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

Chapter IV:

At the time of its founding Fort William enjoyed a monopoly of the trade in the North Platte region. There was no serious threat of competition until 1841 when, much to the consternation of the proprietors, a new fort was built right under their noses, so to speak. This was adobe-walled Fort Platte, on the right bank of the North Platte, just three-fourths of a mile above its junction with the Laramie, almost within rifle-shot of Fort William or, according to several accounts, "about a mile apart." The founder of this rival emporium was brash young Lancaster P. Lupton, who had built the first fort on the South Platte, in present Colorado.

The appearance of this obnoxious neighbor, coupled with the rotting of the log palisades, prompted the American Fur Company to abandon Fort William and build a new establishment nearby. This was a massive structure of adobe or sun-dried brick in the New Mexico style that had already been adapted by Lupton, and involved the importation of native labor from the Southwest. The time of construction is fixed by an eye-witness, missionary Joseph Williams who in the summer of 1841 says that he "went up to a new fort that they were building called Fort Johns [sic]". This name, honoring John B. Sarpy, an officer of the company, was used consistently in official correspondence but, as in the case of Fort William, the name Fort Laramie prevailed in popular usage.

For a few years rivalry between the two posts was intense. Both sent out trading parties to distant Indian camps with goods, such as blankets, tobacco, mirrors, bells, and glass beads. However, the principal trade item was alcohol transported in wooden casks lashed to pack mules, and dispensed in diluted form in tin cups. It was illegal to sell liquor to Indians but this law was flouted in the cut-throat competition.

For a while both of these bizarre establishments thrived from the trade in buffalo robes, and each spring they would send forth to St. Louis wagon caravans or flat-boat flotillas down the Platte. Navigation of this fickle stream, which depended upon the spring rise from melting mountain snow, was a treacherous business, and cargoes commonly had to be beached and cached or retrieved by wagons. The year 1845 was a particularly bad year for boats. This coupled with the rigors of the 600-mile overland trip to Missouri River posts via the Platte, led the company to develop a new 300-mile wagon road northeastward to Fort Pierre, in present South Dakota, where company steamboats would pick up the cargo. Another significant development that year was the abandonment of Fort Platte by Pratte and Cabanne, Lupton's successors, leaving the field mainly to the American Fur Company.

There are a few eye-witness descriptions of Fort John, notably by Rufus Sage in 1841, Lieutenant John C. Fremont in 1846, and Captain Howard Stansbury in 1849, but the most vivid one is by the young Bostonian, historian Francis Parkman, whose visit there in 1846 is to be found in his classic work, The Oregon Trail:

Fort Laramie well-nigh monopolizes the Indian trade of this region. . . it suppresses all opposition. Here its officials rule with an absolute sway; the arm of the United States has little force, for when we were there the extreme outposts of her troops were about seven hundred miles to the eastward. The . . . fort. . . externally is of an oblong form. . . The roofs of the apartments within, which are built close to the walls, serve the purpose of banquette. Within, the fort is divided by a partition: on one side is the square area, surrounded by the store-rooms, offices, and apartments of the inmates; on the other is the corral, a narrow place encompassed by the high clay walls, where at night or in the presence of dangerous Indians the horses and mules of the fort are crowded for safekeeping. The main entrance has two gates with an arched passage intervening. A little square window, high above the ground, opens laterally from an adjoining chamber into this passage; so that, when the inner gate is closed and barred, a person without may still hold communication with those within through this narrow aperture. This obviates the necessity of admitting suspicious Indians for purposes of trading into the body of the fort, for when danger is apprehended the inner gate is shut fast, and all traffic is carried on by means of the window. . .

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Last Updated: 01-Mar-2003