crazy Horse was killed. Alas, with few exceptions, only Forts Laramie and Apache seem to have regularly provided historical locations. Even the general student of the West, or even the Indian Wars, might find it difficult to remember much that occurred there. But Fort Robinson was to become a significant military establishment in the final quartile of the 19th Century and well into the 20th. Today it is a well-preserved State historical site and its curator is the author of this book.
Camp Robinson was established in March 1874, following a winter of turbulence, discontent, and some bloodshed at the Red Cloud Agency. In response to an urgent request for assistance, and following direction from the Army Chiefs, with the concurrence of the President and Secretary of War, Colonel John E. Smith, the commanding officer at Fort Laramie concentrated a powerful column, deploying these near the agencies of Red Cloud and Spotted Tail. Once a degree of calm had returned, the new post had a garrison of some 350 officers and enlisted men, most infantry. Strength fluctuated considerably over the years, exceeding 1,100 in January 1877, but falling to 57 in late 1879, reflecting the volatile military situation.
Robinson, named in honour of a subaltern killed in February 1874, was the focal point for the abortive negotiations in 1875 to purchase the Black Hills. It played little part in the summer campaign of 1876, as its cavalry were required for Crook’s expedition. Following his return and the decision to disarm the agency Indians, garrison strength rapidly expanded. In the following year, Crazy Horse surrendered, and spent many of his final days at, or near, the post. The next major climacteric concerned Dull Knife’s band of Cheyennes who, in late 1878 made their epic trek from Oklahoma back to their home in Nebraska. Incarcerated at the post, now classified as a fort, they attempted to break free in January 1879 and many were slaughtered. With the introduction of the railroad and the easing of the logistical problems, the following decade saw some transformation, with the post playing a fundamental role in the developed of the United States Army, the introduction of brigade sized manoeuvres, increased emphasis on target practice and tactical communications. Now garrisoned by the black troopers of the Ninth Cavalry, the post furnished soldiers who participated in the 1890 outbreak, relieving the Seventh Cavalry at Drexel Mission.
Using a wide range of established works and primary source material, the author has produced a creditable, comprehensive and thorough history of the first 25 years of the post and the events that transpired there, but also describing everyday military life there. One anecdote concerned the introduction of the British Army concept of a canteen at the post, where troops could purchase beer and wine at competitive prices. Local vested interests terminated that arrangement! The Appendices contain tables of units stationed at the post and its commanding officers. This work will be of interest to those studying not only the Sioux Wars, but also Army life in general in the West, and the relationship subsisting with the Indian Bureau and their native American charges.
Francis B. Taunton
English Westerners' Society
Copyright © 2012 English Westerners' Society