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Fort D.A. Russell
Lowry Air Force Base closed last fall and now Fitzsimons Army Hospital is being axed. This is a problem for me because, as a retired military person, I do much of my shopping for groceries, clothes and many other items at the exchanges and commissaries.
Now I have a choice of going to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs or F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne. To get to the Academy we have to go through Denver and its traffic, but to get to F. E. Warren, there are just four stop lights between Big Owl Road and the main gate.
Aside from the drive to Cheyenne, which takes about an hour and a half on I-25 through beautiful rolling prairie with very little traffic and few cops, F. E. Warren has the attraction of a long and fascinating history.
It’s a missile base now and has been for more than thirty years, but when it was first built in 1867 it was Fort D.A. Russell, named for an officer killed in the Civil War. It was built to protect the Union Pacific railroad, headed west for its rendezvous with the Central Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah in 1869. Of all the forts built in Wyoming in that period, Laramie, Fetterman, Sedgwick, Sanders, Caspar, Bridger, Reno, Washakie and Kearny, only Fort Russell survived. Its cavalry and infantry units were in the thick of the Indian wars from 1870 to 1890, when the frontier era ended.
Placing and keeping Indians on reservations involved all the tribes in Wyoming, western Nebraska and northern Colorado. There were many conflicts with the Ute, Arapaho, Hunkpapa, Brule and Oglala Sioux, Cheyenne, Paiute and Bannock and their leaders, among them Red Cloud and Sitting Bull.
There were also problems with settlers and cowboys. In 1868 a soldier mail carrier had his horse stolen while in the Cheyenne post office picking up the fort’s mail. Nine men from the fort captured a notorious horse thief named Sam Dugan and a cohort at the natural fort, an outcropping of rocks thirteen miles south of Cheyenne. Dugan was turned over to a Colorado lawman the next day and two days later was hanged in Denver.
On paydays (a trooper’s base pay was $13 a month) many soldiers went to Cheyenne, got drunk, and often got into trouble. In 1870 the Cheyenne Leader, the local newspaper, reported: “Yesterday afternoon as several intoxicated soldiers were passing along seventeenth street near Eddy, one of them drew his revolver for the purpose of shooting at some hogs feeding in the street. A companion tried to prevent the cruelty and got shot in the thigh as a result, one to the hospital and one to jail.”
The fort was the site of the Cheyenne Depot, also known as Camp Carlin, which was the supply depot for the army in the west. They supplied food and clothing to the many Indian agencies as well. They used ox teams of twelve to fourteen to pull three wagons. One hundred wagons and five mule pack trains, for rougher terrain, were in constant use until the Indian wars ended and all the other forts closed.
President Grant in 1869 instituted his Peace Policy with regard to Indians. He decided to appoint Quakers as Superintendents of Indian Affairs and Indian agents. Unfortunately, the Indians continued to look on hostile activities as the normal way of life and viewed peace efforts as weakness on the part of the whites, so the peace policy was a failure and hostilities continued for the next 20 years.
Fort Russell became a permanent army post in 1902, and its temporary buildings were replaced with handsome brick structures.
Today, F.E. Warren (renamed in 1930 to honor the longtime Wyoming senator who was responsible for keeping it alive) looks much as it did in 1910. Given Historic Landmark designation in 1975, the buildings of the turn of the century are not only intact, but care has been taken to preserve them and their surroundings, including the large parade ground now used by a 30 member volunteer U.S. Fifth Cavalry (Reorganized) which dresses in 1875 uniforms and performs at Frontier Days and other events. New buildings retain the style of the originals.
The 1893 regimental headquarters now houses the base museum, three floors of interesting artifacts, staffed and operated by volunteers, members of the base historical society.
We sometimes forget that the history of our mountains is recorded and preserved in strange places. If you want to have a look at an important piece of this area’s past, you will find it at F.E. Warren Air Force Base; they welcome visitors.
© 1985 – 2003, David E. Steiner
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