Fort Laramie National Monument, Wyoming National Park Service Historical Handbook Series No. 20
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR
Stewart L. Udall, Secretary
NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
Conrad L. Wirth, Director
HISTORICAL HANDBOOK NUMBER TWENTY
This publication is one of a series of handbooks describing thehistorical and archeological areas in the National Park Systemadministered by the National Park Service of the United StatesDepartment of the Interior. It is printed by the GovernmentPrinting Office and may be purchased from the Superintendent ofDocuments, Washington 25, D. C. Price 25 cents.
NATIONAL MONUMENT · WYOMING
by David L. Hieb
NATIONAL PARK SERVICE HISTORICAL HANDBOOK SERIES NO. 20
WASHINGTON, D. C., 1954
The National Park System, of which Fort LaramieNational Monument is a unit, is dedicated to conservingthe scenic, scientific, and historic heritage of the UnitedStates for the benefit and enjoyment of its people.
- EARLY FUR TRADE ON THE PLATTE, 1812-30 1
- FORT WILLIAM, THE FIRST “FORT LARAMIE,” 1834 3
- FORT PLATTE AND FORT JOHN ON THE LARAMIE 4
- THE FIRST EMIGRANTS 4
- THE MORMON MIGRATIONS, 1847-48 6
- FORT LARAMIE BECOMES A MILITARY POST 6
- THE CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH 7
- THE FORT LARAMIE TREATY COUNCIL, 1851 9
- THE EMIGRANT TIDE AND INDIAN TROUBLES, 1852-53 9
- THE GRATTAN AND HARNEY MASSACRES, 1854-55 11
- HANDCART TO PONY EXPRESS, 1856-61 12
- THE CIVIL WAR AND THE UPRISING OF THE PLAINS INDIANS 14
- PEACE TALK AND WAR ON THE BOZEMAN TRAIL, 1866-68 17
- THE TREATY OF 1868 21
- THE FIGHT FOR THE BLACK HILLS 24
- LAST YEARS OF THE ARMY POST, 1877-90 27
- THE HOMESTEADERS TAKE OVER 31
- EFFORTS TO PRESERVE THE FORT 32
- GUIDE TO THE AREA 32
- HOW TO REACH FORT LARAMIE 42
- ADMINISTRATION 42
- RELATED AREAS 42
- FACILITIES 42
Fort William, the first Fort Laramie, in 1837. From a paintingby A. J. Miller. Courtesy Mrs. Clyde Porter.
On the level land near the junction of the Laramie andNorth Platte Rivers stands Fort Laramie, long a landmark andsymbol of the Old West. Situated at a strategic point on a natural routeof travel, the site early attracted the attention of trail-blazing fur trappers,who established the first fort. In later years it offered protectionand refreshment to the throngs who made the great western migrationsover the Oregon Trail. It was a station for the Pony Express andthe Overland Stage. It served as an important base in the conquestof the Plains Indians, and it witnessed the development of the openrange cattle industry, the coming of the homesteaders, and the finalsettlement which marked the closing of the frontier. Perhaps no othersingle site is so intimately connected with the history of the Old Westin all its phases.
Early Fur Trade on the Platte, 1812-30
American and French Canadian fur traders and trappers, exploringthe land, traveled the North Platte Route intermittently for over twodecades before the original fort was established at the mouth of theLaramie River. First to mention the well-wooded stream flowing intothe North Platte River from the southwest was Robert Stuart, leaderof the seven “Returning Astorians” on their path-breaking journeyfrom Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River to St. Louis, by wayof South Pass in the Rockies and the valley of the Platte, during thewinter of 1812-13. They journeyed eastward over what was to becomethe greatest roadway to the West, thus entitling them to recognitionas the discoverers of the Oregon Trail.
Records of actual fur trade activity in this area for the next 10 yearsare extremely meager, but many geographical names bear witness to2the gradual westward movement of the beaver hunters, some of themundoubtedly of Canadian origin. Among them was Jacques La Rameewho, according to tradition, was killed by Indians in 1821 on the streamwhich now bears his name and which was destined to become thesetting of Fort Laramie. Famous only in death, his name was to begiven also to a plains region, a peak, a mountain range, a town, a city,and a county in Wyoming.
In 1823, Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, and other enterprising trappersof the Rocky Mountain Fur Co., going overland from the upperMissouri, rediscovered South Pass and the lush beaver country westof the Continental Divide. In 1824, while taking furs back to “theStates,” a band of “mountain men” under Thomas Fitzpatrick becamethe first Americans of record to pass the mouth of the Laramie afterthe Astorians. For 15 years thereafter the St. Louis traders sent supplytrains up the North Platte route to the annual trappers’ rendezvous,usually held in the valleys of the Green or Wind Rivers. In 1830, WilliamSublette, with supplies for the rendezvous on the Wind River,took the first wagons over the greater part of what was to become theOregon Trail.
The Interior of Fort William in 1837. From a painting by A. J.Miller in the Walter’s Art Gallery.
The Laramie and its tributaries were also the homes of the prizedbeaver, and much trading was done at the pleasant campsites nearits mouth. Here, too, was the junction with the trappers’ trail to Taos.
Fort William, the First “Fort Laramie,” 1834
The advantages of the site were readily apparent to William Subletteand Robert Campbell, when, in 1834, they paused en route to theannual trappers’ rendezvous to launch construction of log-stockadedFort William. This fort, named for Sublette, was the first fort on theLaramie.
In 1835, Sublette and Campbell sold Fort William to Jim Bridger,Thomas Fitzpatrick, and Milton Sublette, and a year later these menin turn sold their interests to the monopolistic American Fur Co.(after 1838, known officially as Pierre Chouteau, Jr. and Company).
Rev. Samuel Parker and Dr. Marcus Whitman, early missionariesto Oregon, traveling with a company of fur traders, paused at “thefort of the Black Hills” in July 1835. Reverend Parker has left a vividdescription of activities at the fort, including near-fatal fights betweendrunken trappers, a council with the chiefs of 2,000 Oglala Siouxgathered at the fort to trade, and a buffalo dance, regarding whichParker commented, “I cannot say I was much amused to seehow well they could imitate brute beasts, while ignorant of Godand salvation....”
Marcus Whitman again traveled westward in 1836 with a fur traders’caravan, this time accompanied by his bride and Rev. and Mrs. HenryH. Spalding. The ladies, the first to travel the Oregon Trail, wereextended all possible hospitality at Fort William. Especially rememberedwere chairs with buffalo skin bottoms, no doubt a most welcomechange from the ordeal of saddle or wagon box.
To an artist, A. J. Miller, who traveled with Sir William DrummondStewart, we are indebted for the only known pictures of Fort William.Made during his visit to the fort in 1837, these paintings depict atypical log stockade which Miller’s notes describe further as being
of a quadrangular form, with block houses at diagonal corners to sweepthe fronts in case of attack. Over the front entrance is a large blockhousein which is placed a cannon. The interior of the fort is about 150 feetsquare, surrounded by small cabins whose roofs reach within 3 feet ofthe top of the palisades against which they abut. The Indians encamp ingreat numbers here 3 or 4 times a year, bringing peltries to be exchangedfor dry goods, tobacco, beads and alcohol. The Indians have a mortalhorror of the “big gun” which rests in the blockhouse, as they have hadexperience of its prowess and witnessed the havoc produced by its loud“talk”. They conceive it to be only asleep and have a wholesome dreadof its being waked up.
The fur traders came to be more and more dependent upon thefort on the Laramie as a base of supplies and a refuge in time of trouble.Similarly, early travelers and missionaries found it a most welcomehaven in the wilderness. In 1840, the famous Father de Smet pausedat this “Fort La Ramee” where he was favorably impressed by avillage of Cheyennes.
Fort Platte and Fort John on the Laramie
Late in 1840 or early in 1841, a rival trading post appeared. This wasFort Platte, built of adobe on the nearby banks of the North PlatteRiver by L. P. Lupton, a veteran of the fur trade in what is nowColorado, but later operated by at least two other independent tradingcompanies.
Abandonment of the rendezvous system after 1840 increased the importanceof fixed trading posts. The deterioration of Fort Williamprompted the American Fur Co. to replace it in 1841 with a more pretentiousadobe-walled post which cost some $10,000. Christened FortJohn, presumably after John Sarpy, a stockholder, the new fort, likeits predecessor, was popularly known as “Fort Laramie.”
Competition in the declining fur trade led to open traffic in “fire-water,”and the debauchery of the Indians around Forts Platte andLaramie was noted by many travelers of the early 1840’s. Rufus B.Sage vividly describes the carousals of one band of Indians whichended with the death and burial of a Brule chief. In a state of drunkenness,this unfortunate merrymaker fell from his horse and broke hisneck while racing from Fort Laramie to Fort Platte.
Trade goods for the rival posts came out in wagons over the PlatteValley road from St. Joseph or over the trail from Fort Pierre on theupper Missouri. On the return trip, packs of buffalo robes and furswere sent down to St. Louis. In addition to wagon transportation,cargoes were sent by boat down the fickle Platte, which often driedup and left the boatmen stranded on sandbars in the middle ofNebraska.
The First Emigrants
Up to 1840, traders, adventurers, and missionaries dominated the scene.The first party of true covered-wagon emigrants, whose experienceswere recorded by John Bidwell and Joseph Williams, paused at FortLaramie in 1841. The following year Lt. John C. Fremont visitedthe fort on his first exploring trip to the Rocky Mountains. Recognizingits strategic location and foreseeing the covered-wagon migrations,Fremont added his voice to those recommending the establishmentof a military post at the site.
In 1843, the “cow column,” first of the great migrations to Oregon,reached the fort under the guidance of Marcus Whitman. This groupnumbered nearly 1,000 persons. Thereafter, the emigrants with theircovered wagons became a familiar sight each May and June. Impressionsof the swift-flowing Laramie River, the white-walled fort,the populous Indian tepee villages, the “squawmen” at the fort, andthe dances held on level ground beneath nearby cottonwoods werefrequently recorded by diarists.
More than 3,000 Oregon-bound emigrants paused at the fort in 1845,intermingling peacefully with the numerous Sioux Indians encampedthere. Later that summer, peace still prevailed when Col. StephenWatts Kearny arrived with five companies of the First Dragoons,encamped on the grassy Laramie River bottoms, and held a formalcouncil with the Indians between the two forts. Here the Indianswere warned against drinking “Taos Lightning” or disturbing theemigrants and were assured of the love and solicitude of the GreatWhite Father. They were also duly impressed with his power assymbolized in a display of howitzer fire and rockets.
While Fort Platte was abandoned by its owners in 1845, trade wasbrisk at Fort Laramie during the winter of 1845-46, and it is recordedthat during the following spring a little fleet of Mackinaw boats,under the leadership of the veteran factor P. D. Papin, successfullynavigated the Platte with 1,100 packs of buffalo robes, 110 packs ofbeaver, and 3 packs of bear and wolf skins. Thus, it was a moderatelyprosperous Fort Laramie in the waning days of the fur trade whichthe young historian Francis Parkman visited in the spring of 1846and described so vividly in his book The Oregon Trail:
Fort Laramie is one of the posts established by the American Fur Company,which well-nigh monopolizes the Indian trade of this region. Prices are mostextortionate: sugar, two dollars a cup; five-cent tobacco at a dollar and ahalf; bullets at seventy-five cents a pound. The company is exceedingly dislikedin this country; it suppresses all opposition and, keeping up theseenormous prices, pays its men in necessities on these terms. Here its officialsrule with an absolute sway;