Fort Laramie
Park History, 1834-1977
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FORT LARAMIE, 1834 - 1890

Chapter III:

Sublette and Campbell saw hand-writing on the wall. With intense competition the supply of beaver pelts was declining; at the same time silk hats were replacing beaver hats on Eastern markets. The salvation of the fur trade would be the vast buffalo herds of the Plains, and this dictated the need for a strong fixed post for the storage of robes. The choice of a site for the new establishment seemed foreordained. "Laramais' Point," named in their trading license, had many natural advantages as well as being roughly equi-distant from the Missouri River steamboat landings and the Upper Green River. This inspired the birth of Fort Laramie, which would soon become the capital of a fur trade empire, rivalled in importance only by Bent's Fort on the Santa Fe Trail, and Fort Union on the Upper Missouri.

On May 30, 1834, Sublette and company reached "Laramee's Fork." On the following day they laid the foundation logs. One of the party, William Anderson, reveals that the name "Fort William" was in honor of the common name of himself and Sublette. En route to St. Louis later in the season Lucien Fontenelle reported to Pierre Chouteau Jr. of the American Fur Company the completion here of a substantial palisaded fort as a "central place for the Sioux and Cheyenne trade in buffalo robes."

In 1835 there were several noteworthy events at Fort William or "Fort William on the Laramie." Among those arriving with the supply train that spring were the famed missionaries Marcus Whitman and Samuel Parker who referred to "the fort of the Black Hills," an allusion to the dark forest cover of distant Laramie Peak. The scandalized Reverend Parker also mentions the free use of "ardent spirits," the result of which "not infrequently terminates with a catastrophe of some kind." He also describes a visit by 2,000 Oglala Sioux who brought skins, moccasins, and belts to exchange for knives, awls, combs and vermillion, and "imitated brute beasts" in performing their buffalo dance.

Also in 1835 Sublette and Campbell sold Fort William to Jim Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick and Milton Sublette. Within a year these veteran mountain men were persuaded to relinquish their interest to the American Fur Company, which would thereafter be represented locally by such fur trade stalwarts as Fontenelle, James Bordeaux, and Andrew Drips. Pierre Chouteau, Jr. at St Louis headquarters became the guiding spirit of this famous enterprise.

The 1836 overland caravan, led by Fitzpatrick, escorted the first white women to cross the continent, Narcissa Whitman and Elizabeth Spalding, missionary wives who enjoyed the hospitality of the fort. They considered chairs with "buffalo skin bottoms" a special luxury. At the Green River Rendezvous the genteel ladies caused a sensation among the wild trappers and Indians.

In 1837 Sir William Drummond Stewart, a Scotch nobleman, was a guest, accompanied by the artist, Alfred Jacob Miller, whose sketches constitute our only pictorial record of Fort William. In his notes Miller describes the fort as

. . . of quadrangular form, with block houses at diagonal corners to sweep the fronts in case of attack.

Over the front entrance is a large block house in which is placed a cannon. The interior of the fort is about 150 feet square, surrounded by small cabins whose roofs reach within 3 feet of the top of the palisades against which they abut. The Indians encamp in great numbers here 3 or 4 times a year, bringing peltries to be exchanged for dry goods, tobacco, beads, and alcohol.

The Indians have a mortal horror of the 'big gun' which rests in the block house, as they have had experience of its prowess and witnessed the havoc produced by its loud 'talk.' They conceive it to be only asleep and have a wholesome dread of its being waked up.

The view [of the interior, reproduced herewith] is from the great entrance looking west and embraces more than half the court. . . Indians and traders. . . gather here from all quarters; from the Gila at the south, the Red River at the north, and the Columbia River west. . . There are Canadian trappers. . . Kentuckians, Missourians, and Down Easters. A saturnalia is held the first day and some excesses committed. But after this the trading goes briskly forward.

Later visitors of record include famous mountain men like Kit Carson, Joe Meek and Osborne Russell, the explorer-missionary Father De Smet, and Augustus Johann Sutter, a Swiss whose ranch on the Sacramento River would become the scene of James Marshall's electrifying discovery of California gold in 1848.

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Last Updated: 01-Mar-2003