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p1 On the level land near the junction of the Laramie and North Platte Rivers stands Fort Laramie, long a landmark and symbol of the Old West. Situated at a strategic point on a natural route of travel, the site early attracted the attention of trail-blazing fur trappers, who established the first fort. In later years it offered protection and refreshment to the throngs who made the great western migrations over the Oregon Trail. It was a station for the Pony Express and the Overland Stage. It served as an important base in the conquest of the Plains Indians, and it witnessed the development of the open range cattle industry, the coming of the homesteaders, and the final settlement which marked the closing of the frontier. Perhaps no other single site is so intimately connected with the history of the Old West in all its phases.
American and French Canadian fur traders and trappers, exploring the land, traveled the North Platte Route intermittently for over two decades before the original fort was established at the mouth of the Laramie River. First to mention the well-wooded stream flowing into the North Platte River from southwest was Robert Stuart, leader of the seven "Returning Astorians" on their path-breaking journey from Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River to St. Louis, by way of South Pass in the Rockies and the valley of the Platte, during the winter of 1812‑13. They journeyed eastward over what was to become the greatest roadway to the West, thus entitling them to recognition as the discoverers of the Oregon Trail.
Records of actual fur trade activity in this area for the next 10 years are extremely meager, but many geographical names bear witness to p2 the gradual westward movement of the beaver hunters, some of them undoubtedly of Canadian origin. Among them was Jacques La Ramee who, according to tradition, was killed by Indians in 1821 on the stream which now bears his name and which was destined to become the setting of Fort Laramie. Famous only in death, his name was to be given 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 trappers of the Rocky Mountain Fur Co., going overland from the upper Missouri, rediscovered South Pass and the lush beaver country west of the Continental Divide. In 1824, while taking furs back to "the States," a band of "mountain men" under Thomas Fitzpatrick became the first Americans of record to pass the mouth of the Laramie after the Astorians. For 15 years thereafter the St. Louis traders sent supply trains up the North Platte route to the annual trappers' rendezvous, usually held in the valleys of the Green or Wind Rivers. In 1830, William Sublette, with supplies for the rendezvous on the Wind River, took the first wagons over the greater part of what was to become the Oregon Trail.
The Laramie and its tributaries were also the homes of the prized beaver, and much trading was done at the pleasant campsites near its mouth. Here, too, was the junction with the trappers' trail to Taos.
The advantages of the site were readily apparent to William Sublette and Robert Campbell, when, in 1834, they paused en route to the annual trappers' rendezvous to launch construction of log‑stockaded Fort William. This fort, named for Sublette, was the first fort on the Laramie.
In 1835, Sublette and Campbell sold Fort William to Jim Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and Milton Sublette, and a year later these men in 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 missionaries to Oregon, traveling with a company of fur traders, paused at "the fort of the Black Hills" in July 1835. Reverend Parker has left a vivid description of activities at the fort, including near-fatal fights between drunken trappers, a council with the chief of 2,000 Oglala Sioux gathered at the fort to trade, and a buffalo dance, regarding which Parker commented, "I cannot say I was much amused to see how well they could imitate brute beasts, while ignorant of God and salvation. . . ."
Marcus Whitman again traveled westward in 1836 with a fur traders' caravan, this time accompanied by his bride and Rev. and Mrs. Henry H. Spalding. The ladies, the first to travel the Oregon Trail, were extended all possible hospitality at Fort William. Especially remembered were chairs with buffalo skin bottoms, no doubt a most welcome change from the ordeal of saddle or wagon box.
To an artist, A. J. Miller, who traveled with Sir William Drummond Stewart, we are indebted for the only known pictures of Fort William. Made during his visit to the fort in 1837, these paintings depict a typical log stockade which Miller's notes describe further as being
of a quadrangular form, with block houses at diagonal corners to sweep the fronts in case of attack. Over the front entrance is a large blockhouse in which is placed a cannon. The interior of the fort is •about 150 feet square, surrounded by small cabins whose roofs reach within •3 feet of the top of the palisades against which they abut. The Indians encamp in great numbers here 3 or 4 times a year, bringing peltries to be exchanged for dry goods, tobacco, beads and alcohol. The Indians have a mortal horror of the "big gun" which rests on the blockhouse, as they have had experience of its prowess and witnessed the havoc produced by its loud "talk". They conceive it to be only asleep and have a wholesome dread of its being waked up.
The Interior of Fort William in 1837. From a painting by A. J. Miller in the Walter's Art Gallery.
The fur traders came to be more and more dependent upon the fort on the Laramie as a base of supplies and a refuge in time of trouble. Similarly, early travelers and missionaries found it a most welcome haven in the wilderness. In 1840, the famous Father de Smeta paused at this "Fort La Ramee" where he was favorably impressed by a village of Cheyennes.
Late in 1840 or early in 1841, a rival trading post appeared. This was Fort Platte, built of adobe on the nearby banks of the North Platte River by L. P. Lupton, a veteran of the fur trade in what is now Colorado, but later operated by at least two other independent trading companies.
Abandonment of the rendezvous system after 1840 increased the importance of fixed trading posts. The deterioration of Fort William prompted the American Fur Co. to replace it in 1841 with a more pretentious adobe-walled post which cost some $10,000. Christened Fort John, presumably after John Sarpy, a stockholder, the new fort, like is 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 and Laramie was noted by many travelers of the early 1840's. Rufus B. Sage vividly describes the carousals of one band of Indians which ended with the death and burial of a Brule chief. In a state of drunkenness, this unfortunate merrymaker fell from his horse and broke his neck while racing from Fort Laramie to Fort Platte.
Trade goods for the rival post came out in wagons over the Platte Valley road from St. Joseph or over the trail from Fort Pierre on the upper Missouri. On the return trip, packs of buffalo robes and furs were sent down to St. Louis. In addition to wagon transportation, cargoes were sent by boat down the fickle Platte, which often dried up and left the boatmen stranded on sandbars in the middle of Nebraska.
Up to 1840, traders, adventurers, and missionaries dominated the scene. The first party of true covered-wagon emigrants, whose experiences were recorded by John Bidwell and Joseph Williams, paused at the Fort Laramie in 1841. The following year Lt. John C. Fremont visited the fort on his first exploring trip to the Rocky Mountains. Recognizing its strategic location and foreseeing the covered-wagon migrations, Fremont added his voice to those recommending the establishment of 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 group numbered nearly 1,000 persons. Thereafter, the emigrants with their covered wagons became a familiar sight each May and June. Impressions of the swift-flowing Laramie River, the white-walled fort, the populous Indian tepee villages, the "squawmen" at the fort, and the dances held on level ground beneath nearby cottonwoods were frequently recorded by diarists.
p5 More than 3,000 Oregon-bound emigrants paused at the fort in 1845, intermingling peacefully with the numerous Sioux Indians encamped there. Later that summer, peace still prevailed when Col. Stephen Watts Kearny arrived here with five companies of the First Dragoons, encamped on the grassy Laramie River bottoms, and held a formal council with the Indians between the two forts. Here the Indians were warned against drinking "Taos Lightning" or disturbing the emigrants and were assured of the love and solicitude of the Great White Father. They were also duly impressed with his power as symbolized in a display of howitzer fire and rockets.
While Fort Platte was abandoned by its owners in 1845, trade was brisk as Fort Laramie during the winter of 1845‑46, and it is recorded that during the following spring a little fleet of Mackinaw boats, under the leadership of the veteran factor P. D. Papin, successfully navigated the Platte with 1,100 packs of buffalo robes, 110 packs of beaver, and 3 packs of bear and wolf skins. Thus, it was a moderately prosperous Fort Laramie in the waning days of the fur trade which the young historian Francis Parkman visited in the spring of 1846 and 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 most extortionate: sugar, two dollars a cup; five-cent tobacco at a dollar and a half; bullets at seventy-five cents a pound. The company is exceedingly disliked in this country; it suppresses all opposition and, keeping up these enormous prices, pays its men in necessities on these terms. Here its officials rule with an absolute sway; the arm of the United States has little force, for when we were there the extreme outposts of her troops were •about seven hundred miles to the eastward. The little fort is built of bricks dried in the sun, and externally is of an oblong form, with bastions of clay in the form of ordinary blockhouses at two of the corners. The walls are •about fifteen feet high, and surmounted by a slender palisade. The roofs of the apartments within, which are built close against the walls, serve the purpose of banquette. Within, the fort is divided by a partition: on one side is the square area, surrounded by the storerooms, offices, and apartments of the inmates; on the other is the corral, a narrow place encompassed by the high clay walls, where at night or in the presence of dangerous Indians the horses and mules of the fort are crowded for safekeeping. The main entrance has two gates with an arched passage intervening. A little square window, high above the ground, opens laterally from an adjoining chamber into this passage; so that, when the inner gate is closed and barred, a person without may still hold communication with those within through this narrow aperture. This obviates the necessity of admitting suspicious Indians for purposes of trading into the body of the fort, for when danger is apprehended the inner gate is shut fast, and all traffic is carried on by means of the window. This precaution, though necessary at some of the company's posts, is seldom resorted to at Fort Laramie, where, though men are frequently killed in the neighborhood, no apprehensions are felt of any general designs of hostility from the Indians.
p6 While here, Parkman also witnessed the arrival of the Donner party, who paused at the fort to celebrate the Fourth of July. Many of this party later met a tragic fate in the snow-locked passes of the Sierras.
While many of the early visitors to Fort Laramie were missionaries, mass emigration motivated by religion was not in evidence until 1847. That spring the pioneer band of Mormons, led by Brigham Young, passed up the north bank of the Platte to its confluence with the Laramie, and crossed near the ruins of Fort Platte. They paused there for a few days to repair wagons and record for future emigrants the facilities available at Fort Laramie, of which James Bordeaux was then in charge. This party of 143 men, 3 women, and 2 children seeking a new Zion in this Salt Lake Valley were but pathbreakers for more than 4,000 Mormons who almost monopolized the trail in 1848.
Like emigrants of all sects, the Mormons enjoyed a respite from travel on arrival at the great way station of Fort Laramie. A variety of activities engaged the emigrants during their brief stopover. Men engaged in blacksmithing and general repair, traded at the fort, or went fishing. The women busied themselves with washing and baking or gathered chokecherries or currants.
The Mormons at this time conceived a plan which was used for several years at Fort Laramie. Wagon supply trains from Utah, drawn by teams acclimated to mountain travel, met emigrating "Saints" from the East, and teams were exchanged. Thus, they avoided the serious losses of stock often resulting when tired low‑country teams encountered the high altitudes of South Pass and the rough mountain trails into Utah.
Meanwhile, despite a moderately brisk business with the emigrants, trading at Fort Laramie continued to suffer from the general decline of the fur market and the competition of independent dealers in "Taos Lightning." Conditions were now ripe for the early retirement of the American Fur Co.
a For exhaustive details on the career of Pieter-Jan De Smet, see my note to Camillus Maes' Life of Charles Nerinckx.
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Page updated: 16 Oct 13