Fort Laramie: Outpost of Civilization to Weary Travelers

By mid-June, the emigrants traveling the Oregon Trail in the 1840s had trekked 650 miles from Independence, Missouri, to Fort Laramie, in what is now Wyoming. Although they had traveled for two months or more, they had only completed one-third of the journey from Independence to Oregon. Most of the wagon companies were weary and travel-worn, their provisions depleted. Many were living only off what they could glean from the land they passed through.

By this point in their travels, they had passed the landmarks of Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scott’s Bluff. (For pictures of these natural wonders from Adventure Dates, click here, or go directly to the Adventure Dates blog.)

Despite the great vistas and imposing natural beauty of the land, the emigrants saw little evidence of the white man’s habitation. Most of the Army forts along the trail were not built until the 1850s, when dealings between the pioneers and Native Americans deteriorated.  Even Fort Kearny, which originally sat on the Missouri River near what is now Nebraska City, NE, was not moved upstream on the Platte to its final location to better serve the pioneers until 1848.

Thus, in 1847, when the events in my novel occur, Fort Laramie was the first outpost of civilization most of the wagon companies had seen since leaving Missouri. As the National Park Service website for Fort Laramie says, “This ‘grand old post’ witnessed the entire sweeping saga of America’s western expansion and Indian resistance to encroachment on their territories.”

At this time, Fort Laramie was an American Fur Company outpost. It was not acquired by the Army until 1849. A competing post, Fort Platte, sat a few hundred yards away.

Fort Laramie was located on the Platte River. Willows lined the river’s cold, rapid waters that gushed from snowmelt in the Laramie Range. The adobe buildings had walls that were six feet thick and fifteen feet tall.  In 1842, John C. Fremont described the fort as follows:

A few hundred yards [from Fort Platte] brought us in view of the post of the American Fur Company, called Fort John, or Laramie … its lofty walls, whitewashed and picketed, with the large bastions at the angles, gave it quite an imposing appearance … the fort, which is a quadrangular structure, built of clay, after the fashion of the Mexicans … walls are about fifteen feet high, surmonted with a wooden palisade…. Over the great entrance is a square tower, with loopholes…. At two of the angles, and diagonally opposite each other, are large square bastions, so arranged as to sweep four faces of the walls….” John C Fremont, July 15, 1842

Fort Laramie was primarily a trading post, and travelers stopped there for days to repair wagons, wash clothes, re-provision, and mail letters. Most camped in their wagons outside the fort, so their comfort wasn’t much better at the fort than on days along the trail. As one emigrant described their stay,

 Our camp is stationary today; part of the emigrants are shoeing their horses and oxen; others are trading at the fort and with the Indians. Flour, sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco, powder and lead, sell readily at high prices. In the afternoon we gave the Indians a feast, and held a long talk with them. Each family … contributed a portion of bread, meat, coffee or sugar, which being cooked, a table was set by spreading buffalo skins upon the ground, and arranging the provisions upon them…. Having filled themselves, the Indians retired, taking with them all that they were unable to eat.” Joel Palmer, June 25, 1845

And here is another traveler, who, like travelers today, was upset about high prices on the road:

I purchased a dressed deer skin for 2.50 cents and returned to camp satisfied that money was allmost useless while all kinds of grocerys & Liquors were exorbitantly high for instance sugar 1.50 cents per pint or cupful and other things in proportion Flour Superfine 1.00 dollars per pint or 40 dollars per Barrel … no dried Buffaloe meat could be had at any price so our stores of provisions did not increase.” James Clyman, 1844

Many other emigrants wrote of their stays at Fort Laramie, including descriptions of trading and feasts with the Indians who also camped near the fort.

But soon the wagon companies moved on, traveling higher into the Rockies, and on toward their final destination.

In the weeks ahead, I will periodically describe more of the hardships and wonders they encountered on a journey that remains remarkable to us 165 years later.

For more information on the history of Fort Laramie, see Fort Laramie Park History, by Merrill J. Mattes, which can be downloaded from the National Park Service site.

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