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A historian uncovers some little-known history of eastern Wyoming in a new book

The cover of "Emigrant Tales of the Platte River Raids" by Janelle Molony
Janelle Molony

We all know about the Civil War, but during that same time period, another historical event happened in Wyoming that very few of us know about. Until now.

The Platte River Raids happened over the course of three days in July of 1864, when settlers in covered wagons coming to the Medicine Bow Forest were met on the trail by the Northern Plains Indians. Things quickly escalated and the Union cavalry was called in. Many people died. It was pretty tragic all the way around. It’s actually a piece of history that previously hasn’t been well documented for the present day.

Historian Janelle Molony wanted to change that. It started with a hunch about the event from an Oregon Trail diary from her ancestors. She did a lot of research to collaborate the stories and timeline, and compiled all her work into the new book ‘Emigrant Tales of the Platte River Raids.’ Molony spoke with Wyoming Public Radio’s Caitlin Tan.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity. 

Caitlin Tan: Janelle, give us a little bit of a summary about the raids.

A woman takes a selfie in front of an old covered wagon.
Janelle Molony

Janelle Molony: So the Platte River Raids are a very well coordinated ambush, on a stretch of trail about 80 miles between Fort Laramie and Deer Creek Garrison, which is in present day Glenrock. And the Northern Plains Indians, loosely Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho and Sioux, came down what was not yet the Bozeman Trail. I believe they were intending to disarm and take horses from the emigrants to stop travel on the Bozeman Trail to say, “Hey, stay on your designated trail that's protected by the treaty that is all agreed upon. You know, everyone stay in your zone.”

So unfortunately, the emigrants responded. They were scared, they fought back, guns were fired and everything escalated for three days. It actually blew up into a huge problem that the Union had to do something about, and yet they're strained because of the Civil War. And so the way that they react is so strong, so severe – egregious crimes against humanity. It just gets way out of control. It sends shockwaves through the Great Plains, and the tribal families feel the effects as far south as Colorado. This is a major event that leads up to the Sand Creek massacres in Colorado, and yet it's been overlooked for 200 years.

CT: From what I understand, other than your work with this book, there isn't a lot of information out there about this rich part of American history. Why do you think that is?

JM: I think they've been looked at in the past as isolated cases. One single individual family getting attacked is considered a valid attack. But another family that just heard about the attacks was considered a completely separate irrelevant story. So I started to expand the search. And now I have 68 eyewitness accounts. And at that point, it's like, there's no questioning this, this happened.

CT: You mentioned in the preface of your book that there is one side of the Platte River Raid story that's not as well represented, and that's from the Northern Plains Indians. Is that a side of the story that is documented or that could in the future be uncovered?

JM: It is documented, and it can be uncovered. However, I'm not the right person to tell that story. Part of my process in putting the tales together is that I actually tried to remove myself from the narrative as much as possible to leave just the voices of the people who were there and saw it for themselves. Included in that is a collection of oral histories that were recorded by Alfred Burton Welch, who is the son of Chief John Grass, which is his American name. Their voices are just one tiny sliver of the perspective from the Northern Plains Indians. But it was really important that I included them, because there's such a strong good-bad element where the emigrants have bias. The Union has a very strong bias as well. So it was important just to show a glimpse of, “Wait a second, let's hear from someone else on the other side, who was there who lived through it, and let them speak up for themselves.” I wanted to be careful not to add additional commentary or put my own perspectives in that. So again, I don't consider myself the right person to speak on anyone's behalf of any of those tribes. I feel like it's time though for someone to take up that mantle and compose a rebuttal – compose the other half of this story.

CT: So it sounds like there's work to be done. There's more to the story that could come eventually. Janelle, anything else you want to share or to entice Wyoming listeners as to why they should read the book?

JM: It is a classic covered wagon story. So for the folks who like that travel adventure, Wild West – they've got poisoned water holes, and all those fun things. But it's also a really interesting look at military history from both the military's own reports, journals and diaries, but also the emigrants and how they see the military as very dysfunctional. There's also this big coming of age moment for the famous Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp. He's a teenager on the trail, but he is given the responsibility of protecting his family during not one, but two attacks on his company. So I think you'll just have a great time going through it, knowing that as incredible and unbelievable as it sounds, it's all 100 percent true.

Corrected: January 13, 2024 at 3:00 PM MST
A previous version of this story stated that the raids took place in 1964. This is incorrect. The raids took place during the Civil War era, in 1864.
Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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