Tomahawk (1951)




Director:     George Sherman.

Starring:     Van Heflin (Bridger),  Tvonne De Carlo (Julie Madden),  Alex Nicol (Lt. Rob Dancy),  Preston Foster (Col. Carrington),  Jack Oakie (Sol Beckworth),  Tom Tully (Dan Castello),  John War Eagle (Red Cloud),  Rock Hudson (Burt Hanna),  Susan Cabot (Monahseetah),  Arthur Space (Captain Fetterman),  Russ Conway (Major Horton),  Ann Doran (Mrs. Carrington),  Stuart Randall (Sergeant Newell).

in 1864 mountain man Jim Bridger builds the Bridger Trail from Wyoming to the gold fields in Montana


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

"This is the territory of Wyoming.  The year 1866.  On this soft, sunlit day of early summer, men of two different worlds have come together to talk.  There is bitterness here, suspicion and distrust. You remember your friends and loved ones who have been killed.  You've seen the bones of the settlers on the trail and the bleached ribs of their wagons. And still they come pushing west with a vision, a vision of farm and town on land they can call their own. They come by the hundreds to reclaim the wilderness under your protection, the army of the United States. And in your hearts and minds there  is also bitterness and hatred because you also have a vision of sacred hunting grounds silent and empty of buffalo, elk and beaver, your food,  clothing and shelter vanished forever of starvation and sickness where once there was plenty.  This is the Laramie Conference, a powder keg that may explode at any moment.  It would take little to light the fuse.  There are important and powerful men here.  On one side the leaders of the Sioux nations.  On the other, representatives of the United States.  But on this day it will take a great man to see both side.  Jim Bridger, pioneer, trapper and scout is such a man."

Bridger starts talking about the many treaties with the Sioux that pushed them around and now they are being pushed aground again.  A Mr. Davis says that they are not discussing old treaties.  Bridger says well, he is.  He traveled 200 miles so he could have his say at this Laramie Conference.  The military is going to build a trail originally mapped out by John Bozeman.  But the land for this trail is on the last hunting grounds of the Sioux.  The problem is that gold has been discovered in Montana and thousands of gold diggers are waiting to rush into Montana.  Bridger says this will mean the end of the buffalo in the area and that will bring the end of the Sioux. 

The military say that this is their only option, but Bridger says there is another trail they could use that is called the Bridger Trail.  It's west of the Big Horns (Big Horn, Little Big Horn).  It's better than the Bozeman Trail.  It only took him on his trail two days more than it took those that used the Bozeman Trail to reach Silver City.  Two days isn't too much to pay to avoid war and the destruction of the Sioux.  Some think that this is a better alternative to the Bozeman Trail, but one of the men says that Jim Bridger basically is just another Indian lover.  Bridger says that Monahseetah, his Indian wife, is from Kansas and is not concerned with the Powder River Country where the Sioux are now.  And, yes, his friend Sol Beckworth has lived among the Indians.

Chief Two Bears says if the conference will not listen to Jim Bridger, will they listen to anyone from the Sioux side?  From something that Bridger says, Red Cloud gets up and says now he knows about the new fort being built along the Bozeman Trail.  He says the whites were going to let the Sioux only find out about the fort until after the new treaty was signed.  Red Cloud then tells his fellow chiefs that the white man's promises are written in water, meaning that the peace conference is a fake.  Col Carrington asks if Red Cloud will fight?  Bridger says he will, if he is forced to.  He adds :  "No, Mr. Davis you can put through your road and you can fortify it.  But if one white man kills one Indian, that road is going to come unraveled in your face."

Bridger and Beckworth tells Col. Carrington that Red Cloud has 4,000 fighting men easily.  Carrington asks them if they want to be scouts for the army?  No, they say they are both through with being scouts.  Monahseetah comes over to Bridger.  She is upset about seeing an army lieutenant.  Carrington says the man is a recent transfer.  His name is Lt. Rob Dancy.  Now Bridger changes his mind and says he will join Carrington as a scout in mid-summer. 

Jim is collecting furs from the Sioux.  A brave comes up to Jim and suddenly just slaps him without saying anything to him.  Beckworth comes over and tells Jim that he should have knocked the guy out, but Jim says the fellow is just drunk.  Later Red Cloud congratulates Jim for not reacting to the slap.  He then gets down to business.  He says, though no chief signed the treaty, the fort has been built on the Bozeman Trail anyway. 

A corporal is trying to convince a traveling entertainer to wait for other wagons and a cavalry escort for the wagon.  Between Fort Phil Kearney and Virginia City, there is nothing but Indians.   The rule is that there is no escort for less than five wagons. Lt. Rob Dancy sees the name Julie Madden on the side of the wagon.  He seems to recognize the name, because he now says that the man can travel with their mail escort.  The can slow their pace to match that of  the wagon and escort it to For Phil Kearney.  Julie Madden comes out from the back of wagon to thank the lieutenant.

The sergeant ant the lieutenant hear someone messing with their horses.  They go check it out and find two Indian boys stealing horses.  The lieutenant raises his weapon to fire, but the sergeant tells him not to shoot because it's against orders.   The lieutenant ignores the sergeant and shoots one of the boys in the back.  The other boy gets away.  Dancy tells the sergeant that the lieutenant shot at a fox and missed and that's all. 

The wagon gets stuck and the cavalry work to get it unstuck.  Dancy tells Julie that he likes fighting Indians.  He says he was Chivington and they fought Indian and had a high-old time.  (Chivington was the one responsible for the Sand Creek Massacre of Indians in Colorado in 1864.)

Dancy comes upon a cattle head skeleton.  The men wonder what the drawings on the skull mean, but they don't really know the meaning.  Later Jim Bridger, Beckworth and from the back of wagon come across the same skull.  Bridger tells the others:  "It looks like there's going to be a little trouble."  

Sioux Indians sneak up on the wagon and the escort.  Old Dan is shot with an arrow.  The lieutenant and the sergeant take off after the small raiding party.  They lose sight of the Indians, but run into Bridger and company. who ride back to the wagon with the lieutenant.  Bridger tells the lieutenant that if he is going to be jostling Old Dan in the back of the wagon, he could die from the arrow wound.  .

 The wagon and its escort arrive at Fort Phil Kearney.  The cavalrymen are pleased to see pretty Julie Madden.  Carrington comes out to welcome Bridger to the fort.  When Carrington mentions Bridger's name the cavalrymen all turn around to get a good look at him. 

The doctor at the fort says to Julie that there's nothing he can do for Old Dan.  He can't risk an operation on the man.  A soldier comes up to Bridger and asks about his Indian name.  Bridger says the name means tomahawk in Sioux. 

Col. Carrington calls Bridger in his office.  He can't understand why the Sioux would attack the wagon.  He asks Dancy is there was any incident along the way and Dancy says no.  Bridger asks the sergeant and he says no also. 

Outside Bridger grabs the Sergeant and tells him to tell him what really happened out there.  He tells the sergeant he saw the same skull that they saw.  The sergeant is a litltle scared to say, but Bridger promises to tell the Colonel about the incident.  The sergeant finally says:  "Dancy killed a Sioux." 

A guard sees smoke signal going up on the hills.  Bridger tells the guard that the Sioux are calling in their hunting parties for a big pow-wow. 

Julie grabs Bridger and pleads with him to take the arrow out of Old Dan's chest.  Bridger says he can't promise the can pull the man through, but he will remove the arrowhead. 

Old Dan passes out from the pain of the operation, but Bridger does get the arrowhead out of the man's chest.  He thinks that Old Dan will survive.

Bridger now asks a favor from Julie.  He says Monahseetah is very young and he wants Julie to watch out for her.  Julie doesn't want to do it and Bridger figures it's because of her prejudice against Indians.  He walks away from Julie.  Dancy comes along and asks Julie if Bridger was asking her any questions about him?   She says no.  Dancy refers to Bridger as a "squaw man", which means a white man married to an Indian woman.  He also tells Julie that Bridger is a spy for Red Cloud.  And he says that if any hostilities arise with the Sioux, they will be able to trace them right back to Bridger. 

Bridger rides out and sees a herd of buffalo.  He also see a Sioux hunting party chase the buffalo.  He returns to the fort.  Carrington says that while Bridger was away they lost three more troopers.  They closed the road to settlers for awhile. 

A mail is being brought to the fort by four troopers.  They see another trooper waiting for them and the lead puts his hand up to indicate the men with him are to stop.  As they move closer to the lone trooper, they realize too late that it is a Sioux Indian in trooper clothing.  The Indian hits two men of the mail escort and they go down.  The other two troopers run away.  Only one man gets back, Hanna. 

Carrington reads the message for him turning his request down for more men at Fort Phil Kearney.  Captain Fetterman says he agrees with the decision.  What they need to be doing is to start a campaign against the Sioux and teach them a lesson.  Dancy agrees with Fetterman.  Bridger asks Dancy if he was in that Colorado campaign of 1864?  Dancy says in 1864 he was in a hospital in Washington, D.C.  Carrington asks for Bridger's opinion and he says that it's probably best to pray that the Davis fellow finally wizens up to the fact that this fort has not business being out here on the Bozeman Trail and calls the men back.   

Carrington says he wants to send Bridger out to make sure any possible rifle shipments coming their way actually gets to them.  Dancy objects because Bridger will pay a visit to his old friend Red Cloud.  Bridger and Dancy are about to go at it, but they are prevented from reaching each other.  Beckworth volunteers to go and Carrington takes him up on the offer.

Julie asks Old Dan if he is fit enough to travel.  He says Carrington wouldn't hear of their leaving at this time.  Dan thinks that it's Bridger that is on her mind and she is frustrated.  Julie denies that this is what is bothering her.  She asks how does a girl say she's sorry?  Dan says if a girl is really sorry it will just get said naturally.  Julie says she is going for a ride outside the fort.  Dan tells her that they won't let her to go riding.  Julie leaves. 

Mrs. Carrington has been teaching English to Monahseetah and she has picked up some rudimentary skills in the language.  She tells Monahseetah to go to the commissary and bring a list of supplies back to her.  Monahseetah understands and repeats what is asked of her.  Mrs. Carrington is pleased with her.  When Monahseetah leaves another wife of a trooper aks her isn't Monahseetah the wife of Bridger?  Mrs. Carrington says she is no such thing. 

Julie unlocks the gate and rides outside the fort.  Monahseetah sees her go. 

Carrington asks Bridger about his hostility for Dancy.  Bridger says he can't say he cares for the man.  Then Carrington wants to know what side of the coming conflict will Bridger be on?  Bridger says when he decides Carrington will be the first to know. 

A guard gets hit in the back with an arrow by a small hunting party.  Dancy and his group order the gate to be opened, but Carrington tells him no one is going outside.  Dancy has to dismiss the detail. 

Now Monahseetah tells Bridger that Julie went out and has not come back.  Bridger gets on his horse and goes to get Julie.  Julie sees the hunting party coming toward her and she rides away as fast as she can go.   Bridger tells the hunting party to stop and they all do, except one Indian, who continues after Julies.  Bridger catches up with the Indian and jumps on him to knock him off his horse.  They both roll down a hill.  The brave tries to kill Bridger, but Bridger ends up killing the brave. 

Now he has to get Julie off her horse and send the horse running back to the fort.  He tells Julie that they will hide down the hill and pray that the braves will follow the horse tracks.  Julie thanks Bridger for saving her life, but Bridger tells her that Monahseetah is the one who saved her life by watching her leave the fort and then telling him about it.  Julie refers to Monahseetah as his wife and Bridger tells her that she is not his wife.  His real wife is now dead.  He tells Julie about the Sand Creek Massacre.  He says a bunch of scum calling themselves the Colorado Volunteers under the leadership of a preacher named Chivington.  The men rode out to Black Kettle's village and killed 200 men, women and children.  Monahseetah was Black Kettle's young daughter and she saw her mother and father shot and her sister Mantow cut down by a sword with her baby in her arms.  Mantow was his wife and the baby was his son. 

Julie says she is sorry, but Bridger thinks her insincere.  He says she doesn't care what happened to Mantow because she was only an Indian.  He says she only cares about his feelings, but not for the Indians. 

The hunting party brings back their dead friend.  Red Cloud is upset at this. 

Bridger and Miss Madden walk into the fort.  Carrington rushes over to Bridger and Bridger tells him that the Indians caught up with Julie and he was forced to kill Lone Elk, who was Red Cloud's favorite son.   Dancy likes Julie, but Julie lets him know that she knows that Dancy was at the Sand Creek Massacre.  He tries to kiss Julie but Julie pushes him away saying don't.  Dancy says he's sorry. 

Burt Hanna goes outside the fort with a detail to gather firewood.  He tells Julie they have to go because they need firewood for cooking.  Julie sees Monahseetah and she says thank you to her and gives her a pretty broach from off her dress.  Monahseetah says thank you and both women laugh. 

The men in the barracks calls Bridger a spy for the Indians. Jim knocks down the fellow who called him a spy but the others start for him.  Just then the drums stop and they hear rifle fire.  The men asks what does it mean and Bridger grabs his coat as he says the wood detail is in trouble.  Bridger senses that this could be a trap set up for the troopers.  He tells Carrington to tell the relief force not to go over the ridge and to come back as soon as they possibly can. 

Julie goes over to Bridger to tell him that Dancy told her that he has spent two years with Chivington's outfit. 

The relief force sees the wood detail riding fast towards them.  In what became known as the Wagon Box Fight, the men were able to hold off about twenty Indians because they had breech-loading guns.  As they talk together, a larger group of Sioux are now stationed on top of the ridge.  Dancy urges Captain Fetterman to attack the Sioux on the ridge because they can't possibly loose.  Carrington watches as Fetterman and the men charge the Sioux.  The Sioux stay absolutely still until the cavalry gets close.  The Sioux then run down the ridge and across a prairie.  hidden in the woods is a large group of Sioux and as Fetterman orders a charge he quickly becomes surrounded by Sioux Indians. 

Another relief column has to be sent out after Captain Fetterman and his group. They find Fetterman and his men dead on the battlefield that became known as the Fetterman Massacre.  At this point Beckworth shows up with three wagon loads of ammunition, rifles and breech-loaders.  They will put their dead in the wagons.  The bugler is still alive.  He tells Carrington that it was Lt. Dancy's idea to charge the Sioux.  Dancy told Fetterman that they would both get promotions.  But when the trouble really started Dancy rode off out through those hills.  Bridger gets on his horse and rides fast after Bridger.  Bridger finds the man by the river, chases him down on his horse and then starts giving Dancy a real beating.  He then tells Dancy to get up and helps the man get up on his feet.  But Dancy is killed by an arrow in the back shot by the boy who was the friend of the boy Dancy killed.  

The Sioux now threaten to attack the three wagons so the cavalry prepares a defensive position behind which to fire at the Sioux.  Bridger says they are waiting for Red Cloud to give the order to attack.  But with these new breech-loaders they won't stand a chance.  Bridger says Red Cloud won't know that they have breech loaders until it is too late.  Each wave that Red Cloud sends it destroyed.  Bridger now says that Red Cloud will come at them but he will just big up his many dead. 

Carrington and his men are abandoning Fort Phil Kearny.   The Bozeman Trail is being closed and abandoned. 

The narrator says:  "Victory for the Sioux and their great leader Red Cloud.  The year 1868."  When the last wagons leave the fort, the Sioux burn down the fort. 


Good movie and it sticks fairly close to the historical facts.  The Sioux under Red Cloud did win this fight over the Bozeman Trail, but, of course, they would later be conquered.  In 1876 with the massacre of Custer the USA went for an all out campaign to finish off the Indians waging war against the whites.  Geronimo and his crew were the last significant resistance to be quenched. 


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Historical Background:

The Bozeman Trail (most important period 1863 - 1868) started at the junction with the Oregon Trail beginning from a point northwest of Fort Laramie, Wyoming, just south of the North Platte River.  It goes to Fort Reno on the west side of the Powder River.  From there it followa along the eastern side of the Bighorn Mountain chain where the Wagon Box Fight and the Fetterman Massacre occurred.  In Montana, it goes over the Little Bighorn River and then the Bighorn River after leaving Fort C.F. Smith on the eastern side of the Bighorn River.  Going through the Bozeman Pass the trail crosses the Yellowstone River.  On the western side of the river is Fort Ellis.  The trail crosses over the Missouri River and reaches Virginia City.  The trail was a tough one to use as it became the scene of Red Cloud's War.

In 1864 Jim Bridger took a wagon train of settlers from Denver, Colorado and via the west side of the Bighorn Mountain chain, instead of on the east as the Bozeman Trail did.  The route left the Oregon Trail at Red Buttes, near Fort Caspar, central Wyoming, heading northwest.

1866 (July 13)  --  In northeastern Wyoming along the Bozeman Trail construction begins on Fort Phil Kearney by companies of the 18th Infantry under commander Col. Henry B. Carrington.  The area around the fort was the site of the Fetterman massacre and the Wagon Box Fight.

1968 all three forts along the Bozeman trail (Forts Phil Kearney, C.F. Smith and Reno) were abandoned as part of the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868). Shortly after its abandonment the Cheyenne Indians burned down Fort Phil Kearney.


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