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Fort McKinney (1877–1894) was a military post located first on the Powder River in Wyoming, and then moved to the Clear Fork of the Powder River, near present-day Buffalo, Wyoming. The fort was named for Lieutenant John McKinney, 4th U.S. Cavalry, killed in an attack on a Cheyenne village on November 26, 1876 on the Red Fork of the Powder River. The Fort was created as part of the intensive reaction to the defeat of Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and was soon outmoded as the Indian Wars came to an end. The fort was occupied at various times by units of the 6th Cavalry, and the 9th Cavalry, a black army unit of "Buffalo Soldiers". Military units of the Fort took part in Wyoming's "Johnson County War". The fort was closed in 1894, and the land and remaining buildings transferred to the State of Wyoming, who made the site the Wyoming Soldiers and Sailors Home starting in 1903.

The First Fort McKinney, On the Powder River (1877-1878)[]

The name Fort McKinney was first given to a post previously named Cantonment Reno, located on the Powder River near the old Bozeman Trail crossing. Near this site on the Bozeman Trail a Fort Reno had been constructed in 1865, but was abandoned after the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. The tribes promptly burned the fort.[1] Cantonment Reno had been re-established in late 1876, about 3 miles from the site of old Fort Reno. Cantonment Reno started as a temporary base of operations for General George Crooks’ 1876 Big Horn Expedition,.[2] Crook's Expedition was part of the intensive campaign against the Sioux and Cheyenne in late 1876, following Custer's defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In just 3 months 42 buildings were erected at the Cantonment, including multiple storehouses, living quarters and a hospital.[1] On November 25, 1876, part of Crook's command, under the leadership of Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie, attacked a village of Cheyenne (sometimes referred to as "Dull Knife's village") on the nearby Red Fork of the Powder River. The army surprised and scattered the Cheyennes driving men, women and children out of their village into subzero temperatures and snow on the open prairie. Cantonment Reno provided logistic support for the attack, and rudimentary care for the army wounded from the battle. Lt. John A McKinney died in the battle on the Red Fork,[1] and in January 1877, Cantonment Reno was renamed Fort McKinney in his memory.[2]

The original Fort Reno built in 1865 on the Bozeman Trail was named for General Jesse L. Reno, a civil war general killed in September 1862 while commanding a corps at Fox's Gap at the Battle of South Mountain, Maryland. Neither the original Fort Reno, nor Cantonment Reno had any connection with Major Marcus Reno, an officer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

The Second Fort McKinney, On the Clear Fork of the Powder River, Near Present-day Buffalo Wyoming (1878-1894)[]

By 1878, the first site of Fort McKinney, on the Powder River was experiencing lumber, forage and water shortages.[2] After considerable study a decision was made to relocate Fort McKinney 45 miles northwest, to a site on the Clear Fork of the Powder River. The new site of Fort McKinney was on benchlands just north of the Clear Fork, and only a few miles from where the stream issues from the Big Horn Mountains.[2] The site is located two miles west of present-day Buffalo, Wyoming.

Construction at the new site of Fort McKinney started in 1878 by two companies of the 9th Infantry, commanded by Captain Pollock. The new fort, at peak of development, had buildings to house seven companies of troops, officer's quarters, a warehouse, administrative offices, bakery, dairy, laundress quarters, a hospital, and auxiliary structures.[2]

Purpose and Role of Fort McKinney[]

When built the purpose of the Fort was to provide support and supplies to army campaigns aimed at driving Sioux and Cheyenne Plains Indian groups out of hunting grounds ceded in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, located in the Powder River country between the Black Hills and the Big Horn Mountains. Several groups of Indians, most notably Sitting Bull's Sioux, had lived year-round in the vast hunting preserve and never gone to the reservations. The goal was to prevent the Sioux and Cheyenne from reverting to their old way of life, and force those Indian groups out of their vast hunting preserve and onto the reservations.[2] However, the intensive military campaigns in response to the 1876 defeat of Custer at the Little Bighorn soon drove the remaining recalcitrant groups to surrender or to flee to Canada, and brought a swift end to active campaigning against hostile Indian groups in the Powder River Basin and surrounding areas.

The end of active Indian war campaigns on the northern plains caused the fort to shift its role to keeping Shoshoni, Arapahoe and Crow tribes, who had reservations in the general area, from resuming intermittent strife with other groups seen as tribal enemies. Another role was to keep bands of these tribes from becoming embroiled with settlers.[2]

As tribal Indian groups became resigned to reservation life, the fort's role shifted again to providing security and support to civilians living in the vicinity. The comforting presence of Fort McKinney was a major impetus to the founding of nearby Buffalo, Wyoming in 1879.

Fort McKinney troops guarded the Rock Creek Stage Line, which provided mail, passenger and express service from Rock Creek (near present-day Rock River, Wyoming) to Terry's Landing (near present-day Custer, Montana) on the Yellowstone in Montana Territory.[2] This stage route extended over 200 miles across mostly empty country, and Fort McKinney's location near the midpoint of the line helped prevent trouble along the line.

Fort McKinney troops built and maintained the first telegraph line in the region.[2] The presence of the fort encouraged the growing cattle industry springing up in the Powder River Basin east of the Big Horn Mountains.

In the 1880s and 1890s units of the 6th Cavalry were assigned to the Fort, as well as units of the black 9th Cavalry. The fort was a duty station for soldiers who had gained military fame in other venues, including Sgt. John Nihill and Charles B. Gatewood. Lt. Gatewood is recalled for his interaction with Geronimo. Sgt. Nihill is recalled for his heroics in Arizona, and for his skill as a marksmans with a rifle, which he developed and then displayed over a period of years, including a stint at Ft. McKinney in 1882 and 1883.

Involvement in the Johnson County War[]

On April 13, 1892 troops of the 6th Cavalry at the fort received orders by telegraph from President Benjamin Harrison to intervene in Wyoming's Johnson County War. The troops were ordered to take into custody about 40 persons, consisting mostly of Texas gunmen with a few Wyoming stockmen mixed in. They had become besieged at the TA ranch, south of Buffalo, by irate citizens of Buffalo and Johnson County. The stockmen, acting outside the law, had hired the gunman to undertake an “invasion” of Johnson County intent on killing a list of men they believed to be cattle thieves. The citizens had risen, armed themselves and surrounded the "invaders" and were carrying forward plans to burn them out of the ranch buildings where they had taken refuge when the cavalry arrived in the nick of time.

Lt. Charles B. Gatewood was a United States cavalry officer who had gained fame in 1886 when he took a small contingent of soldiers, scouts and interpreters and located the Apache war leader Geronimo at a remote location in Mexico, and then personally convinced Geronimo to make his final surrender to General Nelson Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona on September 4, 1886. In September 1891 Lt. Gatewood was assigned to the 6th Cavalry, then stationed at Fort McKinney, Wyoming. He had rejoined his unit after a convalescence for rheumatism. After the events of April 1892, on May 18, 1892 cowboys from a local ranch set fire to the Post exchange at Fort McKinney and planted a bomb in the form of gunpowder in a barracks stove. Gatewood was responding to the fire and was injured by a bomb blast in a barracks; his left arm was shattered, rendering him too disabled to serve in the Cavalry.[3] He was discharged in November, 1892 and died a year later of stomach cancer.

The large stockmen of Wyoming, who held political control of the state, demanded that their United States Senator arrange to send black troops to Wyoming to "prevent any sympathetic relations that might develop between small ranchers and white troops".[4] Soon after, The Ninth Cavalry of "Buffalo Soldiers" was ordered to Fort McKinney to replace the Sixth Cavalry.[5]

Closure in 1894, Transfer to State of Wyoming, Becoming the Wyoming Soldiers and Sailors Home in 1903[]

In 1894 the fort was closed. Some of the buildings were disposed of, and the remainder, along with a large tract of land was turned over by the U.S. government to the state of Wyoming. Following the transfer most of the rest of the buildings were changed or dismantled. In 1903 Wyoming established the Wyoming Soldiers and Sailors Home at the site. The old fort hospital building, moved from its original location, is today the visitors’ house of the home. The only other remaining structures at the site are a mule and cavalry stable, now used as a garage, the dairy, and some foundations.[6]

Visiting the two sites of Ft. McKinney[]

The site of the first Ft. McKenzie, aka Cantonment Reno, is located in Johnson County, Wyoming. The site is in an open prairie environment on the Powder river, near the old Bozeman Trail crossing of the Powder River. No buildings or significant ruins remain from the active period in 1876–77. It may be visited year-round as weather permits. From Kaycee, Wyoing, travel east on state Highway 192 for 19.1 miles. Turn left onto the county road where the road signs point to the Bozeman Trail and Fort Reno and continue north for 5.2 miles. Cantonment Reno is to your right. The site is marked on the Wyoming state highway map. There are interpretive signs, and the site is best viewed during daylight, but the is on public lands, so it is open 24 hours daily. There is no admission fee. Artifacts should not be removed, and the use of metal detectors is not permitted.

For more information, contact the Bureau of Land Management Buffalo, Wyoming Field Office at (307) 684–1100.

The site of the second Fort McKinney on Clear Fork of the Powder, is commemorated by a highway interpretive sign located about two miles west of Buffalo, Wyo., on U.S Highway 16.

For more information, contact the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum, in Buffalo, Wyoming. (307) 684–9331.

More Detailed Sources of Information on Ft. McKinney[]

Bollinger, Gil. Fort McKinney 1877-1894: A Wyoming Frontier Post. Buffalo, Wyo.: Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum Press, 2006.

See also[]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2, A project of the Wyoming State Historical Society, Section on "Cantonment Reno"
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office, National Register of Historic Places, Fort McKinney
  3. Kraft, Louis (2000). Gatewood & Geronimo. University of New Mexico Press. p. 221. ISBN 978-0-8263-2130-5. 
  4. Schubert,Frank N. "Voices of the Buffalo soldier: Records, Reports, and Recollections of Military Life and Service in the West", 2003, University of New Mexico Press, ISBN 978-0-8263-2310-1, page 174
  5. Schubert, Frank N. "The Suggs Affray: The Black Cavalry in the Johnson County War" The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 1 (January 1973), pp. 57–68
  6. WyoHistory.Org A project of the Wyoming State Historical Society, Section on Fort McKinney

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