Fort Laramie and the Forty-Niners
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Fort Laramie
Fort Laramie in 1949. This modern view shows the impressive character of the military structures despite decades of neglect. The old fort is now a national monument, and the Federal Government recognizes the need for the stabilization of these historic remains. Courtesy Littler Studios, Torrington, Wyoming.

Section I

One of the most historic spots in the Trans-Mississippi West lies on the tongue of land formed by the junction of the Laramie and North Platte Rivers, in eastern Wyoming. Here, at Fort Laramie National Monument, administered by the National Park Service, lie the impressive remains of a military post which, for over forty years, represented the might of the United States Government on the Great Plains frontier. Born dramatically in 1849, the year of the epic gold rush to California, within the shaky walls of an old adobe trading post, the event witnessed by a motley horde of emigrants, Indians, and squaw men, Fort Laramie's star ascended amid exciting and violent scenes of the migrations, the Mormon Rebellion, and the Sioux-Cheyenne Wars, declined with the advent of the Union Pacific Railroad, the Black Hills stage line, and the open-range cattle industry, and died tranquilly when the first wave of homesteaders reached Wyoming.

Laramie's Fork was historic ground long before soldiers were stationed there. Before Fort Laramie were the trading posts of Fort John, Fort Platte, and Fort William. Before these, even, were many camps and trading sessions and savage councils. The very name of "Laramie" harks back to a tradition, of uncertain date, that an early Canadian trapper, one Jacques La Raimee, was killed by Indians and his body thrown in this stream. The natural attractions of Laramie's Fork were noted as early as 1812 by Robert Stuart and his companions, travellers en route from Fort Astoria to the States, the first white men to follow the Platte Route.

Tuesday 22nd—Soon after leaving Camp the Country opened greatly to [the] Eastward, and a well wooded stream apparently of considerable magnitude came in from the South West, but whether it is the Arapohays river, we cannot tell—

Abundance of Buffaloe and Antelopes [were seen] in this days march of 26 Miles East South East— [1]

They were noted also by Warren A. Ferris, fur-trapper of the American Fur Company, in 1830:

We crossed the Platte in bull-hides canoes, on the second of June, and encamped a short distance above the mouth of Laramie's Fork, at the foot of the Black Hills. . . . The rich bottoms bordering this stream are decked with dense groves of slender aspen, and occasional tall and stately cottonwoods. [2]

The setting likewise engaged the attention of Captain Bonneville, heading a trapping expedition to the mountains, in 1832:

On the 26th of May, the travellers encamped at Laramie's Fork, a clear and beautiful stream, rising in the west-south west, maintaining an average width of twenty yards, and winding through broad meadows abounding in currants and gooseberries, and adorned with groves and clumps of trees. [3]

Laramie Fork itself drained a rich trapping territory in the early days, and many licenses were issued "to trade at Laremais' Point," near the foot of Laramie Peak, which region was then called "the Black Hills." [4] Zenas Leonard's journal of 1832 paints a graphic picture of a trapper's conclave here, preliminary to a general movement toward the Pierre's Hole rendezvous in the mountains, [5] while Charles Larpenteur, in 1833, records another encampment:

On approaching La Ramie's River we discovered three large buffaloes lying dead close together . . . the animals had been killed by lightning during a storm we had the previous day . . . we were ordered to dismount and go to work making a boat out of the hides of the buffalo . . . and the party with all the goods were crossed over by sunset... On the arrival of the trappers and hunters a big drunken spree took place. . . . [6]

The strategic and commercial advantages of the location on Laramie's Fork, at the intersection of the Great Platte Route to the mountains and the Trappers Trail south to Taos, were at once apparent to William Sublette and Robert Campbell in 1834, when they paused here en route to trappers' rendezvous at Ham's Fork of the Green, to launch the construction of log-stockaded Fort William. The event is simply recorded by William Anderson:

[May] 3lst.—This evening we arrived at the mouth of Laramee's Fork, where Capt. (William L.) Sublette intends to erect. a trader's fort.

June 1st., 1834—This day laid the foundation log of a fort, on Laramee's Fork. A friendly dispute arose . . . as to the name . . . William Patton offered a compromise which was accepted, and the foam flew, in honor of Fort William, which contained the triad prenames of clerk, leader and friend. Leaving Patton and fourteen men to finish the job we started upwards . . . [7]

In 1835 the enterprising partners sold their interest in Fort William to James Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and others, who in turn released it to the Western Department of the monopolistic American Fur Company (which, after 1838, assumed the official title of Pierre Chouteau, Jr. and Company).

In July 1835 Samuel Parker, one of the first missionaries up the Trail, arrived in the company of fur traders at "the fort of the Black Hills." He writes:

At this place the caravan halted, and according to immemorial usage, the men are allowed a 'day of indulgence,' as it is called, in which they drink ardent spirits as much as they please, and conduct as they choose. Not unfrequently, the day terminates with a catastrophe of some kind. . . . Today one of the company shot another . . . the ball entered the back, and came out at the side. The wounded man exclaimed, 'I am a dead man,' but after a pause said, 'No, I am not hurt.' The other immediately seized a rifle to finish the work, but was prevented by bystanders. . . .

At this time a horde of Ogalala Sioux came into the Fort to trade. Parker and his aide, Marcus Whitman, met in council with the chiefs, and then were treated to a buffalo dance. Continues Parker, "I cannot say I was much amused to see how well they could imitate brute beasts, while ignorant of God and salvation . . . what will become of their immortal spirits?" [8]

In 1836 the wives of Marcus Whitman and Rev. H. H. Spalding, first white women to follow the Oregon Trail, accepted the meagre hospitality of the Fort. Particularly noteworthy were the chairs, with buffalo skin bottoms, a welcome contrast to relentless saddles and wagon-boxes. [9]

The only known pictures of Fort William were made in 1837 by A. J. Miller, an artist in the entourage of Sir William Drummond Stewart. Here, in Miller's own notes, is the traditional log post,

of a quadrangular form, with block houses at diagonal corners . . . over the front entrance is a large block house in which is placed a cannon . . . The Indians encamp in great numbers here 3 or 4 times a year, bringing peltries to be exchanged for dry goods, tobacco, beads and alcohol.

The Indians have a mortal horror of the 'big gun' which rests in the block house, as they have had experience of its prowess and witnessed the havoc produced by its loud 'talk.' They conceive it to be only asleep and have a wholesome dread of its being waked up . . . [10]

In 1840 the illustrious Father De Smet paused at this "Fort la Ramee," where he found some forty lodges of the Cheyennes, "polite, cleanly and decent in their manners. . . . The head chiefs of this village invited me to a feast, and put me through all the ceremonies of the calumet." [11]

In the fall of that year, or the spring of the following, a rival establishment appeared, on the nearby banks of the North Platte. This was adobe-walled Fort Platte, built by Lancaster P. Lupton, veteran of the South Platte trade, and taken over in 1842 by Sybille, Adams and Company. This development, coupled with the rotting condition of Fort William, prompted the Chouteau interests to build a new adobe fort of their own, again on the banks of the Laramie, officially christened Fort John, but popularly dubbed "Fort Laramie." The decade of the 1840's was characterized by bitter rivalry among the trading companies, the coming of the first emigrants to Oregon and Utah, and the appearance of many notable travellers.

The open traffic in firewater characterized the degenerate condition of the fur trade at this time. Reports Rufus B. Sage, in November 1841:

The night of our arrival at Fort Platte was the signal for a grand jollification to all hands . . . who soon got most gloriously drunk . . . Yelling, screeching, firing, shouting, fighting, swearing, drinking and such like interesting performances, were kept up without intermission . . . The scene was prolonged till near sundown the next, and several made their egress from this beastly carousal, minus shirts and coats—with swollen eyes, bloody noses, and empty pockets . . . liquor, in this country, is sold for four dollars per pint. [12]

Coincident with the construction of the rival forts, in 1841, came the Bidwell expedition, usually conceded to be the first bona fide covered wagon emigrants. In July 1842 Fort John was visited by Lt. John C. Fremont, on his first exploring expedition to the Rocky Mountains. Of this post he writes:

. . . This was a large post, having more the air of military construction than the fort at the mouth of the river. It is on the left bank, on a rising ground some twenty-five feet above the water; and its lofty walls, whitewashed and picketed, with the large bastions at the angles, gave it quite an imposing appearance in the uncertain light of evening . . .

* * *

. . . I walked up to visit our friends at the fort, which is a quadrangular structure, built of clay, after the fashion of the Mexicans, who are generally employed in building them. The walls are about fifteen feet high, surmounted with a wooden palisade, and form a portion of ranges of houses, which entirely surround a yard of about one hundred and thirty feet square. There are two entrances. Over the great entrance is a square tower with loopholes . . . built of earth. [13]

The "cow column," the first great migration to Oregon, consisting of near 1,000 souls, passed by in 1843. Thereafter, the white-topped emigrant wagons became a familiar sight in May and June of each year. Many travellers have left their impressions of the clear swift-flowing Laramie, the neat white-walled fort, the frequent Indian tepee villages nearby. In 1843, writes Johnston: "The occupants of the fort, who have been long there, being mostly French and having married wives of the Sioux, do not now apprehend any danger." [14] In 1844, John Minto records: "We had a beautiful camp on the bank of the Laramie, and both weather and scene were delightful. The moon, I think, must have been near the full . . . at all events we leveled off a space and one man played the fiddle and we danced into the night." [15]

The year 1845 was a banner one for Oregon-bound emigrants, who numbered upwards of 3,000. The classic account of that year is Joel Palmer's journal, which vividly describes the two rival posts at the Junction of the Platte and the Laramie, and a great feast given by the emigrants on behalf of the multitude of Sioux Indians there assembled. [16] Brotherly love also prevailed later that same year when five heavily armed companies of the First Dragoons, led by Col. Stephen W. Kearny, arrived and encamped in the vicinity. At a formal council the savages were diplomatically reminded of the might and beneficence of the Great White Father. [17]

Francis Parkman in his famous book, The Oregon Trail, has left an indelible impression of the situation at Fort Laramie in 1846, whence he travelled in the role of historian and ethnologist, sojourning that summer in the region in company with Oglala Sioux. Less well known than the book is the recently published journal, in which he notes the passing of Fort Platte, and the appearance of the ill-starred Donner party:

. . . rode towards the fort. Laramie Mt., Sybil & Adams's deserted fort, and finally Laramie appeared, as the prospect opened among the hills. Rode past the fort, reconnoitred from the walls, and passing the highest ford of Laramie Fork, were received at the gate by Boudeau, the burgeois. Leading our horses into the area, we found Inds.—men, women and children—standing around, voyageours and trappers—the surrounding apartments occupied by squaws and children of the traders . . . They gave us a large apartment, where we spread our blankets on the floor. From a sort of balcony we saw our horses and carts brought in, and witnessed a picturesque frontier scene . . .

The emigrants' party passed the upper ford, and a troop of women came into the fort, invading our room without scruple or reserve. Yankee curiosity and questioning is nothing to those of these people . . . Most of them are from Missouri. [18]

In 1847 the Mormon Pioneers made their appearance here en route to the Promised Land. They investigated the place thoroughly, making detailed measurements of Fort Laramie and the abandoned Fort Platte, the latter being near their crossing of the Platte River. [19] The Mormons developed the trail on the north side of the Platte, commencing at Council Bluffs, and as the "Mormon Trail" it has always been distinguished from the main Oregon-California Trail, south of the Platte. At Fort Laramie the two at first joined, although in later years the Mormon Trail continued westward without crossing at the Fort.

In 1847 there was a sizeable migration to Oregon and California as well as Utah, but in 1848 the "Saints" had the field pretty much to themselves. It was also in 1848, as every school boy knows, that James Marshall discovered gold at the millrace near Sutter's Fort on the Sacramento River, California Territory, thus touching off the epic California gold rush. As the year 1849 dawned, the craze was beginning to sweep the country. There were not a fraction enough ships to provide passage for all those who wanted to get to the mines, by way of Cape Horn. Thousands converged on the Missouri border towns. Wagons, oxen, mules, gear of all kinds, commanded premium prices. It was clear that something was about to happen to "the Great American Desert" and the adobe-walled trading post on the Laramie.


Fort Laramie and the Forty-Niners
©1949, Rocky Mountain Nature Association
mattess/chap1.htm — 10-Mar-2003