FORT LARAMIE, THE U. S. ARMY, AND THE FORTY-NINERS
For some years the Government had considered establishing military posts along the Oregon Trail for the protection of emigrants, and the site at Laramie Fork had been recommended by Lieutenant Fremont. In December, 1845, such action was proposed by President James K. Polk and in May 1846 Congress approved "An Act to provide for raising a regiment of Mounted Riflemen, and for establishing military stations on the route to Oregon." Early in 1848 Fort Kearny was established on the south bank of the Platte near the head of Grand Island. Later that year news of the discovery of gold in California raced through the country like wildfire, and the resulting fevered preparations to trek westward the next spring increased the urgency of extending the chain of forts.
In March, 1849, Adjutant General Roger Jones directed General D. E. Twiggs at St. Louis to carry out establishment of a second post "at or near Fort Laramie, a trading station belonging to the American Fur Company." Lieutenant Daniel P. Woodbury of the Corps of Engineers was authorized to purchase the buildings of Fort Laramie "should he deem it necessary to do so." Companies A and E, Mounted Riflemen, and Company G, Sixth Infantry, were designated as the first garrison of the new post.
Major W. J. Sanderson with 4 officers and 58 men of Company E left Fort Leavenworth early in May and arrived at the Laramie on June 16 without incident. On June 27 he reported to the Adjutant-General that after making a thorough reconnaissance within a radius of 75 miles of the trading post he had found this to be the most eligible site and that at his request Lieutenant Woodbury had, on June 26, purchased Fort Laramie from Bruce Husband, agent of the American Fur Company, for $4,000.
On June 22 Major Osborne Cross and Private George Gibbs, with a contingent of Mounted Riflemen en route to take over Fort Hall on Snake River, in present Idaho, paused at Laramie Fork where they found Company E encamped opposite the adobe fort while Woodbury was scouting the territory. Both thought the situation there "forlorn and destitute of interest." However, Sanderson reported that good timber, limestone, hay and dry wood were readily available and that the Laramie River furnished abundant good water for the command.
Company C, Mounted Rifles, consisting of 2 officers and 60 men, arrived at the post on July 26. On August 12 the two officers and 53 men of Company G, Sixth Infantry, completed the garrison and joined in the work of preparing quarters. While purchase of the adobe post provided the Army with temporary shelter for men and supplies, it was decrepit and infested with vermin. Before the ink was dry on the purchase agreement Sanderson had the entire command employed in cutting and hauling timber and burning lime. Stone was quarried and a horse-powered sawmill placed in operation. By winter a two-story block of officers quarters, a block of soldier quarters, a bakery, and two stables had been pushed to completion. Thus began Fort Laramie's forty years as a frontier command post of the United States Army.
The takeover, however fraught with portent, was but an incident in the epic of the Forty-Niners, the first wave of humanity magnetized by California gold. Fortunately some of these Argonauts kept diaries and from them we learn something of their reaction to this oasis of civilization in a region viewed at that time as "the Great American Desert."
Among those emigrants ahead of the Mounted Riflemen was William Kelly who was not impressed by the adobe fort: "My glowing fancy vanished before the wretched reality a miserable, cracked, dilapidated enclosure. . . some of it propped with beams of timber which an enemy had only to kick away and down would come the whole structure." J. G. Bruff, who has left one of the few emigrant sketches of the fort, owned that "it had suffered much from time and neglect." On the other hand Alonzo Delano was impressed by its "neat white-washed walls," while Joseph Wood thought that it presented "quite an imposing appearance as you approach it." Some noted that the place was inhabited mainly by Indian squaws and half-breed children, the families of employees absent on their annual trek eastward with furs.
On June 16 Isaac Wistar observed the coming of "a U. S. Government train of one company of Dragoons under Major Saunders." On that same day E. B. Farnham reported that "the sound of the cannon that was fired to greet the arrival of Major Sanderson came booming from the fort." Although sale of the fort was not consummated until the 26th, there must have been an early understanding for on June 17, reports Wistar, "the stars and stripes went up on the fort this morning, receiving our hearty cheers."
A total of 30,000 Forty-Niners has been estimated, every one of whom paused at or passed Fort Laramie, the only fixed establishment between Fort Kearny and Salt Lake City. By late July the emigrant tide had subsided when Colonel Aeneas Mackay, Quartermaster Corps, arrived for an inspection. As to the adobe fort he reported that,
Last Updated: 01-Mar-2003