Fort Laramie and the Forty-Niners
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wagon train
Contemporary sketch of a scene familiar to the Forty-Niners, showing an emigrant train fording the Laramie River. This is the work of an artist who accompanied the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen under Colonel Loring. Courtesy Wisconsin State Historical society.

Section II

Even before the gold fever, with increasing numbers of its citizens migrating westward across the hostile plains, it was perhaps inevitable that the Federal Government would set up a chain of military posts along the Great Platte route, and the idea had been broached at various times by such respected authorities as Fremont, Parkman, and Fitzpatrick. It was officially set in motion by President Polk in a message to Congress in 1845, which resulted in the enactment, on May 19, 1846, of "an act to provide for raising a regiment of Mounted Riflemen, and for establishing military stations on the route to Oregon." [20] The Mexican War delayed action until 1848 when Fort Kearny, the first military post on the Trail, was established on the Lower Platte. Then destiny pointed its finger at "Fort John on the Laramie." This doomed structure was to provide the picturesque back-drop for a colorful pageant soon to be enacted. From yellowing documents the epic of 1849 unfolds:

March 23, Washington. Adj. Gen. R. Jones to Bvt. Maj. Gen. D. E. Twiggs, at St. Louis:

To carry out the provisions of . . . the Act of May 19, 1846, relative to establishing the military posts on the Oregon route, and to afford protection to emigrants to that country and California, known to be numerous, it now becomes necessary to establish the second station, as directed by the Secretary of War, June 1, 1847, at or near Fort Laramie, a trading station belonging to the American Fur Company.

You are desired to authorize [Lieut. Woodbury of the Corps of Engineers] to purchase the buildings of Fort Laramie, the second station, should he deem it necessary to to so. [21]

(Young Daniel P. Woodbury, first of the major characters in our story, native of New Hampshire, graduate of West Point, now First Lieutenant, Corps of Engineers, was destined to become Brevet Major General in the Union Army, for gallant and meritorious services at Bull Run and Fredericksburg. He died in 1864 at Key West, Florida, age 51.) [22]

April 9: Orders by General Twiggs:

There will be a post established at or near Fort Laramie. Its garrison will consist of companies A and E, Mounted Riflemen, and Company G, 6th Infantry, under the command of Maj. W. F. Sanderson, Mounted Riflemen . . . Major Sanderson will leave Fort Leavenworth by the 10th of May, with Company E . . . and will proceed to locate a post in the vicinity of Fort Laramie . . . The remainder of the garrison for this post will follow on the 1st of June, with the years supplies . . . ordered for their post. [23]

(Maj. Winslow F. Sanderson, Captain of the Mounted Riflemen since May 27, 1846, was breveted subsequently for "gallant and meritorious service in the battles of Contreras and Churubusco" in the Mexican War. He was to serve at Fort Laramie until October 1850. He died in 1853.) [24]

April 19, St. Louis, Asst. Adj. Gen. D. C. Buell to Major Sanderson:

A copy of the original instructions of the Secretary of War . . . is herewith respectfully enclosed . . . A thorough reconnoissance should be made of the country in the vicinity of Fort Laramie, before deciding upon a locality.

It is believed that Fort Laramie is not the most suitable position for the post, and the momentary advantage of finding there, at once, temporary shelter, of course will not of itself decide you in favor of that point. Nevertheless, authority will be given to the Engineer Officer to purchase it, if necessary. [25]

April 20, at St. Louis, Buell to Woodbury:

. . . should the position of the Indian Station of Fort Laramie be found the most eligible for the military post to be established in that vicinity, you are authorized to purchase the station of its owners; provided it can be done at a reasonable price, say not to exceed two thousand dollars. [26]

April 23, at St. Louis, Brig. Gen. D. E. Twiggs to Gen. R. Jones:

. . . The expense of supplying the posts at Fort Laramie and Salt Lake will be very great . . . Should it he impracticable to supply those posts from the cultivation of the lands about them, I am convinced that the withdrawal to the frontier of the Mounted portion of the garrisons during the winter, will be found the best plan that can be adopted; the posts being held during that time by the Infantry . . . [27]

Ground plan of Fort Laramie (Fort John) in 1849, immediately after its purchase by the Army from the American Fur Company. This plan was made by Assistant Surgeon Schell, in 1870, from data supplied by Ordnance Sergeant Leodgar Schnyder and citizen John Richard, both allegedly present in 1849. War Department Records, National Archives.


Fort Laramie and the Forty-Niners
©1949, Rocky Mountain Nature Association
mattess/chap2.htm — 10-Mar-2003