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Crossroads of the West

Fort Laramie, Wyoming

 

by

Gary B. Speck

 

 

The North Platte River leaves Wyoming eight miles southeast of Torrington.  Some 200 miles to the southeast at North Platte, Nebraska, the North and South Platte Rivers combine and slowly flow across Nebraska, joining forces with the Missouri River just south of Omaha.  This great river rolls across America’s mid-section, and its banks were used as a “highway” for most of the mid to late-19th Century.  Countless thousands of people headed west, walking, rolling handcarts, or riding in long wagon trains from the beginning of the Oregon/California/Mormon/Pony Express Trails in Missouri.  These hardy pioneers began their journey in the early 1840s when the rich farmlands of Oregon created America’s first mass migration west.  The Oregon trek was followed in rapid succession by the California Gold Rush, and the Mormon migration to Utah.  In fact, by the early 1850s, there were as many as 50,000 people a year using the trails along the Platte.

 

Squatting on a nearly treeless plain, tucked into an ox-bow bend on the north side of the Laramie River a mile southwest of the Laramie’s confluence with the Platte, Fort Laramie grew into a crucial military outpost deep in the Wyoming wilderness.  It was a major crossroads for a nation moving west as well as a welcome travel respite from the rigors of the road.  Here countless thousands of emigrants would stop and rest, and re-provision for their continued journey across the high plains of Wyoming.  Later, it also was a major stopping point along the trails heading north to the Black Hills of South Dakota and south towards the Colorado mines.

           

However, Fort Laramie wasn’t always an important military post along the trails.  It began in 1834 as a cottonwood log-walled fur trading post known as Fort William, named after fur-trader William Sublette.  He established his outpost at the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte Rivers to trade fur with the Sioux and Cheyenne nations. A year later he sold it to Jim Bridger and several others who in 1836, sold again to the American Fur Trading Company.  The post rapidly grew and became a well-known trading post and the first major American outpost of “civilization” in the western plains.

 

In 1841, a competing fort, Fort Platte, was built on the Platte River, about a mile away.  Old Fort William was abandoned, and relocated a mile to the southwest, at the tip of an oxbow bend in the Laramie River.  The new adobe-walled trading post was renamed Fort John, after John B. Sarpy (Sarpy Co., NE also named for him), one of the partners in the American Fur Trading Company.  It was also called Fort John-on-the-Laramie, which became shortened to Fort Laramie.  

 

As the emigrant traffic increased, the post’s importance grew.  It soon eclipsed Fort Platte, which was abandoned in 1845.  With an increase in traffic along the river roads, Indian problems began to develop.  Finally in 1849, the US Government purchased the holdings and built it up into an important military post whose main mission was to protect the travelers on the Platte River roads.  In addition to being a military garrison, the fort also served as a stage station, Pony Express stop and continued to serve as a traveler’s stopping place.  Fort Laramie was a major staging point for many military forays and expeditions sent out to explore the West.  Because of its open and easily defensible position, it was never enclosed by a wall or barricade of any kind.

 

After the military occupation began, a building program ensued, many of which buildings remain today. A post office opened on March 14, 1850, and is still in operation.  It is the longest operating post office in the state.  For 41 years the post saw a lot of activity, but no major battles were fought at the site.  Two major treaties between the Indians and the US Government were signed here in 1851 and 1868.

The units that served here included:

  • Mounted Rifles (1849-1851)
  • 2nd Infantry (1855, 1859)
  • 4th Infantry (1867-1870, 1874-1882)
  • 6th Infantry (1849-1857)
  • 7th Infantry (1856-1858, 1882-1890)
  • 9th Infantry (1874-1877)
  • 10th Infantry (1855-1856, 1860-1862)
  • 14th Infantry (1871-1874, 1876-1877)
  • 18th Infantry (1866-1867)
  • 23rd infantry (1876)
  • 2nd Dragoons (1855-1860)
  • 4th Artillery (1855-1856, 1858-1859)
  • 2nd Cavalry (1866-1869, 1872-1877)
  • 3rd Cavalry (1875-1880)
  • 4th Cavalry (1862-1863)
  • 5th Cavalry (1869-1871, 1880-1883)
  • 1st Kansas Volunteer Cavalry (1865)
  • 8th Kansas Volunteers (1862)
  • 9th Kansas Volunteers (1862)
  • 16th Kansas Vol. Cavalry (1865)
  • 6th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry (1862-1863)
  • 11th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry (1863-1865)
  • 7th Iowa Volunteer Cavalry (1863-1866)
  • 1st Nebraska Volunteer Cavalry (1865)
  • 3rd & 6th US Volunteers (1865-1866)
  • 6th West Virginia Cavalry (1865)
  • 12th Missouri Cavalry (1865)
  • 6th & 12th Michigan Volunteer Cavalry (1866)

 

During the 1870s, about three miles west of the fort a small collection of buildings popularly known as the Fort Laramie Hog Ranch catered to the baser instincts of humanity.  Here diversions such as girls, gambling and grog could be enjoyed.  The businesses catered to both the military and any civilians in the area.  The old “Hog Ranch” is located on private property and is off limits, but it is said that there are ruins are still visible. On April 20, 1890, the fort was decommissioned, and all the land and buildings were sold at auction.  Many buildings were stripped of their usable materials and the empty shells were left to die in the High Plains weather.  Some were occupied, while others torn down for their building materials.  About a dozen structures were preserved by their owners, forming a nucleus for future renovation.  Then in 1938 the federal government re-purchased the property, and on July 18, 1938, Fort Laramie National Monument was born.  Restoration or reconstruction to original standards began, and the old post began to look like it did in 1888.  On April 29, 1960 Fort Laramie National Monument was renamed Fort Laramie National Historic Site.

 

Fort Laramie National Historic Site is located on north side of the Laramie River, a mile southwest of its confluence with the North Platte River, three miles southwest of the present town of Fort Laramie and 20 miles west of Torrington.

 

The present site includes 11 restored buildings as well as ruins of many others.  Most of the sites of missing buildings including the foundation outlines of Fort John are also well marked.  A museum shares the life of the military, civilians and Indians in the area. 

 

Some of the buildings include:

 

A large, two-story wooden structure with wide porches once housed the Bachelor Officers Quarters.  Originally built in 1849, this building is more popularly known as “Old Bedlam.”  According to the National Park brochure, “...it is the oldest standing building documented in the State of Wyoming.”  Various sections of the building have been restored to different time periods.  The brochure also says that the origin of the nickname is unknown.  Personally I have my own theory, gleaned from two years of US Army duty stationed in Germany.  Our barracks were in bedlam in the evenings and weekends.

 

I don’t think things have changed. 

 

The enlisted men’s barracks was the largest building, being over 300 feet long with thick lime-concrete walls.  The second floor contained a large dance hall.  Today it is a roofless ruin on the east side of the compound.

           

The adobe-walled, Sutler’s Store, according to the 1941 WPA Guide to Wyoming, “is probably the oldest building now standing in Wyoming.”  It not only served as a store, but also as a bank and community center.  WPA dates it to the 1830s, but most other sources date it “only” to 1849. Fort Laramie is a wonderful place to spend a relaxing day exploring and reliving what life must have been like 150 years ago.  I fell in love with this old fort the minute we drove into the site.  Yes it is a popular destination, and we even shared the site with a tour bus full of senior citizens.  After all, this was a popular stopping place on the Oregon Trail for westward-bound emigrants over 150 years ago, so why should we history-loving followers of Ghost Town USA not join ‘em? 

           

Fort Laramie is the type of site that gives us all a hands-on feel for the past. Here history truly still lives, and for a couple of bucks you can relive it. 

           

This was our GHOST TOWN OF THE MONTH for November 2002.

 

This is one of the towns featured in my newest book, GHOST TOWNS: Yesterday & TodayTM.

 

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FIRST POSTED:  November 03, 2002

LAST UPDATED: March 20, 2005

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