Fort Laramie in eastern Wyoming was, in its day, the cross roads of America. For most of the 1800s it served the vast number of emigrants heading west as part of the great western migration. Four historic trails passed through it, the Oregon, California, Mormon, and the Pony Express. As the fort grew, it gained importance as the main military outpost in the Northern Plains, responsible for negotiating treaties with the Northern Plains Indians. It was also the communication and transportation hub for the northern Rocky Mountain region.
It got its humble start in 1834 when two fur traders created a fortification at the confluence of the North Platte River and Laramie River. It measured 100 x 80 feet and was named Fort William. It controlled the beaver and buffalo fur trade until 1841 when another fort was built about a mile away. They promptly enlarged and improved the fort and renamed it Fort John. After enlarging the fort, emphasis changed from the Plains Indians trading buffalo robes for manufactured goods to one that supported the burgeoning western emigration. It started as a trickle of a few hundred emigrants yearly in the early 1840s, to a flood of 50,000 people by the early 1850s.
Why were they moving west in such numbers? First, the land west of the Mississippi had just been purchased from France in 1803 and the first explorers were sending back reports of paradise found. Second, there was an economic panic in 1837 which made people a bit restless for something better. Third, Oregon and California started giving free land to settlers willing to work and farm the land. Finally, The California Trail that started out serving mostly settlers became a trail serving miners headed west in pursuit of riches during the Gold Rush of 1849. The U.S. government quickly realized it would need to start supporting and protecting these emigrants and bought Fort John from the owners.
Both the Oregon and California trails started in Kansas City, Missouri and followed the same path through Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming. Fort Laramie was about 1/3 of the way and weary travelers would rest, repair, and resupply there. This was also a place to start offloading all the things they could do without. Looking at the mountains and knowing how hard it was just to get to Ft. Laramie, they decided to leave all kinds of items behind like china, furniture, trunks, books, and even food to lighten their loads.
For most of this period, the tribes that made up the area of the Northern Plains, the Cheyenne, Lakota, and Arapahoe, were very friendly and helpful. They traded, guided and were peaceful in their encounters with the fur traders, soldiers, settlers and emigrants. As the numbers of emigrants increased dramatically, the Indians became upset. The emigrants were, after all, killing off game, overgrazing the area, and spreading disease. Soon war broke out with the Indians. In 1851, Ft. Laramie negotiated a treaty to allow settlers to continue swarming westward in exchange for $50,000 in goods a year. It worked for awhile, but in 1854, Lt. John Grattan and 29 of his men went to a Lakota village to arrest an Indian who killed an emigrant’s cow. It snowballed into a massacre – all 30 of the U.S troops were killed. That marked the turning point in violence.
In addition, gold was discovered in the Badlands, South Dakota. A new route, called The Bozeman Trail, was promptly created for traveling to this new discovery. It was illegal. Ft. Laramie tried to keep the miners from traveling the route, but the strike proved to be very profitable causing people to continue streaming in. By 1867 a new Indian war broke out. In 1868 the U.S. government renegotiated a treaty creating the Great Sioux Reservation in South Dakota and ending that Indian war. Even that treaty was broken by 1874 due to the gold.
In 1869, the Gold Spike was driven into the first transcontinental railroad, which made it easier to head west. As a result, the wagon trails slowly declined in use and the Indian Wars died out. The fort continued on, but by 1890, it was decommissioned. The buildings were sold and mostly demolished for building materials. Public agencies later started preserving the remaining buildings and today you can visit several restored places such as the barracks, officer quarters, guardhouses, administration, etc.
When we went to visit Fort Laramie, we enjoyed learning about the life of a frontier soldier and the ammunition of the west. The barracks were restored to their original appearance. We saw a mess kit that looked exactly like one from the present day (some designs are eternal, I guess). We also attended a ranger talk about the 12 lb mountain howitzer that was in use at the fort. It had a range of 1,005 yards, but was not very useful in range wars as Indians were a bit smarter than the Europeans and didn’t just stand still while you shot at them.
It was fascinating learning and putting together pieces of history I had learned in the past. I never realized that all the western migration trails were so closely linked. And that so many trails had the same beginning path. I guess you could say, in the 1800s, that all roads lead to Fort Laramie.