For some years the Government had considered establishing military posts along the Oregon Trail for the protection of emigrants, and this site at the mouth of the Laramie had often been recommended. In December 1845, such action was proposed by President Polk and in May 1846 the Congress approved "An Act to provide for raising a regiment of Mounted Riflemen, and for establishing military stations on the route to Oregon." Funds were provided to mount and equip the troops, to defray the expenses of each station, and to compensate the Indian tribes on whose lands these stations might be erected.
p7 The Mexican War delayed the projected building of forts on the Oregon Trail, but in 1847 a battalion of Missouri Mounted Volunteers was recruited. Early in 1848 this battalion established Fort Kearny, the first of the posts on the trail, on the south bank of the Platte near the head of Grand Island. In November, they were mustered out, being relieved by the Mounted Riflemen.
During the following winter the news of the discovery of gold in California was published throughout the land, and the resulting fevered preparations to trek westward the next spring increased the urgency of completing the chain of forts.
In March, United States Adj. Gen. Roger Jones directed Gen. D. E. Triggs at St. Louis to carry out establishment of the second post "at or near Fort Laramie, a trading station belonging to the American Fur Company." Lt. Daniel P. Woodbury, of the Corps of Engineers, was authorized to purchase the buildings of Fort Laramie "should he deem it necessary to so." Companies A and E, Mounted Riflemen, and Company G, Sixth Infantry, were designated as the first garrison of the new post with Maj. W. F. Sanderson, Mounted Riflemen, in command.
Major Sanderson with 4 officers and 58 men of Company E, Mounted Riflemen, left Fort Leavenworth early in May and arrived at the Laramie on June 16 without incident. On June 27 he wrote to the adjutant general reporting that after making a thorough reconnaissance of the neighborhood he had found this to be the most eligible site and that at his request Lieutenant Woodbury had, on June 26, purchased Fort Laramie from Bruce Husband, agent of the American Fur Co., for $4,000. He reported further that good pine timber, limestone, hay, and dry wood were readily available and that the Laramie River furnished abundant good water for the command.
Company C, Mounted Rifles, consisting of 2 officers and 60 men, arrived at the post on July 26, and on August 12 the 2 officers and 53 men of Company G, Sixth Infantry, completed the garrison and joined in the work of preparing additional quarters.
Meanwhile, these troops had been preceded, accompanied, and followed over the trail by some 30,000 goldseekers bound for California, a few thousand Mormons en route to Utah, and additional troops of Mounted Riflemen pushing west to establish a post at Fort Hall in Idaho.
Many of those who trekked westward from the Missouri did not even reach Fort Laramie. The dread Asiatic cholera took a terrible toll along the banks of the Platte. Fresh graves, averaging •one and a half p8 to the mile, marked the •700‑mile trail from Westport Landing to the Laramie. Beyond Fort Laramie the ravages of disease abated, but already many trains were short of men and stock. These conditions and the rougher roads ahead frequently forced the abandonment of wagons, personal property, and stocks of provisions. However, not all of the westward surging throng reached Fort Laramie with surplus supplies. Many were thankful to be able to replenish dwindling supplies at the commissary as well as to obtain fresh draft animals, repair failing wagons, and mail letters to "the States."
While purchase of the adobe trading post provided the Army with a measure of shelter for men and supplies, it was far from adequate. In late June 1849, Major Sanderson reported that the entire command was already employed in cutting and hauling timber and burning lime. Stone was also quarried and a horse-powered sawmill placed in operation. By winter, a two‑storied block of officers' quarters (to become known as "Old Bedlam"), a block of soldiers' quarters, a bakery, and two stables had been pushed near enough completion to be occupied.
Fort Laramie in 1849. From An Expedition to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah by Howard Stansbury.
That winter was mild and uneventful at Fort Laramie, but by early May 1850 the high tide of westward migration began. Goldseekers and homeseekers bound for California, Oregon, or Utah thronged the trails on both sides of the Platte and converged on the fort, where, by August 14, a record had been made of 39,506 men, 2,421 women, 2,609 children, 9,927 wagons, and proportionate numbers of livestock. Also, 316 deaths en route were recorded, for cholera again raged along the trail in Nebraska. The graves along the trail east of Fort Laramie were only outnumbered by the bodies of dead draft animals and piles of abandoned property westward toward South Pass.
p9 Meager blacksmithing and repair facilities were available to the emigrants at Fort Laramie. Supplies could be purchased at the commissary and at the sutler's store, whose adobe walls were first noted that year. The sutler, John S. Tutt, also had brisk competition from numerous oldtime mountain men who set up shop along the trails nearby.
The post commander reported further progress in new construction during 1850. The stonewalled magazine was probably completed that year, "Old Bedlam" neared completion, and a two‑storied barracks was begun. Lured by gold, however, troops as well as civilian artisans deserted the post to such an extent that Mexican labor was imported for building and experimental farming.
In 1851, the gold fever subsided somewhat, but Mormon emigrations increased and in all probability 20,000 emigrants trekked westward past the fort. Cholera was not epidemic and emigration was less eventful, but the fort was busy preparing to play host to other visitors.
Fort Laramie in 1851. From a map by Lieut. A. J. Dowlson, Corps of Engineers.
Early in 1851, the Congress had authorized holding a great treaty council with the Plains Indians to assure peaceful relations along the trails to the West. D. D. Mitchell and Thomas Fitzpatrick, the commissioners, chose Fort Laramie as the meeting place and summoned the various Indian tribes to come in by September 1. For days before that date, Indians gathered at the fort. The Sioux, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes mingled freely, but tension mounted as their enemies, the Snakes and Crows, made their appearance. Peace prevailed, however, and the sole major difficulties were a grazing problem and the late arrival of a wagon train of gifts. The countless ponies accompanying 10,000 Indians required so much forage that the vast assemblage had to move to the meadows at the mouth of Horse Creek, •30 miles east of the fort. Chiefs representing many other tribes arrived. Parades of Indian hordes in full array were held, speeches made, presents distributed, the pipe of peace smoked, and by September 17 it had been agreed that peace should reign among the red men and between them and the whites. The white men were to be free to travel the roads and hold their scattered forts, and the Indians were to receive an annuity of $50,000 in goods each year. The council was considered a great success and gave promise of a lasting peace on the plains.
In 1852, the emigrant tide again swelled to near 40,000, over 10,000 of which were Mormons. The emigrants were encouraged to depend on supplies available at Fort Laramie and other posts along p11 the trail. A toll bridge over the Laramie River, •a mile below the fort, eliminated one obstacle on the trail, and disease took a much lighter toll of lives.
Beginning in 1850, many of the emigrants on the north bank, or Mormon Trail, stopped crossing to the south bank trail at Fort Laramie and followed a rough, but shorter, route westward along the north side of the river. Those who did not cross with their wagons, however, still found the old ferry across the North Platte a welcome means of visiting the fort for mail and supplies. In 1853, this ferry figured in the first serious Indian trouble near the fort.
Fort Laramie in 1853. From a sketch by Frederick Piercy.
The Sioux were becoming alarmed by the great numbers of whites using the Oregon Trail, with resulting destruction of game, and the ravages of new diseases among the tribes. On June 15, a group of Sioux seized the ferry boat, and one of them fired on Sergeant Raymond, who recaptured it. Lt. H. B. Fleming and 23 men were dispatched to the Indian village to arrest the offender. The Indians refused to give up the culprit and fired on the soldiers. In the resulting skirmish, 3 Indians were killed, 3 wounded, and 2 taken prisoner. The Miniconjou Sioux were incensed by this action, but after a full explanation by Capt. R. Garnett, commander of the fort, they accepted their annuities from the Indian agent and no further hostilities resulted that year.
In spite of this incident and considerable begging and thievery by Indians, the emigrants had been in little real danger of Indian attack. All this was changed by an unfortunate occurrence late in the summer of 1854.
Until August 18, summer emigration in 1854 appears to have been unaffected by trouble with the Indians. On that day a Mormon caravan p12 passed a village of Brule Sioux •8 miles east of Fort Laramie, and a cow ran into the village where it was appropriated by a visiting Miniconjou brave. This matter was reported at the fort by the both the Mormons and the chief of the Brules. Lt. John Grattan, Sixth Infantry, with 29 soldiers, 2 cannon, and an interpreter, was dispatched to the village to arrest the offending Indian. Unfortunately, the interpreter was drunk and the young officer was arrogant. The Indian offender refused to give himself up and a fight was precipitated in the Indian village, resulting in the annihilation of the military party.
The enraged Indians then pillaged Bordeaux's nearby trading post and helped themselves to both annuity goods and company property at the American Fur Co's post •3 miles up the river. Fortunately, no attack was made on the small remaining garrison of Fort Laramie to which neighboring traders and others rushed for protection. All Sioux immediately left the vicinity of the fort, and the Cheyennes and Arapahoes waited only for the distribution of treaty goods before moving away.
During the following year, Indians committed many small-scale depredations along the Oregon Trail. However, despite greatly exaggerated alarms, the emigrants of 1855 were for the most part unmolested. Meanwhile, the Army had become convinced that the Indians must be punished, and a force of 600 men under Gen. W. S. Harney marched westward from Fort Leavenworth. The Indian agent at Fort Laramie warned all friendly Indians to come to the south side of the Platte — a warning heeded by many bands. On September 2, General Harney arrived at Ash Hollow, •150 miles below Fort Laramie, and located Little Thunder's band of Brule Sioux •some 6 miles north on the Blue Water. Early the next morning, after rejecting protestations of friendship by Little Thunder, his troops attacked the village from two sides, killing 86 Indians and capturing an almost equal number of women and children. At Fort Laramie, General Harney issued a stern warning to other Sioux bands, then proceeded overland through Sioux territory to establish a military post at Fort Pierre on the upper Missouri River.
In 1856, in an effort to reduce the cost of emigration to Utah, the Mormons introduced the handcart plan. Two‑wheeled handcarts, similar to those once used by street sweepers, were constructed of Iowa hickory and oak. One cart was assigned to each four or five converts who walked and pushed or pulled their carts over the long trek from the railhead at Iowa City to the Salt Lake Valley. Livestock was driven with the parties and at times 1 ox‑drawn wagon to each 100 emigrants was provided to carry additional baggage and supplies. p13 The first handcart parties were very successful, but the last two, in 1856, started too late in the summer and were snowed in near Devil's Gate. There, more than 200 of the 1,000 or more in the Texas parties perished from cold and hunger before the survivors could be rescued by wagon trains sent out from Utah. From 1856 to 1860 some 3,000 Mormons made the journey to Utah in 10 handcart companies, and to these footsore travelers Fort Laramie was indeed a haven in the wilderness.
Early in 1857, the War Department decided to abandon Fort Laramie, but events forced the cancellation of the order before it could be carried out, and the fort again demonstrated its strategic importance. First, it served as a supply base for a punitive expedition led by Col. E. V. Sumner against the Cheyennes between the Platte and Arkansas Rivers. Then, as the campaign drew to an inconclusive end, the fort became a vital base for the Army which marched toward Utah that fall to subdue the reportedly rebellious Mormons.
By the next year, the Utah Campaign involved some 6,000 troops, half of whom were in or near Utah, with Fort Laramie their nearest sure source of supply.
In spite of this warlike activity, thousands of emigrants continued to roll westward by covered wagon, the great travel medium of the plains. To these the fort was a vital way station, as it was to the great firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell, freighting contractors who carried supplies to the Army in Utah. In 1858, this enterprise alone involved 3,500 wagons, 40,000 oxen, 1,000 mules, and 4,000 men.
Beginning in 1850, mail service of varying frequency and reliable linked Fort Laramie with the States to the east and Salt Lake City to the west. Interrupted in the summer of 1857 by the Utah Campaign, a new and improved weekly mail service was organized in 1858 bringing news only 12 days old from the Missouri River to the fort.
In 1858, the discovery of gold at Cherry Creek, •200 miles south of Fort Laramie, precipitated the Colorado gold rush. That winter Fort Laramie was the nearest link between the gold miners clustered about the site of Denver, Colo., and the outside world. An informal mail express to the fort was organized and carried by old trappers.
These developments were soon overshadowed by the spectacular pony express. The first westbound rider galloped into Fort Laramie on April 6, 1860, just 3 days out from St. Joseph, Mo. This remarkable system of relays of riders and ponies carried up to 10 pounds of mail from St. Joseph to San Francisco in 13 days, at the rate of $5 in gold for a •half-ounce letter. Later, a Government subsidy, begun on July 1, 1861, reduced the rate to $1 for one‑half ounce. On that same date daily overland mail coaches began operating from St. Joseph to San Francisco, via Fort Laramie, on an 18‑day schedule.
Meanwhile, the poles and wires of the first transcontinental telegraph were stretching out across the plains and mountains. Reaching p14 Fort Laramie in September, the telegraph was completed to Salt Lake City and connected with the line from the west coast on October 24, 1861. That date also marked the end of the pony express which, although a financial failure that cost W. H. Russell his fortune, had proved the practicability of the central route to California for year-round travel.
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