If you have a chance some day, drive north from Denver to the Little Bighorn Battlefield, the site of George Armstrong Custer’s demise. You won’t be disappointed. It’s an amazing trip through a desolate country, filled with more antelope than people. Out of your driver’s-side window, for most of the way, you’ll see the eastern face of the Rockies. And the Great Plains will stretch to the horizon when you glance to your right. Regardless of which view you choose, it’s hard not to feel tiny amdist the enormity of the West.

About four hours out of Denver, as you approach the town of Buffalo, Wyoming, the scenery becomes spectacular. A sea of pines rises to your left, the Bighorn National Forest, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by craggy hills in one instant and lovely valleys the next. Streams, absent for most of the ride, lace the landscape. This is the western edge of the Powder River Country.

Just after you pass through Buffalo, keep your eyes open, or you’ll miss it: the Fetterman battlefield. On this day in 1866 something happened there. But, as I’ve tried to write this post throughout the day, I’ve realized that I don’t know exactly what. More than that, I’ve been reminded that I have very little idea what happened at almost any point in the so-called Indian Wars, the final stage of the federal government’s effort to dispossess the tribes of the Great Plains.

What I do know, or what I can find out without any trouble, are the names of the white officers who fought in those wars. It’s also easy enough for me to learn precisely the kinds of guns they carried: their caliber, their range, their make and model. And sometimes, though less often than you might expect, I can dig a bit deeper and figure out which Indian people were present at a given fight. But all of this information obscures more than it reveals.

I have no idea, for instance, why Captain William Fetterman and his commanding officer, Colonel Henry Carrington, were stationed at Fort Phil Kearny on December 21, 1866. Which is to say, I know that they were there so that civilization could take root in the region, replacing savagery. Carrington, Fetterman, and the men under them were supposed to ensure that miners could make their way to the gold fields in Montana, despite the fine print in the Treaty of 1865, which ostensibly set aside that area for Native people. But I don’t know much about Carrington or Fetterman, who their political allies were, and who, in Washington, decided that whites would take that territory at that time. More important, I know next to nothing about the political context underlying those decisions. I also know very little about Red Cloud, the Oglala chief who made his stand in the Powder River Country, inspiring the warriors who killed Fetterman and the troops who rode out with him on this day in 1866. As for those Indian warriors, their stories, for the moment at least, are shrouded by the mists of time.

So who’s going to rewrite the history of the Indian Wars, to pick up the project Elliot West has already begun? I’m not taking anything away from the work of Robert Utley, Jerry Greene, and other military historians like them. Those scholars have done excellent research and crafted gripping narratives. But they’ve ignored some significant questions: about racial formation and anxiety, about cultural production and transmission, and about politics of all kinds.

My colleagues Louis Warren and Eric both tell me that Heather Cox Richardson is writing a history of Wounded Knee. That’s welcome news. Perhaps she’ll next turn her attention to a survey of the wars leading up to that tragedy. If she, or someone of her skill, doesn’t, I just might have to. Otherwise, the next time I stop at the Fetterman battlefield, I’ll be as clueless as I was the last time: captivated by the enormity of the scene arrayed before me, and aware of some of the fine-grained details, but totally ignorant of what it all means.