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Cultural Resources in the Bighorn Basin

The Historic Period (ca. 100 BP - AD 1930)

The Historic Period begins with the appearance of European explorers. The first of these explorers may have been the La Verendrye brothers in 1743 (Smith and Wood 1980). French traders may have been in the area in the 1790s (Larson 1978). The earliest explorer in the Bighorn Basin of record was John Colter in 1806. Colter was followed by William Price in 1811. After that occasional fur trappers passed through the area.

By the beginning of the Historic Period, the following tribes were established in the following territories: the Sioux dominated the Black Hills; the Crow dominated the western half of the Powder River Basin as far south as Fort Laramie and the Bighorn Basin; the Cheyenne and Arapaho ranged from southeastern Colorado to Montana; the Shoshone were centered in central Wyoming; and the Kiowa Apache were well south of the Powder River Basin. Territories were tenuous and all actions in the Basin were subject to raids from any and all tribes.

By 1850 the fur trade was about over and the lack of grass, caused by immigrant overgrazing of stock along the Platte River, forced the Sioux and Cheyenne southward. In hopes of establishing peace with Indian tribes along the major trails, the Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed in 1851. The treaty proposed restitution for immigrant destruction of Indian lands if the Indians would refrain from further retaliation. The treaty also established tribal territories (see Table 2).

The treaty was neither widely accepted nor followed and hostilities on both sides began again before the end of two years. Immigrants continued to move into the region. During the Colorado gold rush the Cheyenne and Arapaho moved back into the Bighorn Basin because of major hostilities by the US Army. Indian reprisals continued in areas along the North Platte and Bozeman Trail. This warfare effectively closed the area encompassing the Cody Field Office to all traffic from 1866 to 1868. The Cheyenne and Sioux signed another peace treaty designed to end hostilities after the War Department closed all forts along the Bozeman Trail. The Cheyenne and Sioux then moved to Nebraska and South Dakota, the Black Hills, and the Northern Powder River Basin.

The first official representative of the US Government to explore the Bighorn Basin was Lt. Henry Maynadier in 1860. The discovery of gold in Montana in 1863 caused a large influx of people. In 1864, two trails were developed to connect the Oregon Trail with the Montana gold fields: The Bozeman and Bridger Trails. The Bozeman Trail skirted the Big Horn basin to the east and north while the Bridger Trail ran north through the Basin. European settlement of the Bighorn Basin began at about this time.

Intensive Euro-American settlement of the Bighorn Basin did not occur until the building of the railroad. After the railroad reached the Basin in the latter part of the 1800s, there began an intensive campaign to attract settlers. Despite warnings of some that the quarter section plots offered homesteaders could not be successfully cultivated, dry land farming, cattle and sheep ranching became major industries during the late 1880s and early 1890s and continue to this day.

Coal mining began in the Bighorn Basin around 1902 with the establishment of several mines in Elk Basin and Oregon Basin; notably the Schoob Mine which became the Wiley Mine.

Oil exploration began in 1914 in the Elk Basin Oil Field and the first well was drilled in August, 1915. Development of the Big Polecat Oil field began in 1916 and the first well was drilled in the Oregon Basin Oil Field in 1912.

With the drought of the early 1930s, many farms and ranches were ruined. By the mid-1930s, the US Government began buying sub-marginal land from farmers who were willing to sell. With the return of the rains, economic prosperity, and the employment of more effective land use methods, ranching and, to a lesser extent, farming once again became the area's major economic activities.

Since the early 1970s, economic emphasis has remained ranching, agriculture, mining and exporting the area's extensive oil and gas deposits. The importance of this resource has increased significantly over the past decade and the development of oil and gas reserves, as well as the less extensive uranium deposits may be expected to continue.


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