From trading post to military post, Fort Laramie was part of the epic story of America’s western migration. First, the fort served as the headquarters of the American Fur Trading Company, then as a well-known stopping point for wagon trains traveling on the Oregon Trail, and eventually Fort Laramie defended emigrants against the same American Indians with whom the American Fur Trading Company first built a fur trading empire. Today, the Fort Laramie National Historic Site preserves and interprets this “Grand Old Post,” offering a glimpse into the history of the development of the western frontier.
In 1832, after fur trader William Sublette established a trading partnership with Robert Campbell, the search began for a site in the Rockies to build a trading post for their fur company. Erected in 1834, Fort William--the first Fort Laramie—had a strategic location at the junction of the North Platte and Laramie Rivers. Known as Laramais’ Point, the crossroads between the two rivers was not only a gateway into the Rocky Mountains, but also the central location for trading with the Sioux and Cheyenne. Highly sought after for their buffalo robes, which was the fort’s primary commodity, the Cheyenne and Sioux camped outside the fort several times a year to trade their fur goods in exchange for tobacco, alcohol, blankets, powder, lead, and beads.
Although Sublette and Campbell successfully established a trading partnership with the Cheyenne and Sioux, Fort William did not become a major trading monopoly until the American Fur Company bought the fort in 1836. For the first five years, with no threat of competition, the company transformed Laramais’ Point into a major fur trade center. By the early 1840s, the first threat to the company’s successful trading empire arose, when Lancaster P. Lupton established Fort Platte a mile from Fort William. The competition from the new trading post prompted the American Fur Company to improve Fort William by replacing the unstable, decaying wooden post with a larger more secure structure.
The American Fur Company erected Fort John out of adobe in the summer of 1841, but despite using the name Fort John for official correspondence, the company commonly called the trading post Fort Laramie. Even though Fort Laramie was larger and more secure, the intense rivalry between Lupton’s Fort Platte and the American Fur Company at Fort Laramie continued. Until the mid 1840s, both posts thrived from their trade in buffalo robes, constantly sending their trading parties to Indian camps to exchange goods--especially liquor--which was a key item to beat out competitors in the fur trade. (This despite the restrictions of selling alcohol to Indians.) To get ahead of Fort Platte, the American Fur Company also sent traders in the winter to build shelters outside Indian villages, where the company displayed its goods for the exchange of Indian furs.
By 1845, after several factors lead to the abandonment of Fort Platte, the American Fur Company once again became a trading monopoly. Around the same time that Fort Laramie regained its influence as the premier location for the fur trade, it also became a well-known host for emigrant parties traveling west on the Oregon Trail. Having provided supplies to the 1,000 migrants led by Marcus Whitman and Peter Burnett during the Great Migration of 1843, Fort Laramie became a routine stopping point during the nation’s westward expansion. For the following two decades, guided by the principle of Manifest Destiny and drawn by the Gold Rush, people in thousands of wagons rolled across the western landscape in increasing numbers bringing to the region more than 50,000 emigrants a year.
Seeking to capitalize on the western migration, the owners of the Laramie trading post began selling supplies to the Oregon Trail travelers, who after a long tiring journey, eagerly anticipated their arrival at Fort Laramie. Here, they set up camp, bathed, washed their garments in the river, repaired their equipment, and restocked their supplies while they waited for the winter to pass before continuing on what soon became a dangerous journey. As the number of immigrants increased, the once amicable relationship between Fort Laramie and neighboring American Indian tribes changed.
By the late 1840s, young Indian warriors who resented white encroachment into their lands began attacking wagon trains as they moved across the Indian frontier. As a result, the US Army bought Fort Laramie in 1849 for the protection of emigrants traveling along the Oregon Trail. The army built a new post headquarters, stables, a bakery, officers’ and soldiers’ quarters, and by the 1860s, a telegraph station and other structures. The officers and soldiers stationed at Fort Laramie rarely engaged in combat. The primary objective was to maintain links across the continent, and the fort served as the major station for the Pony Express, which the telegraph later replaced.
In addition to protecting emigrants on the Oregon Trail and its role in facilitating communications, Fort Laramie also hosted major treaty councils between government officials and Indian tribal chiefs. In the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, the Sioux agreed not to attack wagon trains in return for a $50,000 annuity, but the treaty was unsuccessful because white officials failed to adhere to Indian negotiation customs. By the 1860s, when attacks escalated, Fort Laramie invited the Sioux back to renegotiate the annuities. Like the first treaty, this attempt also failed, since the Army had angered Sioux leader Red Cloud, who learned of the construction by the U.S. Army of three more forts along the Bozeman Trail. This resulted in the Red Cloud War of 1866-1868.
The conflict with Red Cloud ended when the government agreed to remove the forts, but once the Sioux learned that the reservation fell outside their tribe’s hunting grounds, they refused to sign the treaty. Eventually, the government agreed to allow Indians to hunt outside the reservation, but the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 did not last. In 1874, the Americans broke the treaty when they discovered gold in the Black Hills, which was on sacred ground within the Sioux reservation. When the US armed forces failed to keep settlers from moving into the Indian reservations, the Sioux and other American Indian tribes joined Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull in the Great Sioux Campaign of 1876. Many of Fort Laramie’s troops engaged in this war, including the Battle of the Rosebud in 1876.
Once the Indian hostilities ended with the death of Sitting Bull in 1890, the government no longer required the services of Fort Laramie and ordered the army to vacate the fort immediately. In the same year, the government sold the post buildings at a public auction. Although nothing remains of the first Fort Laramie, many of the later historic structures at the fort still stand, such as the post headquarters (Old Bedlam), which the army built when the US government first bought Fort Laramie in 1849. The post headquarters is the oldest standing military building in Wyoming.At Fort Laramie National Historic Site, visitors may begin their tour at the visitor center, where they can obtain audio units for a self-guided tour of the fort. Visitors also are welcome to enjoy the park grounds and participate in activities such as interpretive programs, hiking, bird watching, and fishing.
Fort Laramie National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System, is located off State Highway 160 in Southeast WY. Click for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. Fort Laramie’s Museum and Visitor Center are open daily from 8:00am to 4:30pm, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Extended hours start in early June until Labor Day. The park is open daily from dawn until dusk. There is an admission fee for adults 16 and older. For more information, visit the Fort Laramie National Historic Site website or call 307-837-2221.Many components of the Fort Laramie National Historic Site have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey, including the New Bakery, N.C.O Quarters, the Old Bakery, Commissary Storehouse, Old Guard House, Cavalry Barracks, Officer’s Quarters E, Magazine, Hospital (Ruins), Officer’s Quarters A, and Officer’s Quarters F.