Following the end of the American Civil War (1861-1865) the United States experienced a renewed push to settle the West. A key component of that expansion was the creation of a transcontinental railroad that could connect the nation from east to west with a safe, reliable means of transportation. The Union Pacific Railroad commenced construction of this railway in 1865 in Omaha, Nebraska, however as the line moved west, ongoing conflicts with Native American tribes necessitated the establishment of a U.S. Army (USA) Department in the region to provide protection for railway workers. Consequently, numerous forts were built along the frontier in order to house and supply these USA units.
In 1867, the railroad entered Dakota Territory and neared the site of what would eventually become the city of Cheyenne, Wyoming. The settlement of Cheyenne began simultaneously with the establishment of the USA camp at Crow Creek Crossing in early July 1867. On the 31st of that month the USA’s Department of the Platte, issued General Order No. 33, officially designating the camp at Crow Creek as Fort D.A. Russell. The name was chosen to honor Brigadier General David Allen Russell, U.S. Volunteers, 8th U.S. Infantry, USA. Brig Gen Russell served during the Civil War, and was mortally wounded by a shell fragment at the Battle of Opequon (19 September 1864) also known as the Third Battle of Winchester.
Caption: Photographic portrait of Brig Gen David A. Russell, taken circa 1862. (Archive.org)
While the fort had no wooden palisades (typical of most frontier forts at the time) numerous wooden buildings were erected, mostly by the USA soldiers that were garrisoned there. In the decade that followed USA infantry and cavalry units rotated in out of Fort D.A. Russell, all experiencing their fair share of hard labor, as the fort continued to grow, and intermittent campaigning against hostile tribes in the region.
Caption: A plan of Fort D. A. Russell, prior to 1888. (Wyoming State Archives)
In 1884, just as many frontier forts were being dismantled, Fort D.A. Russell was declared a permanent military installation and a robust building program was started to replace the old wooden buildings on base with brick ones—many of which are still standing and remain in use today.
Caption: A formation of U.S. Army troops undergoes a review by their commanding officer at the original Fort D.A. Russell parade field (later named the Marne Parade Field). Note, in the background, from left to right, the base water tower and Quarters No. 1, the post’s first built commander’s headquarters. Taken circa 1888. (F.E. Warren ICBM Heritage Museum Photograph)
At the turn of the twentieth century Fort D.A. Russell came under the devoted patronage of Wyoming’s first governor, Francis Emroy Warren (b. 1844 - d.1929) a Civil War veteran and winner of the Medal of Honor. Governor (and later U.S. Senator) Warren’s long career as a Wyoming statesman was marked by a concentrated effort to sustain and expand Fort D.A. Russell. Likely because of his efforts, in 1902, the fort was again deemed a necessary permanent military installation by a board of general officers. It was that same year that Troop E of the Tenth cavalry, recently returned from fighting in the Philippines, became the first unit of an African American regiment to be assigned to the fort. The ‘buffalo soldiers’ from Troop E, as well as numerous natives from the Shoshoni and Arapaho tribes regularly participated in Cheyenne’s annual Frontier Days. Around that same time, then Captain John J. Pershing (later General of the Armies) married Senator Warren’s daughter, Helen Frances Warren-Pershing, and was assigned quarters at Fort D.A. Russell—although he rarely ever stayed there.
Caption: A view of Fort D.A. Russell’s front gate at the turn of the century. In 1888, the post commander requested a gate be added to the fort as a speed deterrent. (Wyoming State Archives)
When the United States entered the Great War (1914-1918) on 6 April 1917, the army ballooned in size and Fort D.A. Russell became, at least initially, a major training installation for cavalry units for the war effort. At the end of the war the fort was designated as a post-war demobilization point for the surrounding region and by mid-March 1,000 soldiers a week were moving through the fort. In May of 1918, the USA’s Far West Flying Circus arrived and put on an airshow to promote the sale of Liberty War Bonds. In the post-war years the fort remained garrisoned by various active units but also took on the role of facilitating several USA training schools. Senator Warren died in 1929 and as result of his lasting legacy on the development of the base, on 1 January 1930, the installation was renamed Fort Francis E. Warren.
Caption: A pair of unidentified U.S. Army cavalrymen stand ready with their steeds fully equipped for field exercises. Taken circa 1920s. (Wyoming State Archives)
With the outbreak of the Second World War (1939-1945) and the United States’ subsequent involvement in the conflict on 7 December 1941, Fort F.E. Warren’s size expanded exponentially with the addition of the Quartermaster Replacement Training Center and the eventual establishment of a prisoner of war camp. These events resulted in a massive expansion of post facilities, particularly south of Crow Creek, where numerous temporary quarters and training facilities were erected.
Caption: An aerial view of the base with a formation of troops in the foreground (front left) and the expansive quartermaster training facilities in the background. (F.E. Warren ICBM Heritage Museum Photograph)
In the draw down that came after the war ended, the fort’s future seemed uncertain, however the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started an aviation engineering school there in 1946, and then in 1947, the (recently independent) United States Air Force (USAF) took charge of the post and stood up the 463d Air Force Base Unit. In 1948 the 463d was reorganized as the 3450th Technical Training Wing. The following year, on Oct. 7, 1949, the fort’s name was officially changed to Francis E. Warren Air Force Base. The base maintained a robust technical training mission well into the later part of the next decade.
During the 1950s, Cold War (1947-1991) tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union continued to escalate and contributed directly to the development of the nation’s first nuclear Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). As the USAF contemplated the deployment of the ICBM force, F.E. Warren AFB became one of several bases, which were deemed to be ideally strategically located to take on the ICBM mission. Consequently, on 1 February 1958, the base was turned over to Strategic Air Command (SAC), which concurrently stood up the 4320th Strategic Wing (Missile)—the following year it was replaced by the 706th Strategic Missile Wing (SMW). The 706 SMW received its first Atlas D ICBM in October 1959, and over the course of the next year acquired a total of 24 Model D and E Atlas missiles. F.E. Warren subsequently became the nation’s first operational ICBM base and as a result of its new mission set, the base received numerous upgrades and renovations. On 1 July 1961, the 706 SMW was redesignated as the 389th Strategic Missile Wing.
With the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis (16-28 October 1962) the 389 SMW placed all its Atlas missiles in launch configuration and maintained a ready posture until 27 November 1962—when the crisis finally abated. At about that same time missile silo construction in the area had already commenced in order to prepare for the coming deployment of 200 (vastly superior, solid fuel) LGM-30 Minuteman IB ICBMs. The command of the new missile system was entrusted to the 90th Strategic Missile Wing which was activated at F.E. Warren on 1 July 1963.
Caption: A 1980s view of the front gate of F.E. Warren AFB. (U.S. Air Force Photo)
In 1965, the last of the Atlas ICBMs were taken off alert status and the 389 SMW was deactivated. That same year, on 15 June, the 90 SMW became the first fully operational Minuteman I wing in the USAF. In 1973, the wing transitioned to the LGM-30G Minuteman III and in 1986 also added the LGM-118 Peacekeeper to its arsenal—although this system was later removed in 2005. In 2020, the 90th Missile Wing received word that it would be acquiring an all new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ICBM called the LGM-35A Sentinel.
Caption: A view of the missile display and installation sign at F.E. Warren AFB, located immediately south of the front gate. From left to right are the Peacekeeper, Minuteman III and Minuteman I missiles.
Today the 90 MW remains the host unit for F.E. Warren AFB, the oldest continuously active military installation in the USAF. On 1 October 1969, the base was added to the National Register of Historic Places and on 15 May 1975 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark.
- Jeremiah D. Foster, Historian
Sources: (U) Adams, Gerald M. The Post Near Cheyenne: A History of Fort D.A. Russell, 1867- 1930. Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing, 1997; (U) Taylor, Paula Bauman. F.E. Warren Air Force Base. United States: Arcadia Pub., 2012; (U) 90th Missile Wing History Office, “History of the 90th Missile Wing,” F.E. Warren AFB, WY, 2020.
For all official requests for historical information, please submit at Freedom of Information Act request at https://www.foia.gov.
*For F.E. Warren Museum inquiries contact the museum curator at (307) 773-2980.