Fort Phil Kearny: Gruesome history lends intrigue to alleged paranormal encounters

SHERIDAN - Fort Phil Kearny was established by the U.S. Army on July 15, 1866 with the original purpose of protecting freighters and travelers along the Bozeman Trail from Native American tribes. Standing for only two years, the fort would become the site of a deadly battle that spelled death for 81 men.

Today, the fort's bloodied history is the catalyst for ghost stories aplenty.

Of two major battles at the fort, the one with the highest number of fatalities was the Fetterman Fight, also known as the Fetterman Massacre or, by the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho Native American tribes involved, the Battle of 100-in-the-Hands.

In the weeks preceding the battle, nearby supply freights were attacked by Native American tribes several times.

On the morning of Dec. 21, 1866, Col. Henry B. Carrington received word of another attack and ordered Capt. James Powell to handle the threat. Instead, Capt. William J. Fetterman offered to go with his men. Carrington agreed, but warned Fetterman not to pursue the warriors over Lodge Trail Ridge, where the U.S. soldiers would be out of view -and therefore out of protection-from the fort.

At the taunting and insults of a few warriors at the site of the wood train, Fetterman disregarded Carrington's instruction and advanced over Lodge Trail Ridge in pursuit of the hecklers.

On the other side were more than 1,500 Native American warriors from the three tribes. Within 30 minutes, Fetterman and all of his men were killed and mutilated in an orchestrated ambush, leading to a death toll of 81 American soldiers. Sharie Shada, superintendent of the Fort Phil Kearny State Historic Site, said the cemetery was one of the first facilities established upon the fort's construction.

"There were just over 100 people buried in Fort Phil's cemetery, but 81 of them arrived in one day," Shada said.

Following the disastrous Fetterman Fight, the Bozeman Trail was shut down.

In 1868, just two years after the fort went up, a treaty was signed at Fort Laramie to withdraw U.S. Army troops and return the land to the Native American tribes. As soon as the army left the site, the Northern Cheyenne tribe ensured Fort Phil Kearny went up in flames and every last structure was burned to the ground.

All of the soldiers buried at Fort Phil Kearny's cemetery were later exhumed and reinterred, first at the Little Bighorn Battlefield's Last Stand Hill and finally at the Custer National Cemetery. A total of 111 soldiers were reburied.

The bulk of those killed were from the Fetterman Fight, and only seven were officially identified. The remainder of the soldiers lie beneath headstones marked 'unknown.'

Today, the site of what was once Fort Phil Kearny houses one wall constructed to look as it once did in 1866. The remainder of the site consists of walking paths dotted with plaques and markers signifying structures that used to be there.

Southeast of the fort itself is the cemetery, surrounded with white fence posts. Only two bodies remain buried there – not soldiers, but homesteaders.

The gruesome history of the site lends itself to a handful of paranormal encounters purported to be experienced there, Shada said.

Local legend indicates an apparition of a soldier can sometimes be spotted traipsing along Little Piney Creek. Employees of the fort's on-site interpretive center allege to have experienced the workings of a poltergeist.

"One of our employees thought that we had a ghost because only books about Native Americans would fall off the shelves... It was so strange. It not only fell off the shelf, but went across the room. The binding was broken, and we couldn't sell the book anymore," Shada said. "How did it get that far? I don't know, but whenever she talked about it, something would fall behind her... She was really trying to figure out, 'Are our shelves uneven? Is the floor uneven? How can I recreate this?' and she just could not get it to happen again."

Another example of a potential paranormal encounter, Shada said, was the experience of a clairvoyant who was invited to survey the fort, particularly where the Fetterman Fight occurred.

"She was describing what she could see in her head. She was doing this motion with her hands and she said, 'I see this guy running and doing this,' and what she was mimicking was cocking a rifle," Shada said. "Right where she was, some archaeology had been done and three bullets had been found, like somebody was shooting and running and that's why these three bullets were spaced out the way they were. Her images that she was seeing lined up with some archaeology and science that had just been proven, so that was interesting."

Fort Phil Kearny is located at 528 Wagon Box Road in Banner. The grounds are open for visitation year-round, and the Interpretive Center is open 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, through Oct. 31.

More information on the site can be found online at


Reader Comments(0)