John M. Bozeman

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John M. Bozeman

The American pioneer John M. Bozeman (1837-1867), a trailblazer in the Far West, was responsible for opening a route form the Oregon Trail northwest to the Montana gold fields.

John Bozeman was born in January 1837 in Pickens County, Ga. He joined the gold seekers headed for Colorado in the spring of 1860, abandoning his wife and three small children. Unsuccessful in finding a paying claim in Colorado, he went to Gold Creek, in present Montana, in June 1862. When news came of the discovery of gold on Grasshopper Creek in the Beaverhead Valley (Montana), Bozeman joined the stampede that led to the founding of Bannack.

At this time there were two alternative routes from the east: the slow and expensive water route up the Missouri River to Ft. Benton, and then west along the Mullan road; or the Oregon Trail to Ft. Hall, then north or east by a circuitous route largely over barren plains. In May 1863 Bozeman and his partner, John M. Jacobs, left to open a shorter and more direct route that was to begin at Ft. Laramie on the Oregon Trail. They went to the Three Forks of the Missouri River (Montana), crossed the Gallatin Valley, and went through the pass (later known as Bozeman Pass) to the Yellowstone Valley (Wyoming). Harassed by Native Americans, they were able to reach the Platte River only with difficulty. The men assembled an emigrant party at the Deer Creek Crossing of the North Platte, near present Glenock, Wyo.

On the return journey in the vicinity of present Buffalo, Wyo., a large band of Native Americans forced the emigrant train to retrace its steps and take the longer route, west of the Bighorn Mountains; but the determined Bozeman, leading nine men, pushed forward on horseback, traveling at night, to further explore the way across the Great Plains.

Migration to Montana increased in 1864, following the discovery of gold at Virginia City (Montana). Bozeman, his partner Jacobs, and James Bridger were commissioned by the Missouri River and Rocky Mountain Wagon Road and Telegraph Company to guide expeditions form the Platte River to the Yellowstone Valley and on to Virginia City. Bridger chose the route west of the Bighorn Mountains; Bozeman again left the North Platte at present Glenock and directed a party along his route, the Bozeman Trail, characterized by easy grades and vast grasslands.

Bozeman was responsible for starting an agricultural colony in the Gallatin Valley to raise wheat and potatoes to feed the Montana miners. The townsite of Bozeman was laid out in August 1864. Bozeman was elected recorder of the district. The following year he encouraged the construction of the first flour mill in the valley, an enterprise so prosperous its capacity had to be doubled in 1866. Appointed probate judge of Gallatin County in 1865, he led no more wagon trains into Montana.

Recognizing the importance of the Bozeman Trail, the U.S. government attempted to protect emigrants form attacks by establishing three forts on the route in 1866. The Native Americans, however, reestablished their claims to the area in the Fettermann massacre, and after two years of strife the forts were abandoned. Undaunted by the danger, Bozeman and a companion ventured on the route. They encountered a group of Blackfeet at the crossing of the Yellowstone on April 18, 1867. Bozeman was killed, and his wounded friend escaped.

Further Reading

The standard work on Bozeman is Grace Raymond Hebard and E. A. Brinistool, The Bozeman Trail. Two histories of Montana give additional information about Bozeman: Merrill G. Burlingame and K. Ross Toole, A History of Montana (3 vols., 1957), which provides a scholarly interpretation by Burlingame of Bozeman's significance; and James McLellan Hamilton, From Wilderness to Statehood: A History of Montana, 1805-1900 (1957). The Native American side of the story is in James C. Olson, Red Cloud and the Sioux Problem (1965). □

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John M Bozeman

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