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Part 3

This webpage reproduces part of

Fort Laramie National Monument • Wyoming
National Park Service
Historical Handbook Series, No. 20
Washington, D. C., 1954

The text is in the public domain.

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Part 5

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Fort Laramie

p24 The Fight for the Black Hills

Rumors of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota had persisted for many years, which induced the Government to send an expedition under Col. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George A. Custer from Fort Abraham Lincoln on the upper Missouri to investigate the area. Proceeding without opposition from the Indians, the expedition confirmed the presence of gold in the hills and sent out word of their discoveries to Fort Laramie in August 1874. The resulting rush of prospecting parties was at first forbidden by the military, who rounded up several and imprisoned some of their leaders p25at Fort Laramie, while other parties were attacked by the Indians for flagrant violation of the treaty of 1868.

A second expedition, led by Col. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.R. I. Dodge and Prof. W. P. Jenney, set out from Fort Laramie the next spring to explore and evaluate the gold deposits in the Black Hills. Miners also thronged the hills, and efforts to make them await negotiations with the Indians were only partly successful. Meanwhile, the Government did make an effort to buy the Black Hills from the Sioux; but the Indians, led by Chief Spotted Tail, set a justly high price on the area, which the Government refused to meet. Moreover, the wild bands of Sitting Bull and other chiefs refused to sell at any price and warned the whites to say out. No longer restrained by the army, the miners now swarmed into the hills, which became a powder keg.

Ignoring existing treaties, the Government decided to force the wild Sioux onto their reservation, and when the order for them to come p26in was not instantly complied with, the Army prepared for action. A double enveloping campaign was planned, to be led by Gen. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George Crook with troops based at Fort Laramie and Fort Fetterman, and by Gen. Alfred H. Terry with Custer's Seventh Cavalry from Fort Abraham Lincoln and Col. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.John Gibbon's command from Fort Ellis, Mont. In March, Crook marched north from Fort Fetterman, 80 miles northwest of Fort Laramie, with 12 companies of soldiers. His cavalry surprised a large village of Sioux and Cheyenne on the Little Powder River in Montana, be Crazy Horse rallied the Indians and forced the troops to retreat. Again in late May, Crook moved north with 20 companies of men plus 300 friendly Shoshones and Crows, and once more, on June 17, on the Rosebud, he was defeated by a great array of warriors led by Crazy Horse. Retreating to his supply camp, Crook again decided to send for reinforcements.

Meanwhile, General Terry's command had marched west from Fort Abraham Lincoln and met Colonel Gibbon's detachment on the Yellowstone River. Again dividing his forces, Terry sent Custer and the entire Seventh Cavalry up the Rosebud River, while he and Gibbon, with 12 companies of infantry and four troops of cavalry, proceeded up the Bighorn River.

On the morning of June 25, 1876, Custer's scouts sighted the Indian village in the valley of the Little Bighorn. He divided his command to attack the village from three directions. The Indians, however, first met Maj. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Marcus A. Reno's contingent of three troops in the afternoon in overwhelming numbers and forced them to retreat to a defensive position, where they were joined by a similar detachment under Capt. Frederick W. Benteen and the pack train. Meanwhile, the great part of the Indians had swung away to meet and wipe out Custer's personal command of five troops. Again the warriors attacked Reno, but since he was on favorable ground he was able to fight them off until the next day when their scouts detected the approach of General Terry. Firing the grass, the Indians moved off into the Bighorn Mountain, leaving over 260 soldiers dead on the battlefield. It was an empty victory, however, as the Indians were compelled to scatter to hunt for food. By winter, reinforced armies under General Crook and Colonel Miles had defeated bands led by Dull Knife and Crazy Horse, forcing them to return to the reservation and surrender, while Sitting Bull's band fled north into Canada.

In the meantime, the Government had decreed that no annuities should be paid to the hostile bands or to any Sioux until they had ceded the coveted Black Hills to the whites. A commission succeeded in getting the Sioux to sign an agreement effecting that end when it became law in February 1877.

The Northern Cheyennes were taken south to the Indian territory in 1877, but they broke away the next year, led by Dull Knife and Little Wolf, and headed north for their old home in the Dakotas. p27After hard campaigning by troops from Fort Laramie and other posts, many of Dull Knife's band were killed and all others were captured. These, however, were permitted to remain on the northern reservation.

The rush to the Black Hills gave new importance to Fort Laramie, for, with its bridge across the North Platte, it was the gateway to the gold-mining region via the trail leading north from Cheyenne, whose merchants advertised the route as being well guarded. Although the troops from the fort were virtually all engaged in the effort to combat Indian depredations and provide escorts, travel to the gold fields was in fact extremely hazardous. Regular service by the Cheyenne and Black Hills stage line was impossible, until conditions improved in the fall of 1876. But no sooner had Indian raids on the trail lessened than the activities of "road agents" threatened the traveler. Even armored coaches with shotgun guards failed to deter the bandits seeking gold shipments.

Last Years of the Army Post, 1877‑90

Beginning in the late 1870's, other changes took place around Fort Laramie. With the Indians removed to reservations, ranchers and other settlers came in, and great herds of cattle replaced the buffalo on the Wyoming plains. To many of these settlers the fort on the Laramie was a supply center, as well as insurance against Indian outbreaks and lawless white men.

p30 During these same years, Fort Laramie was assuming a false air of permanence as many of the old buildings of frame, log, and adobe construction were replaced by sturdy new structures with lime-concrete walls. A water system changed the parade ground from a gravelly flat to a tree-shaded greensward. The last cavalry unit to be stationed at the fort rode away in 1883 with Col. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Wesley Merritt. Part of the Seventh Infantry, commanded by Colonel Gibbon, then garrisoned the post.

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In 1888, officers' row featured boardwalks, picket fences, and family gatherings on vine-shaded verandas. Courtesy Col. Louis Brechemin.


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Officers' row in the winter of 1889. Courtesy Col. U. S. Signal Corps.

Fort Laramie's importance had been threatened by construction of the Union Pacific Railroad 100 miles to the south. Its fate was now sealed by construction, in the late 1880's, of the Northwestern Line 50 miles to the north. This made Fort Robinson the logical guardian of the Indian reservations to the north, and by 1886 Col. Henry Merriam, then commanding officer of the Seventh Infantry and Fort Laramie, was ready to agree that further development of the old post was unwise. Not until August 31, 1889, however, was abandonment of the proud old fort decreed. At the request of Wyoming's Governor Warren, troops remained at the post until March 2, 1890, when the last two companies of the Seventh Infantry marched away. A few men were left to ship movable property, while a detachment from Fort p31Robinson dismantled some of the structures and on April 9, 1890, auctioned off the buildings and fixtures. At that auction, Lt. C. M. Taylor of the Ninth Cavalry sold the buildings of historic Fort Laramie at prices ranging from $2.50 to $100. Thirty-five lots of buildings and much miscellaneous furniture and fixtures brought a total of $1,395.

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Fort Laramie: Plan of Post in 1888.

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The Homesteaders Take Over

In June 1890, the military reservation of some 35,000 acres was turned over to the Department of the Interior and opened to homesteading. John Hunton was appointed custodian of the abandoned military reservation for the General Land Office. He first came to Fort Laramie in 1867 to work for the sutler. Later, he became a ranch operator, and in 1888 he succeeded John London as post trader. Hunton was a major buyer at the final auction and managed to homestead the northwest side of the old parade grounds of the fort, continuing to operate the sutler's store briefly, and living next door in the former officers' quarters for nearly 30 years.

Another of the major purchasers at the auction was one Joe Wilde, who also homesteaded part of the fort grounds, including the commissary storehouse and the cavalry barracks. He converted the buildings into a combination hotel, dance hall, and saloon, and operated them as a social center for North Platte Valley residents for over 25 years. The west end of the parade grounds and the site of the old adobe trading post which the Army had demolished in 1862 was homesteaded by the widow of Thomas Sandercock, a civilian engineer at the fort, who made her home in the officers' quarters which had been built in 1870.

A dozen or more buildings used by these civilian owners were preserved with some alterations; but the bulk of the buildings were soon dismantled for lumber by their purchasers, and the old fort became a part of many a ranch home, homestead shack, or barn.

p33 Efforts to Preserve the Fort

John Hunton and a few other citizens recognized the historic importance of the old fort and expressed regret at its decay. In 1913, despairing anything better, they erected a monument commemorating its long service as a military post on the Oregon Trail.

Lands and buildings changed hands. Absentee landlords, tenants, and souvenir hunters contributed much to the destruction of the historic buildings and to the scattering of priceless relics. Creation of the Wyoming Historical Landmark Commission in 1927 initiated efforts to achieve public ownership and to protect this historic site. Ten years later the State of Wyoming appropriated funds for the purchase and donation to the Federal Government of 214 acres of land, including the surviving buildings. By Presidential proclamation, this became Fort Laramie National Monument on July 16, 1938, under the administration of the National Park Service of the United States Department of the Interior.

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General view of Fort Laramie in 1889. Courtesy U. S. Signal Corps.

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