Fort Laramie and the Forty-Niners
NPS Arrowhead logo
soldiers on parade ground
A remarkable on-the-spot photograph of soldiers drilling on the parade ground, in the 1880's, after Fort Laramie had passed the peak of its military usefulness. Courtesy Wyoming Historical Department.

Section IV

The following day marks officially the transition from trading post to military post. The purchase transaction is fully recorded in the deed, dated June 28, 1851, at St. Louis, signed by Pierre Choteau, Jr., John B. Sarpy, Joseph A. Sire, and John F. A. Sandford:

. . . on the 26th day of June 1849 it was agreed by and between Bruce Husbands acting as agent and attorney for Pierre Choteau Jr. & Company . . . and D. P. Woodbury, Lieut. of Corps of Engineers acting for and on behalf of the United States: that Pierre Choteau Jr. & Co. should release and transfer to the United States all the houses, buildings and improvements by them at any time held or occupied as a trading Post at Fort John, commonly called Fort Laramie . . . including all permanent buildings . . . situated within ten miles of the junction . . . of said Laramie Fork with said Platte river, including also, all the rights and claims of said Pierre Choteau Jr. & Co. to trade with Indians and others . . .

. . . said D. P. Woodbury did on the 26th day of June A. D. 1849, for and on behalf of the United States, pay to the said Co. the full amount of said sum of Four thousand dollars. [49]

On the following day Major Sanderson reported to Adjutant General Jones that, since his arrival at the site on June 16, he and Woodbury made a thorough reconnaissance of the country in the neighborhood of this place, going at least 75 miles up the Platte:

This was found to be the most eligible for a military post, and was purchased at my request. . . .

Pine timber suitable for all building purposes is found in abundance within twelve miles, on the north side of the Platte.

The best of limestone is also found about the same distance, on the south side of the same river.

The Laramie is a rapid and beautiful stream, and will furnish an abundance of good water for the command.

There is plenty of grass for making hay within convenient distance of the post.

Good dry wood is found in abundance and easily to be obtained.

The entire command . . . are already employed in cutting and hauling timber, burning lime and coal, cutting and making hay. The saw-mill will soon be in active operation. [50]

It would take a minimum of two weeks by special courier to report this development. A telegraph might have saved General Jones the trouble of writing an order, shortly nullified, to the effect that

. . . the Mounted troops stationed at Fort Kearny and Laramie will be withdrawn from their respective posts in time to go into winter Quarters at Fort Leavenworth. . . . This arrangement is necessary, in consequence of the great expense and difficulty in procuring forage at these posts . . . this will be regarded as a permanent arrangement. [51]

The official transition of the post, of momentous consequence for the years to come, was hardly noticed by the emigrants at flood tide. The case of John E. Brown is typical. At Fort Laramie, where he arrived June 28, one of his mess mates was turned over to the Army surgeon with one leg full of buckshot, received accidentally, while another, simply fed up, turned around and started for home. The party then cast off their heavy wagon, attached six mules to the small one, and prepared to set forth, when an officer of the post accosted them and appropriated one mule with the "U.S." stamp. The pages of Brown's diary now smoulder with a sense of outrage:

. . . The protection afforded to emigrants by the chain of Military Posts is only another name for robbery. . . . In consequence of this high-handed piece of villainy we struck our tent and drove four miles.

The very next day two delegates, sent to the Fort to expostulate with the commander, returned in triumph with the sorely needed beast, and the deserter also returned, "having taken a second thought about the difficulties in reaching home." The Brown diary now takes a different tack:

Major Sanderson . . . conducts himself with much credit. Especially in this affair. He is a Gentleman in every sense of the word, and will be of infinite service to the emigrants. [52]

Sunday, July 1, was hot, with a dense overcast, reports Joseph Sedgley:

. . . Musquitoes and gnats about in any quantity. Some of the men are badly poisoned, and we are obliged to wear veils for protection from these troublesome pests. . . . Met soldiers with the mail, bound for the States. At nine, we came to the Laramie River. . . . It took us two hours to ford. Two men . . . were drowned here. There are about seventy-five soldiers here, under Maj. Sanderson. Here we found a great variety of articles which California-bound travelers have been obliged to leave behind . . . we, following their example, again lighted our load of about five hundred pounds . . . and camped at the Black Hills. . . . [53]

Patriotism was soon to have its innings. Writes Oliver Goldsmith:

On the third day of July we were within two miles of Fort Laramie. A large majority of the company were anxious to have a Fourth of July celebration, so we concluded to remained camped and have a grand 'blow out.' All the mess chests were removed from the wagons and converted into tables, and the finest dinner we could get up, by drawing liberally on the commissary department, was prepared.

Speeches were made, songs sung, games played and general hilarity prevailed. Two good days were thus lost, which only Captain Potts and myself seemed to realize might be very valuable before our journey's end was reached. . . .

On the fifth of July we arrived at Fort Laramie, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. . . . There were stationed at the fort about fifty men. . . . There were several camps of mountaineers, trappers and Indians just outside the fort. . . .

These people all thought we were rather late in our journey, and advised us to keep moving as rapidly as possible. When we reached this altitude the cholera left us, but we were never without some drawback. From good roads, plenty of feed for our stock and drinkable water we were now to experience the trials, discomforts, and, finally, the horrors of journeying through a country lacking all three. [54]

Goldsmith is not the first to mention the Asiatic cholera, which laid so many of the Forty-Niners low; but he explains why it was not an important factor at Fort Laramie or beyond. The increasing elevation seems to have neutralized the deadly germ. There is no record of any deaths from this disease at Fort Laramie itself. Up to this point, however, there was ample evidence of its ravages. David Dewolf writes his wife from this place, on July 7:

I embrace this opportunity to write . . . for I expect it will be the last chance I will have before I reach California. . . . My health has been very good. . . I have been unwell several times but not so bad but what I kept about but some poor Californians have not faired so well. A great many of their bones are left to bleach on the route. We have passed a great many graves but a person must expect some to die out of the large number going. . . . I have visited graves where the person was buried not more than twenty inches deep and found them dug up by the wolves . . . and their bones scattered to bleach upon the plaines . . . [55]

Joseph Sedgley, above-mentioned, records many burials. However, the best job of immortalizing the inscriptions found on crude head boards, gravestones, and wagon tires was done by J. Goldsborough Bruff, historian and poet laureate of the Washington City and California Mining Association. He did not miss an epitaph. At Ash Hollow he found: "Rachel E. Pattison, Aged 18, d. June 19"; near Courthouse Rock: "Jno Hoover, d. June 18, 1849. Aged 12." At Chimney Rock he found six marked graves of recent date, cholera getting the most credit. "James Roby, Mounted Riflemen, age 20," and three others were at rest in the vicinity of Scotts Bluff. And then, on July 8, just one day short of Fort Laramie, "poor Bishop," one of his own company, died of "this mysterious and fatal visitation." Bishop's remains were interred with greater ceremony than was usual in such cases:

. . . The messmates of the deceased laid him out, sewed him up in his blue blanket, and prepared a bier, formed of his tent-poles. I had a grave dug in a neighboring ridge, on left of the trail, about 400 yards from it. Dry clay and gravel, coarse white sand-stone on the next hill, afforded slabs to line it with, making a perfect vault. I saw three hours in the hot sun, and sculptured a head and foot stone; and filled the letters with blacking from the hub of a wheel. . . . I then organized a funeral procession . . . with music.

Then follows the sad lament:

On the banks of the Platte,
With its flow'ry mat,—
A corral and Camp were made;—
And the sick was borne,
To his tent that morn,—
To die on that distant glade!—

On July 9 the Bruff train rolled up to the Laramie, blocked up the wagon beds, and forded. The journal gives a most vivid picture of the situation at that time:

. . . Several hundred yards back from the river's bank, on the right, stood the old adobe walls of Fort Platte, the original post of the fur traders, now in ruin; and looks like an old Castle. . . .

After crossing, I directed the train to continue on to the left, on the trail to Ft. Laramie a couple of miles off, and camp in the bottom close by: (Tolerable grass) and proceeded to the right to a Camp of American Fur trade[r]s and Indians. [The temporary camp set up after Fort John was turned over to the military.] Here I was welcomed very kindly, and most courteously by Mr. Husband. . . . [He] informed me that he had a letter for me, but which some 10 days ago, he had turned over to the Officer at the Fort, who was acting as Post Master. . . .

July 10: . . . I spent the forenoon at the Fort. Maj. Simons [Sanderson] treated me most kindly; and on enquiry for the letter, Mr. Husband said was there for me, found that some days ago, a man belonging to a Company from Tennessee or Kentucky, had enquired for and obtained it! Had to send the mules up the Laramie river, 5 miles, under a guard, to graze.

July 11: . . . Dined at the Fort, with the Major. Had the pleasure of seeing Lt. Woodbury of the Engineers. Sketched the fort. . .

Fort Laramie is an extensive rectangular structure of adobe. It forms an open area within—houses and balconies against the walls. Heavy portals and watch tower, and square bastions at 2 angles, enfilading the faces of the main walls. It has suffered much from time and neglect. . . . After bidding my kind friends farewell, I shouldered my gun, to walk over the hills alone, to reach the camp of my company. A few hundred yards from the fort, after rising a sand hill, the trail passes through a burial ground of the Traders, and mountaineers . . .

Laramie Peak stood up boldly on my left. . . . [56]

The next day, July 12, the establishment was honored by the arrival of Capt. Howard Stansbury and Lieut. J. W. Gunnison, of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, commissioned to explore and survey the valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah, and to report on the state of affairs in that new Mormon community. The pages from Stansbury's private journal are far more illuminating than the well known published report:

Thursday, July 12 . . . after a march of 13 miles crossed Laramie fork and drove up to this Fort. Called upon Major Sanderson and paid respects. Dined at the mess. Lt. Woodbury and Captain Rhett the QrMr were absent hunting. Encamped just above the fort. Below us is a company of mounted rifles. . . . The Laramie river is quite a rapid stream about 3 feet deep where the wagons crossed which was just opposite and [sic] old adobe Fort now abandoned. The American Fur Companys peo[pl]e are encamped on the left bank having sold out Ft. Laramie to the Govt. for $4,000.

Friday, July 13. . . . Engaged all day in repacking the wagons, overhauling provisions and making arrangements for the march to Fort Hall, . . Lt. Woodbury called. . . .

Saturday, July 14. Morning bright and pleasant. . . . Engaged in writing to Dept. . . . Arranging the loading a new, dividing the provisions into messes &c &c. Opened the two barometers belonging to the Smithsonian Institution and found them to be in perfect order and very correct. . . . Sent it up to the Fort in care of Lieut. Woodbury. . . . Lt. Gunnison engaged in making observations for time and for latitude. . . . Singing in the evening. . . .

Sunday, July 15, Slept late this morning as usual on Sundays. Capt. Duncan of the Rifles who is encamped with his Compy just below us, came and called this morning and invited the Dr. and myself to his quarters. . . . Writing reading and lazying all day . . . [57]

Reverting to the published report:

Wednesday, July 18. . . . We continued our journey this morning. The next place we shall meet with a human habitation will be Fort Bridger, on Black's Fork of Green River, distant about four hundred miles.

Thursday, July 19. . . . We passed today the nearly consumed fragments of about a dozen wagons, that had been broken up and burned by their owners; and near them was piled up, in one heap, from six to eight hundred weight of bacon. . . . Boxes, bonnets, trunks, wagon-wheels, whole wagon bodies, cooking utensils, and, in fact, almost every article of household furniture were found from place to place along the prairie. . . . In the evening Captain Duncan, of the Rifles, with a small escort, rode into camp. He had left Fort Laramie in the morning, and was in hot pursuit of four deserters, who had decamped with an equal number of the best horses belonging to the command . . . [58]

By this date the emigrant flood had fallen off sharply. Late comers were taking the gamble that the Reed-Donner party had taken and lost, of beating the snow in the Sierra Nevadas. As early as June 23 one correspondent of the Missouri Republican had reported from Fort Kearny that,

. . . The great California caravan has at length swept past this point, and the prairies are beginning to resume their wonted state of quiet and loneliness. Occasionally . . . a solitary wagon may be seen hurrying on like a buffalo on the outskirts of a band, but all the organized, as well as disorganized companies have cut loose from civilization, and are pushing towards the Pacific. . . . At a moderate calculation, there are 20,000 persons and 60,000 animals now upon the road between this point and Fort Hall . . . can this vast crowd succeed in crossing the mountains safely? It cannot . . . [59]

Another correspondent writes from Fort Laramie on July 21:

According to statistics kept by an intelligent gentlemen . . . 5,500 wagons with 3-1/2 people per wagon passed; number of deaths from the Missouri river to this point, one and a half per mile a low estimate. . . . [60]

On August 1 another belated emigrant reported a significant change in the situation at the Fort:

. . . The old fort is now used for store-houses, stables, &c, and after the completion of the new one, which is to be erected in the immediate vicinity, will doubtless be used for stables solely. . . .

This taxpayer was critical of the plan of pretentious fixed forts, claiming that Kearny and Laramie had already cost over a million dollars. Since there are only 3,000 Indians in the country, it would be much more feasible to send out squadrons of mounted troops from Fort Leavenworth, each spring, foraging off the country. As it is,

. . . Each post is supplied with eight heavy 12-pound howitzers and ammunition enough to send all the red men of the Western Prairies to their happy hunting grounds forthwith.

Finally we learn what became of the displaced traders whom Stansbury and others reported to be loitering in the neighborhood of the Fort:

The American Fur Company, having sold Laramie, intend to erect a trading post at Scott's Bluffs, some forty miles below. [61]

In due course a new "Fort John" was indeed erected in the vicinity of the famous landmark, performing unspectacularly until 1852 as a trading station for the barter of buffalo robes from the Indians, and the rehabilitation and resale of emigrant cattle. (The actual site, about eight miles south of the present headquarters of Scotts Bluff National Monument, was discovered in recent years.) [62]

On July 26 the small garrison was augmented by the appearance of Company C, Mounted Riflemen, 2 officers and 60 men, under command of Capt. Benjamin S. Roberts (who had won two brevets for gallant service in Mexico, was destined for similar recognition, as Major General, in the Civil War) and 1st Lieut. Washington L. Elliott (another potential Major General). Capt. Stewart Van Vliet, accompanying Roberts (also destined for a Major Generalship), replaced Rhett as Acting Quarter Master. On August 12 Company G, 6th Infantry, composed of 2 officers and 33 men, brought in a train of wagons from Fort Leavenworth. This outfit remained, completing the Fort Laramie garrison of 1849. (Lieut. Levi C. Bootes, in command of the Infantry, was to become brevetted three times for gallant service at Malvern Hill, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg.) [63] However, the most important newcomer at this time was Col. Aeneas Mackay, sent by the High Command to inspect the new post. His reports to Thomas Jesup, Quarter Master General, bring us up to date. In a communique of July 31, he describes the adobe work:

. . . It is a good deal in decay and needs repairs. Those the Engineers are employed in making and in addition have commenced the construction of quarters outside the walls, a part of which they expect to complete this fall and by crowding to shelter the whole command this winter. They have already a saw mill in operation, which begins to produce lumber very rapidly. . . .

Since my arrival here I have been much more favorably impressed with the advantages of this station than I had ever expected to be. Indeed the prejudices which appear to have existed in the mind of everybody in regard to it, have unjustly deprived it of the credit of many recommendations to which it is entitled. In comparison with Fort Kearny, it goes far beyond it in respect to almost every requisite; and under the care of the perservering and discreet officer who now has the command, I have no doubt that it will become a most comfortable and desirable station. . . .

. . . having arrived at the Termination of our Route, to take all the advantage possible of our retrograde movement, I have ordered Captain Easton with a portion of our party to return to Ft. Leav by the way of the Republican Fork and Kansas River . . . to make a critical examination of it. . . . For myself I prefer to return by the way of Ft. Pierre and the Missouri River to Ft. Leavenworth. [64]

In a report of August 14 Colonel Mackay indicates that Captain Easton has already proceeded by way of Republican Fork, but that he himself had been delayed as the result of an affair with a band of Sioux Indians:

The matter above alluded to is the murder of a young man named McDowell, who was at the time unarmed, waiting in the Road with the intention of joining a train of wagons . . . on its way to Salt Lake and near "Scotts Bluffs" about sixty miles below this where the . . . band of the Indian who committed the murder was then established. He approached McDowell with a loaded rifle and without any warning discharged the contents in his back and killed him on the spot. Returning to his lodge and boasting of his deed, the chiefs assembled and instantly put him to death. It being reported to Major Sanderson . . . he immediately proceeded with a force of Mounted Riflemen to their village, where he met many of their tribe, all the chiefs and leading men of which, disclaimed any previous knowledge of this shocking act, declared their entire friendship and attachment to the United States, and instanced the summary punishment of the felon as an evidence of their sincerity. The Indians however, were found to be in a state of great excitement. They had heard that the Fur Company was selling to the Government the trading establishment at this place, which they construed into the sale of the lands which they consider their special inheritance; and that by these means they would be eventually deprived of the indemnity, annuities &c which they had a right to expect from the United States . . . they had witnessed with amazement the columns of troops and the crowds of emigrants which had been pressing towards the West during the whole season; and with equal terror the frightful disease which they had bore with them and had already communicated to their people who were rapidly dying in many places of cholera, which they were told the whites had brought with them as a means of exterminating the whole Indian Race.

Under this impression, and having lost that morning his father by this scourge; in a gloomy fit, with the Indian superstition and belief full upon him, this savage determined that he would in recompense destroy a whiteman. . . .

It was feared that this feeling might be extended among the young men of the band over toward the Missouri, who were then coming in for a hunt; and especially on the route to Fort Pierre which I am to take; but it does not seem to be the case; and I am of opinion that it has subsided. [66]

Having thus reassured himself, Colonel Mackay proceeded without incident to Fort Pierre, an American Fur Company post on the Missouri, the present site of the South Dakota capital. He was accompanied by an escort of ten Riflemen commanded by Captain Van Vliet, "to keep the Sioux and other red gentlemen of the prairies from molesting his scalp," to use the language of an anonymous member of the escort. The Captain, in his report of September 20, submitted a map of the Fort Pierre Route, well known to the fur traders, and deplored the lack of scientific instruments. He also was vastly annoyed by the resultant delay in getting the command under cover before winter set in. However, a much more ominous situation confronted late emigrants. He reports:

Persons just in from the Mormon settlement of the Salt Lake represent that the great majority of the California emigrants cannot reach the gold country this year and will therefore be obliged to winter in the Valley. It is supposed that about three fourths of the whole emigration, that is, over 17,000 souls, will thus be thrown upon the Mormon population. Should such be the case great will be the suffering as the Mormons have barely sufficient to carry their own population through the winter—Many of the emigrants before they reached Salt Lake were carrying their all on their backs. Their teams died. [This] was caused by the leading Companies . . . burning the country beyond that point so as to render it impossible to find feed for animals. [66]

Undoubtedly, many emigrants were thrown upon the mercy of the Mormons, just as certainly as many of them likewise were forced to hibernate at Fort Laramie. (Writes one soldier, in April 1850: "The emigrants who passed the winter here—may Heaven never send us any more—. . . will [soon] be on the road to California.") [67] The rumor that thousands were stranded seems, however, to have been grossly exaggerated, as most rumors were bound to be along the Trail.

A letter of September 18 by an unidentified Rifleman also reflects this rumor, and supplements Captain Van Vliet's report in other respects:

All hands are driving away at our new buildings, and strong hopes are entertained that before the mercury is at zero we shall be round our new hearths.

We were visited, a few days since, by about two hundred Cheyennes and Sioux, who danced a little, stole a little, eat a great deal, and finally went on their way rejoicing. These Platte Sioux, by the way, are the best Indians on the prairies. Look at their conduct during the past summer. Of the vast emigration, which rolled through their country this year, not a person was molested, not an article stolen. Such good conduct deserves reward.

* * *

Those grand rascals of the Plains, the Pawneees, have again been imbruing their hands in the blood of the whites. Two men—THOMAS and PICKARD—carrying the U. S. mail from Fort Hall to Fort Leavenworth, were attacked by them a few days since, about half way between this post and Fort Kearny, and it is feared that both were killed. Lt. DONALDSON, on his way to this post found the dead body of Thomas, and the hat of Picard stained with blood. Before he reached the spot he met a war party of Pawnees, who evinced by their actions that they were the perpetrators of the deed. Thomas' body had several arrows sticking in it. Lt. D. had but two or three teamsters with him, and he could only give the body a hasty burial without searching very thoroughly for the other man. These Pawneees have recently plundered some government wagons below Fort Kearny, and it is high time they should be brought to their senses. . . [68]

In mid-November a party of Mormon missionaries, traveling east from Salt Lake City to Kanesville, reached the post, and reported:

On our arrival at Fort Laramie we obtained supplies . . . Those of our number who had passed this fort the present summer were astonished at the great improvements which have been made here in a few months' time. There is an air of quietness and contentment, of neatness and taste, which in connection with the kind of reception given by the polite and gentlemanly commander, Major Sanderson, made us feel as if we had found an oasis in the desert. [69]

In Major Sanderson's report of September 18, 1849, we find the prediction:

. . . the troops at this post will all be in good permanent quarters by the middle of November. One company will be quartered in the old building at present occupied by the officers and permanent quarters for the other two companies are at this time being erected and will be finished in time for the approaching winter. The building intended for the officers quarters is well under way, and will soon be finished . . . [70]

The Chief Engineer, in his annual report for 1849, seems equally optimistic:

The old adobe work called Fort Laramie has been purchased which has obviated the necessity of wasting time on temporary buildings.

The building now under way, and which are expected to be ready for use before winter, are, a two-story block of officers' quarters, containing 16 rooms; a block of soldiers' quarters, intended for one company, but which will be occupied by two during the coming winter; a permanent bakery, and two stables for one company each . . . [71]

Later evidence suggests that none of the buildings listed were entirely completed before the onslaught of winter, but it is supposed that the partly finished structures, together with the ailing old adobe Fort, provided passable shelter for the garrison.

Thus ended the memorable year 1849 at old Fort Laramie, the beginning of over four decades of service as sentinel of the Plains, outpost of Federal sovereignty on the turbulent trans-Missouri frontier. The old adobe work was raided in the late 1850's to provide filler material for new construction, and the last trace of it had disappeared by 1870 when an officers' quarters was superimposed on the site. (Nothing now remains of the traders' era except archeological data, yet to be unearthed.) Meanwhile, new buildings, of adobe and logs and frame and lime-concrete, evolved around a parade ground area which was designed squarely with the original adobe post. After the Fort was abandoned in 1890, many buildings were dismantled by local ranchers, and time has done its work on the survivors. Among these, however, are two century-old buildings, the oldest ones in the Central Plains region, which stand as venerable monuments to "the year of transition." These are the "two-story block of officers' quarters" of brick-lined frame (now minus the old kitchen wings) mentioned in the Chief Engineer's report, which became known as "Old Bedlam," and the adobe section of the sutler's store building, not mentioned in any official report, but equally important as a focal point in post history. Both structures were started in 1849, completed in 1850. [72] Around both has been woven a colorful fabric of frontier tradition. Both have witnessed the pageant of the West from the day of Indian travois, traders' mackinaw, and emigrants' covered wagon to the day of steam locomotive, Ford V-8, and jet-propelled strato-plane. Both will be preserved as memorials to the glorious epic of the Forty-Niners and old Fort Laramie.

wagon train
Sutler's Store. This photograph, made in 1938 by George Grant, shows the adobe section of the building which was begun in 1849 and the stone section (at right) which was completed in 1852. The sutler was the politically appointed civilian proprietor of the post store and saloon. Courtesy Wyoming Historical Department.


Fort Laramie and the Forty-Niners
©1949, Rocky Mountain Nature Association
mattess/chap4.htm — 10-Mar-2003