THE GREAT CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH
The Forty-Niners were but the first wave of covered wagon emigrants stampeding toward the California mines. The following five years, 1850-1854, saw even larger hordes of Argonauts that all but swamped the little Army post on the Laramie. The biggest waves were in 1850 and 1852 when the migrant populations exceeded 50,000 each season. In the other three years of this frantic half-decade the combined numbers approximated another 50,000. From 1855 to 1858, when the California gold fever had subsided, there was perhaps a total of 25,000 pilgrims who rolled past the fort. Thus the total migration up the North Platte for the decade beginning in 1849 exceeded 200,000, a stupendous cavalcade witnessed by the tiny garrison.
Much of our knowledge of Fort Laramie in the 1850s is derived from journals and letters kept by a surprising number of emigrants themselves. Indeed, to a very large extent the history of the fort during this period is essentially its unique role in serving, in various ways, this transient population during its Exodus from "the States," across the vast wilderness known vaguely as Indian Territory, to "the Promised Land."
Fort Laramie was between 600 and 700 miles from the various Missouri River "jumping-off places," the exact distance depending on whether your point of origin was the Council Bluffs area (including Omaha after 1854), Table Rock (later Nebraska City), St. Joseph. or Independence, Missouri. While Fort Kearny on the Platte, where all trails converged, was viewed as the gateway to the Great Plains, Fort Laramie, with Laramie Peak looming in the distance, was looked upon as the gateway to the Mountains. Here one left the relatively level North Platte Valley of Nebraska and embarked on more rugged terrain, climbing toward South Pass on the Continental Divide. For many the brave little post on the Laramie was the only civilized place encountered between Fort Kearny and the West Coast. The sight, with its aura of settlement, uniformed soldiers, and American flag flying, aroused nostalgic emotions. Aware of the long dangerous journey across mountains and deserts ahead, leaving the fort seemed to one emigrant "like parting anew from all that was hallowed on earth."
The emigrant season at Fort Laramie was short, a maximum of 45 days. The timing of one's visit there hinged on two factors in an equation of survival. One left the Missouri River jumping-off place no sooner than the spring rains could green up the prairies for vital pasture for mules and oxen. This could be any time the last half of April. Near the other end of the journey was the barrier of the Sierra Nevadas; if you got there too late after your exhausting traverse of the arid Great Basin you could die of exposure in October snows. So you aimed to reach Hangtown (later Placerville) in the Mother Lode country no later than mid-September. Averaging 12 to 15 miles per day, including rest stops, over the total distance of near 2,000 miles, this meant a journey of four to five months, depending on the fortunes or misfortunes of the trail. This also meant that in 35 to 40 days from your starting point you should be at Fort Laramie, where you could rest, gird up, and regroup for the ordeal remaining. Thus the emigrant travel season at Fort Laramie was in the range of May 20 to the 4th of July, with the climax period the middle of June.
From 1849 to 1852 the dreaded Asiatic cholera was rampant, with thousands of victims buried in hastily dug shallow graves along the roadside between Fort Kearny and Fort Laramie. Also, there was a high casualty rate from trailside accidents, such as drownings, the careless use of firearms, and injuries from ornery mules and oxen. Because of overloads there was wholesale abandonment of excess baggage and equipment at Fort Laramie, and heavy wagons were often reduced to two-wheel carts. There was also the occasional abandonment of stricken fellow travellers, some of whom found a resting place in the old fort cemetery.
While some emigrants disposed of their surpluses here, others were in need of provisions, principally grain, flour, bread, and other staples, which the Post Quartermaster was able to supply some times in rationed quantities, and the post blacksmith did a land-office business. However, the busiest place was undoubtedly the post sutler's store where emigrant coins and valuables were exchanged for canned goods, liquor, patent medicines, lotions, muslin, subonnets, and other items which the emigrants needed for survival.
Another busy functionary at the fort was the post adjutant, who assigned details to the Officer of the Day to keep tabs on the migration. There is evidence that Guard Reports were kept which identified wagon trains, but unfortunately these priceless records have not survived. There was also an official emigrant register, evidently tabulated by soldiers inspecting or interrogating emigrants upon arrival. None of these registers have been found, either, but there is clear evidence of them in allusions by journalists. In 1850, for example, John Wood states that his Captain "gave a list of the numbers of cattle and wagons in our camp, a customary thing." In 1852 Bernard Bloemker states that "they stop every wagon, and check upon the numbers of oxen, horses, wagons and men in each." Several others give actual figures compiled. Henry Stine's entry for July 5, 1850 gives the season's totals to that date: "33,171 men, 803 women, 1,094 children, 7,472 mules, 30,616 oxen, 22,742 horses, 8,998 wagons, 5,270 cows."
No account of emigrant facilities at Fort Laramie would be complete without reference to the two main trail approaches and river crossings. The heaviest travel westward followed the south bank of the Platte and the North Platte, via Ash Hollow. Approaching Fort Laramie, this Oregon Trail mainline branched into several crossing points or fords, the principal one being downstream from the military post. In June the Laramie was apt to be in flood, causing wagons to capsize and emigrants to be swept to their deaths. There is evidence of a flat-boat shuttle across the Laramie on occasion, but most crossings were "cold turkey" until 1852 when a crude toll bridge was erected. However, a solid flood-proof bridge did not materialize until 1859.
All of the migration on the north bank of the Platte, out of Council Bluffs-Omaha, had to cross that dangerous river to reach the fort. Most everyone did that until 1850, under the impression that the only feasible route westward from that point was on the south side of the river. That year, however, the situation changed. A ferry was installed, which reduced the fatalities for those who crossed, but antagonized others because of the toll charge. With this incentive, several emigrant parties blazed a tough but negotiable north side trail. By 1852 continuing on the north side became the accepted thing to do, although many "north-siders" would make side-trips to the fort to look for mail or supplies.
Last Updated: 01-Mar-2003