Fort Laramie
Park History, 1834-1977
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Editor's note: This printing of FORT LARAMIE 1834-1977 combines two typescripts which were first conceived as separate publications. Part I, FORT LARAMIE 1834-1890, bears its original title. Part II, THE CRUSADE TO SAVE FORT LARAMIE, and Part III, THE RESTORATION OF FORT LARAMIE, are discussed in the following preface as one entity originally titled PARK HISTORY.

This officially authorized, sponsored, and documented FORT LARAMIE PARK HISTORY is submitted in fulfillment of my Contract No. CX-1200-6-B028 dated June 24, 1976 with the Rocky Mountain Regional Office, National Park Service, Denver.

Although more glamorous titles occurred to me, PARK HISTORY seems to be the only one that adequately describes the purpose, which is to document the origins of the park unit established by Presidential Proclamation as a National Monument in 1938 ("The Crusade") and to provide an integrated narrative account of events since then, dominated by the one major theme - "The Restoration". At the same time this title clearly differentiates this work from the usual kind of "Fort Laramie History" which is concerned with the frontier period, 1834-1890.

The alternative title, "Administrative History", was discarded as not being properly descriptive of the two major historical movements, "The Crusade" and subsequent "Restoration."

While not as glamorous as the frontier episodes, the happenings of the post-military period, 1890 to the present, are interesting, sometimes colorful, and even exciting to those with special interests, i.e., Wyoming history, Oregon Trail history, local history, historic preservation, etc. I have tried to make the story readable, to avoid a dull encyclopedic approach or the deadly chronology of a straight daily log. I have not refrained from injecting color and humor where situations warrant, and I have even "editorialized" where it would serve to give perspective to the larger meaning of events. However, the primary purpose of this history is not to entertain. Its purpose, its justification, is to do something never attempted before, to objectively detail and document the background of the present Fort Laramie National Historic Site, and how it came to be what it is today - one of the most significant, most authentic, and inspirational historic shrines in Western America.

The immediate practical purpose of a PARK HISTORY is to provide an official documented report that should serve as an important reference work for all responsible and conscientious park and Regional Office employees, present and future. Whether one's primary function is administration, interpretation, protection, research, or planning, certainly a vital ingredient of intelligent management of any of these departments is knowledge of what has gone before. To believe otherwise is to take the arrogant and dangerous viewpoint of "an ego in a vacuum."

While, therefore, this history serves primarily as an indispensable management tool, it may also have beneficial side effects. That is, it may be of sufficient interest to some people outside of the National Park Service that a wider distribution or availability, beyond that of a limited edition in-house document, might be warranted. Since there is a consensus that Fort Laramie is Wyoming's Number 1 historic site, some details of the story might be of keen interest to Wyoming citizens generally, young and old. Since the decades-long painstaking restoration of the Fort has resulted in an exemplary model of historic preservation integrity, the story may be of more than passing interest to a wide circle of historic preservationists.

The most logical vehicle for publication to reach these specialized audiences is the periodical, Annals of Wyoming. Accordingly, with the approval of the Regional Director, that portion of the manuscript called "The Crusade to Save Fort Laramie" (revised and corrected since my original submission of June 10, 1977) has been submitted to Katherine Halverson, head of the Research and Publications Branch, Wyoming State Archives and Historical Department, and accepted by her for publication in 1978, by way of celebrating the 40th anniversary of the creation of Fort Laramie National Monument/Historic Site. A condensed version of the lengthier history of the Restoration period, 1938-1977, which would be prepared voluntarily by the writer may, with any required official approvals, follow later.

While the civilian or "post-post" history of Fort Laramie begins in 1890 with the military abandonment and the auctioning off of the buildings, it has proved to be impractical, if not altogether impossible, to include here a meaningful resume of those local events which preceded "The Crusade" which, from all available evidence, began circa 1915. Aside from the dismal fact that almost all structures not preserved today were obviously torn down for salvage by or with the consent of private owners, the record of this remote period is at best fragmentary and, from the vantage point of national significance which invests the Fort proper, somewhat trivial. Worse yet, the main source of evidence for this dim period, the records of the venerable John Hunton, who was "Mr. Fort Laramie" in the post-abandonment era, are to a considerable degree inaccessible for present serious research. That is, the unpublished Hunton Diaries for the period after 1889 are held by Mrs. L. G. Flannery of Cheyenne, who denied permission for this writer, as she has all others, to examine these diaries and extract pertinent information. The John Hunton Letter Books in the special collections of the Wyoming University Library are for the moat part dim or illegible, threatening the eye-sight of any reader. My genuine efforts at exploration of the John Hunton period, aside from those aspects included in "The Crusade" section herewith, became a futile antiquarian exercise, expensive of time, money, and energy, which yielded returns which were not only meager but mainly irrelevant to the primary theme that concerns us. (Worse yet, this frustrating search contributed to delays in the submission of this final manuscript). If enough can ever be scrounged up from these "dark ages" of Fort Laramie history to make a coherent story, that can be done later as a historical foot-note. The treatment of our grand theme has been in no way impaired by the meagerness of the pre-1915 data.

There is one aspect of this history, of a personal nature, which requires editorial comment. Sometimes an actor in a play happens also to be the writer of that play. In this case, the present writer was also a figure in the Fort Laramie scenario, intermittently from 1935 to the present (1978), a period of 43 years. Beginning in 1935, as set forth in this history, I played various roles as Fort Laramie promoter, unofficial and official Historian, planner, and restoration project coordinator, while stationed successively at Scotts Bluff National Monument, the old Midwest Regional Office in Omaha, the Western Service Center in San Francisco, and the Denver Service Center. Because of these long and intimate associations, my name crops up with awkward frequency in the narrative but there is no help for it if we are to be both accurate and specific about who did what when. Despite this disclaimer, critics may feel that this is an ego vehicle, that I should have been more anonymous, and they — if any — are entitled to their opinions. My assumption is that the Rocky Mountain Regional Office asked me to undertake this heavy task for the reason that I was long and intimately involved in the subject and should be able, therefore, to provide insights and an overview that another Historian, chosen at random, "a stranger to Fort Laramie," would lack. It would seem dishonest, therefore, rather than merely modest, to omit or play down legitimate references to "the author as actor."

Thus much of this recent history is drawn from personal memory of events back to 1935, although most of it can be verified in official files. The principal people interviewed were former Superintendents Dave Hieb and Charlie Sharp, whose combined Superintendencies spanned nearly a quarter of a century, during which time the bulk of the restoration work took place. Others interviewed included Doug McChristian, Jim Petty, and Kenneth Weber of the current staff, and a few key people in town, like Ida Mary (Sandercock) Melonuk of Fort Laramie, Earl D. (Slim) Warthen of Lingle, and Curtiss Root in Torrington. (Superintendent Maeder "skipped out" before he could be interviewed, but his quite recent activities — the official ones, anyhow — are an open book.)

Many of the important actors in the official cast of characters, like Dave Canfield, Thor Borreson, and Bob Gann, as well as unofficial figures like John Hunton, Meade Sandercock, Governor Leslie Miller, Bob Rymill, and L. G. Flannery were not available for interview, having passed into the Great Beyond. However, the written record has been so complete and so gratifying that it seems there are few mysteries unsolved.

The prime source of information was the totality of official records at Fort Laramie National Historic Site, including not only current files in the Superintendent's office, but old files stored elsewhere in the Commissary building, plus the body of valuable technical reports on history, archeology, architecture, restoration, furnishings, Master Plans, etc. which are preserved in the area Library, the Research files, or the Curator's office. I cannot congratulate the successive area Superintendents too warmly for their remarkable good sense in seeing to it that these records have been preserved. If this accomplishment seems like nothing out of the ordinary, keep in mind that periodically Superintendents have been admonished to dispose of old records. These actions reflecting a well-intentioned policy of the General Services Administration may have been merited in the case of many agencies, but it has been a disaster in some Park Service areas where, in cases like Yellowstone and Grand Teton, historically valuable records have been mindlessly destroyed because of poorly implemented bureaucratic directives. The Fort Laramie Superintendents should get some special award, in Heaven if not down here, for having the wisdom to ignore the call for arbitrary "Records Disposal," at least until an official park history could be written up! (Furthermore, despite the completion of this PARK HISTORY, there are some categories of administrative records of sufficient value to be kept intact for posterity; we will be glad to cooperate with the current Superintendent in recommending steps to preserve such records.)

The Superintendents and their interpretive staffs who operate the Fort Laramie Historical Association must be commended also for their diligence in preserving and providing hardcover binders and catalog identification for most if not all of the valuable technical reports assembled over the years. If this too sounds like nothing extraordinary, consider the fact that valuable reports of this type from Yellowstone and Grand Teton, like early wildlife censuses, thermal data, and historical studies, as well as official files, were wiped out by record disposal programs of the 1950s. The technical reports as well as cumulative research files at Fort Laramie comprise the very backbone of the unique and highly admired Fort Laramie Research Program.

This preservation of records at the field area is even more important in view of the fact that Rocky Mountain Regional Office records pertaining to Fort Laramie are so sparse, presumably because such records received from the Midwest Regional Office in 1974 were sparse also. What old records there were in Omaha must have been either destroyed or sent to some remote and inaccessible warehouse.

There were three other documentary archives which were specially helpful on the early phases of park history, often supplementing the Merrill Mattes Memory Bank. The most important of these were the files of the old Midwest Office Regional Historian, accumulated by me from 1946 to 1966, preserved by that office until 1975 when a whole truckload of such records was transferred to the Rocky Mountain Regional Office in Denver (and which, in accordance with agreement between myself and this Region, have now been transferred to appropriate outside research repositories). The correspondence copy file pertaining to Fort Laramie alone is two feet thick, and yielded valuable insights into early Fort Laramie park activity.

The second auxiliary source was the old files at Scotts Bluff National Monument, which yielded important data and clues for the period 1935-1946 when I as Custodian there was also much involved in Fort Laramie promotion, research and management. (It seems that at Scotts Bluff also valuable historical records were providentially preserved despite GSA records disposal directives.)

Among park records the most important single category was the Custodian or Superintendent's Monthly Narrative Reports, 1938 through June, 1966 when this sensible and time-honored method of systematically recording what went on in each park, in chronological sequence, was arbitrarily abolished by the decree of Director George Hartzog for the dubious reasons that the reports were "unnecessary" and took time to prepare. The original wisdom of requiring such reports and the lack of wisdom in abolishing them are amply demonstrated by the fact that through June 1966 the writer had a frame-work of reference for his history, and after that date he had to flounder around in a random way looking for documentary data on everything. Even annual reports were abolished until 1972, so that 1966-1971 are "the dark ages" at Fort Laramie as far as coherent records are concerned. Beginning in 1972 the availability of Annual Reports was a great help, but nothing as helpful as the old Monthly Narrative. Heaven help future writers of Park Histories if such reports are not re-instituted.

Correspondence files and technical reports were also relied on heavily, of course, to fill in details; I estimate that I plowed through 40 linear feet of accumulated flat files and reports, for 1938-1977, to make sure that nothing of importance was omitted. (Fortunately all or most of the correspondence generated during the Coordinating Superintendency, 1938-1951, was transferred to the area from Rocky Mountain National Park.)

In addition to the above-mentioned official and semi-official records pertaining to the Park Service period, stress must be placed on records which threw light on the pre-park period. The most important of these sources were the extensive records of the Historical Landmark Commission of Wyoming, 1927-1951, which are to be found in the Archives Division of the Wyoming Archives and Historical Department in Cheyenne. These which fill two sizeable cardboard boxes, plus several reels of microfilm, are indispensable in throwing light on early efforts to save Fort Laramie, as well as the final successful push of 1936-1937. For like reasons, correspondence of local exponents L. G. Flannery and Robert Rymill, made available by surviving members of their families, were invaluable. Crucially important for the period of "The Crusade" were local newspapers, principally the Guernsey Gazette, the Fort Laramie Scout, and the Torrington Telegram. Since copies of these newspapers are incomplete locally, microfilm copies of fairly complete runs in the research department of the Wyoming Historical Department at Cheyenne proved to be vitally important.

While the completeness of the records at the Fort made it unnecessary to go to Washington, D.C. to explore National Park Service records in the National Archives, there were problems relating to puzzling events leading up to the Act of Establishment of the National Monument which required that I correspond with the Archives. I had the good fortune to get in touch with a keenly conscientious staff archivist back there who was able to supply me with missing links in the chain of events in the Director's Office and the meetings of the National Parks Advisory Board.

There is no evidence that anyone, any scholar, any historian, or whoever prior to myself ever searched any of the above records, Federal, State, or personal, in an effort to record aspects of Fort Laramie civilian history, either the pre-park or the park restoration periods. This was really plowing virgin territory and, while it was work, it was also fun.

Finally, I wish to acknowledge the unselfish and whole-hearted assistance I received from all staff members at the Fort, in digging out files, assembling data, and making facilities available during those extended periods when I was working there. In particular I want to thank Lois Woodard, Beth Eaton, and Lew Eaton for patiently answering questions and scrabbling around for elusive facts. I thank ex-Superintendent Maeder, Historian Frank Sarles and Programmer George Fisher of the Regional Office for being instrumental in launching this project in the first place, and requesting me to undertake it. This has been a long and laborious job but withal a wonderful journey back into nostalgia.

Merrill J. Mattes
Littleton, Colorado
December, 1977

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Last Updated: 01-Mar-2003