EVOLUTION OF THE MILITARY POST
There is irony in the fact that Fort Laramie reached its zenith as a structural complex just before being abandoned to its fate. About 65 Army buildings and civilian appendages are accounted for in 1888, the last official inventory of record. An official panoramic photograph of 1889 shows an installation truly impressive in its scope, the size of a respectable town. This sprawling cantonment was a random assemblage of adobe, stone, frame, and concrete buildings, either the most recent or the most durable of a total of over 180 buildings constructed here between 1849 and 1885. Fort Laramie as a three-dimensional historical entity cannot be understood as a static phenomenon of 1889 or any other date. It was a 40-year process of structural evolution.
The best way to visualize the fort in its expanding kaleidoscopic form is by examination of a series of official ground plans and unofficial panoramic pictures, both sketches and photographs, made by various talented visitors to or inhabitants of the fort, that have been collected by research historians. However, some verbal impressions may help also to see Fort Laramie as the stage or rather series of stages where "the pageant of the West" was enacted. Throughout this architectural story there are two common denominators: there was a perpetual shortage of shelter for men and animals, with chronic overcrowding; and what shelter there was seemed to deteriorate rapidly, forever requiring repairs or replacements for which there were never enough funds. Although it inspires us in retrospect because of its illustrious history, Fort Laramie was not a model of military architecture, nor was it ever, by modern standards, a comfortable place to live.
Fort John, the adobe quadrangle bought in 1849 from the fur traders, melted away within a few years but it was around long enough to serve two purposes. Despite its crumbling condition it housed troops the first winter, and saw some service as stable and hospital. Also, its chance northeast-southwest orientation governed that of the new parade ground, around which the main Army structures subsequently clustered. By 1857 when only one wall of this relic remained, the new "military station," wrote Captain Gove, "consists of two or three two-story wooden buildings and about 20 one-story adobe structures, also one or two store-houses, all of which have been built irregularly in every and any direction. There is a large open square for drill and parade purposes." We recognize here the unique and imposing Old Bedlam, a two-company infantry barracks, and several small adobe officers quarters. In his official report of that same year Lieutenant J.G. Kelton also identified frame stables and slabside mud-roofed Quartermaster buildings, all near collapse.
Ten years later, in the lull between Indian wars, Major E. B. Grimes identified 44 buildings, including 6 officers quarters, 5 soldier barracks with kitchens, 3 cavalry stables. He classified the buildings all the way from good through serviceable, unserviceable and very bad to utterly worthless. In the last category are hovels assigned to laundresses, the band, and the post chaplain, which says something about frontier Army sociology. By this time a sizeable adobe hospital had appeared, and a masonry guardhouse had replaced the primitive frame jail of 1851, the latter being so decrepit that prisoners could easily escape "by means of a hole."
In August 1866 General W. T. Sherman inspected the post and observed that there was "a mixture of all sorts of houses of every conceivable pattern and promise scattered about." The two principal buildings of two stories each (Bedlam and the old Barracks) were so damaged and so rickety in a high wind that the occupants sometimes escaped them to sleep on the open parade. Low buildings of adobe with good roofs, and not too large, were economical and well adapted to the climate but admittedly dark, dusty and ridden with vermin. Adobe or sun-dried brick were made by contract; lime was burned 12 miles off; a saw-mill was erected 50 miles off; and timber was cut and hauled by the soldiers.
A priceless description of the place a year later is afforded by M. Simonin, a French observer with the Indian peace commission: "Seen from the route we followed the fort resembled more a Spanish-American village than a military post of the United States. The barracks, the warehouse, the offices, the officers' quarters are all constructed of stone [sic] and whitewashed with lime." He compares Old Bedlam with a Panama hotel and the traders' new dwelling with a Swiss chalet. Brown's Hotel across the river, made of adobe and logs, was used as an officers mess. He also refers to a "large circular ditch near the Fort."
Other travellers noted this ditch, which had been constructed in 1865 by the Eleventh Ohio Cavalry to connect battery redoubts thrown up as insurance against Indian attack while Colonel Collins was absent with his command on the relief of Mud Springs Station. Evidently the temporary fortification was strung along the plateau and bottoms to the north of the fort, which would have been the section most vulnerable to surprise attack. A more permanent fortification was built by regular troops of the Second Cavalry in 1866, also in the bottoms to the north. This was a roughly quadrangular enclosure of about 2 acres consisting of adobe walls 8 feet high and 3 feet thick. It had two flanking hexagonal blockhouses or bastions, with gun embrasures, and was surrounded by a ditch. When the threat of Indian frontal attack on the fort faded, this structure was used as a corral for the Quartermaster's horses and mules, while the bastions served as teamsters' quarters. Evidence of the frequent wholesale turnover of personnel at the fort is attested to by the fact that in later years some fort residents entertained the belief that this 1866 structure was the 1849 trading post!
Captain Luhn's report of 1870 military structures is valuable because it gives dimensions, number and kinds of rooms, date of construction, material of construction, and present condition. As of that date 4 buildings survived from 1849-1850: Bedlam, the magazine or arsenal, a rough board bakehouse with stone oven, and an adobe post office. (The civilian-operated sutler's store is of course not included in this inventory.) Of the remaining buildings 22 were constructed between 1854 and 1860, and 23 after 1865. The most important buildings in the newest category were two sets of single-story infantry barracks of frame construction, and a two-story frame officers quarters, welcome additions to the parade ground complex.
The Quartermaster Report of 1882 reflects an extensive reconstruction program during the preceding decade, and the disappearance of many obsolete structures. This lists a total of 50 structures of which 23 were frame or rough boards, 10 of concrete, 10 of adobe, 3 of adobe and frame, and 4 of logs, sod or stone. Conditions at this time must have been above average, with 21 buildings reported in good repair, and 15 in fair condition. The most significant new buildings were those of lime-concrete or "grout," that is, massive crude masonry walls poured in successive layers in wooden forms. In this group, constructed during the early and mid-seventies, were the new hospital on the hill overlooking the fort, a double set of quarters north of Bedlam, a new guardhouse, and cavalry barracks.
The last spasm of construction activity at Fort Laramie, 1883-1885, brought forth another batch of lime-concrete structures, notably a set of non-commissioned officers quarters near the hospital, a new bakehouse, a large commissary storehouse, two double sets and one single set of officers quarters attached to original adobes south of Old Bedlam, a new kitchen wing on Bedlam itself, a single set of officers quarters south of the sutler's store, and a handsome Administration building, the final construction job on the premises. It is not surprising that the bulk of the fort structures that have survived consist of these durable lime-concrete models, either intact or in ruins.
A few special situations may be noted to point up the evolutionary nature of Fort Laramie buildings. Among Army structures a classic example is that of the post guardhouse. There were three of these in succession, of frame, stone, and concrete respectively, each in a supposedly different location except that the third version was by pure coincidence and possibly even without the knowledge of the builder, placed almost directly over the foundation stones of the extinct 1851 guardhouse. The 1873 hospital was built right over the original post cemetery, which was also the original fur traders' cemetery, with no re-burials beforehand. Similarly, at least two officers quarters at the south end of the parade ground overlapped the 1849 trading post site. As an example of the evolution of function, the Commanding Officers quarters migrated from place to place, being in Bedlam in the mid-sixties but also in various adobe, frame and concrete buildings. The post bakery was in at least 4 different locations over the years, while the post office seems to have been shuttled back and forth between the sutler's store and various other odd buildings.
The most unique civilian structure on the post was, of course, the Sutler's Store or Post Traders'. It was probably the most heavily used building of any. It existed from 1849 right on through, never migrating, but undergoing constant accretions and redesigns; yet it is veiled in mystery because most of the business records have been lost, and the building was never accounted for in the Quartermaster's annual inspections.
Among other non-military structures we have noted the Rustic Hotel, Brown's Hotel, and the sutler's residence. In addition there were, on the fringes of the fort, an assortment of shanties, dugouts and hovels of civilian employees and contractors, all disappeared. Certain trading posts are indicated on the east side of the Laramie in 1854, but these were quite temporary affairs permitted within the post reservation only briefly, during the Indian scare.
Last Updated: 01-Mar-2003