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Fort Laramie was ‘gateway to the mountains’

Written by Christy Hemken
Fort Laramie – Located off Highway 26, the Fort Laramie National Historic Site has been called “the West’s finest reminder of frontier life in the 1800s.”
    Today the site, three miles from the town of Fort Laramie, features refurbished buildings, a museum and several interpretive areas, as well as what’s known as “the most complete Western history bookstore west of the Mississippi.”
    Fort Laramie was “the most important outpost on the Oregon Trail,” according to historical information. The first fort site, originally built by trappers in 1834, was available to travelers and the people who lived in the area for 56 years. It was located at the junction of the Laramie and North Platte rivers.
    American and French-Canadian beaver hunters were the first men of European origin to explore the headwaters of the North Platte in 1812. The first documented visit was by seven men from the American Fur Company.
    Several geographical names attest to the early infiltration of French-Canadians, among them one “Goche,” who has become immortalized as the namesake of present Goshen County. Another was a shadowy figure commonly identified as Jacques Laramee or Laramie.
    According to an 1831 report by Indian Agent John Dougherty at Fort Leavenworth this was “J. Loremy, a free man,” killed in 1821 by Arapahoe Indians “on the Platte,” presumably near the river and later the fort, which now bear his name, among a number of other Wyoming locations.
    A continual benefit of Fort Laramie’s location was its equidistance between the Missouri River steamboat landings and the Upper Green River west of the Wind River Range.
    In 1834 William Sublette and Robert Campbell, who were in the fur trade, built the first fort on the Laramie. In 1835 they sold the fort, then known as Fort William, to Jim Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick and Milton Sublette. Within a year the mountain men relinquished their interest to the American Fur Company.
    Visitors of record include famous mountain men like Kit Carson, Joe Meek and Osborne Russell, the explorer-missionary Father De Smet and Augustus Johann Sutter, a Swiss whose ranch on the Sacramento River would become the scene of James Marshall’s discovery of California gold in 1848.
    In 1841 a rival fort was built within rifle-shot of Fort William, this one known as Fort Johns, and because of the dilapidation of Fort William, the American Fur Company moved to their own nearby location, built of adobe brick. For a few years both forts continued to thrive on the buffalo robe trade, sending wagon caravans or flotillas down the Platte to St. Louis each spring.
    In 1841 the first West Coast-bound settlers also arrived at Fort Laramie. In 1842 emigrants bound for Oregon followed them. In 1843 the first great migration to Oregon passed through – about 1,000 people led by Marchus Whitman and Peter Burnett, who became the first American governor of California. In 1844 another 1,000 passed through to Oregon, and in 1845 it picked up to 5,000 pioneers. For 20 years following Fort Laramie hosted emigrants moving westward.
    It was in March 1849 that the site became a U.S. military post. Companies A and E, mounted riflemen and Company G, Sixth Infantry, were designated as the first garrison of the new post. On June 26 Fort Laramie was purchased from Bruce Husband, agent of the American Fur Company, for $4,000.
    Stone was quarried and a horse-powered sawmill placed in operation. By winter a two-story block of officers’ quarters, a block of soldier quarters, a bakery, and two stables had been completed, and Fort Laramie’s 40 years as a frontier command post of the U.S. Army began.
    In the years to come 30,000 “Forty-Niners” passed through the fort. While Fort Kearny was viewed as the gateway to the Great Plains, Fort Laramie was known as the gateway to the mountains. Aware of the long dangerous journey across mountains and deserts ahead, leaving the fort seemed to one emigrant “like parting anew from all that was hallowed on earth.”
    Fort Laramie’s decline began in the 1880s, when the frontier character shifted to a permanent settlement and range cattle and cowboys replaced pioneers and Indians. In 1886 the railroad by-passed Fort Laramie and was routed through Fort Robinson in Nebraska.
    On Aug. 31, 1889 General J.M. Schofield announced, “the garrisons of Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory; Fort Hays, Kansas; and Fort Lyon, Colorado will be withdrawn, and the several military posts will be abandoned.”
    Twenty-two buildings still stand on the site, including the oldest building in Wyoming – “Old Bedlam.” A former bachelors’ quarters, it’s alleged its name comes from the wild times it saw while in use. One of two principal buildings of two stories each, the other being the old Barracks, were so damaged and so rickety by 1866 that in a high wind the occupants sometimes escaped them to sleep on the open parade ground.
    Two miles from Fort Laramie stands the old Iron Army Bridge, built in 1875 and one of the first iron bridges constructed west of the Missouri River.
    In 1936 National Park Service representatives first visited the abandoned fort site and expressed to then-Wyoming Governor Leslie Miller interest in preserving it. This led to a successful effort by the Governor to persuade the Wyoming legislature to buy, and landowners to sell, 214 acres in 1937, after which the state tendered a deed to the United States.
    By Presidential Proclamation July 16, 1938 the site became Fort Laramie National Monument. In 1960, when the area was enlarged by Congress to 571 acres, it was re-designated a National Historic Site.
    In the summer of 1999, both the Ft. Laramie National Historic Site and the California Gold Rush Trail celebrated sesquicentennials – 150 years of existence.
    For more history on Fort Laramie, visit http://geneaologytrails.com. Article compiled from geneaologytrails.com and other sources by Christy Hemken, managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup.