Fort Laramie: Crossroads of a Nation Moving West
Located at confluence of the Laramie and North Platte Rivers in southeast Wyoming, this famed outpost – first as a fur trade post and then as a military garrison played a strategic role in transforming the United States. Here, for 56 years successive waves of trappers, traders, Native Americans, missionaries, emigrants, soldiers, miners, ranchers and homesteaders interacted and left their mark on a place that would become famous in the history of the American west – Fort Laramie.
In 1834 Robert Campbell and William Sublette established the first “Fort Laramie” here. Officially named Fort William, the post was rectangular, and small, measuring only 100 by 80 feet. Hewn cottonwood logs 15 feet high formed the fort’s palisade. With the beaver trade already in decline, Campbell and Sublette recognized that the future of the fur trade lay in trading with the Native population for buffalo robes. Fort William enjoyed a near monopoly on the buffalo trade in this region until a competing trading post, Fort Platte, was built a mile away in 1841. This rivalry spurred Fort William’s owners to replace their own aging fort with a larger, adobe walled structure named Fort John.
Indian tribes, especially the Lakota (Sioux), traded tanned buffalo robes here for a variety of manufactured goods. Each spring caravans arrived with trade goods at the fort. In the fall, tons of buffalo hides and other furs were shipped east. Throughout the 1840’s, however, the take of buffalo robes continually declined and Fort John’s role changed. In 1841, the first of many westward-bound emigrants arrived at Fort John.
Tens of thousands of emigrants bound for Oregon, California, and the Salt Lake Valley would eventually stop at the fort. The traders at Fort John did a brisk seasonal business catering to the needs of emigrants.
In 1849, the U.S. Army offered to purchase Fort John as part of a plan to establish a military presence along the emigrant trails. The owners of the Fort agreed to the sale, and on June 26, the post was officially renamed Fort Laramie, and it began its tenure as a military post. The Army quickly constructed new buildings for stables, officers’ and soldiers’ quarters, a bakery, a guardhouse, and a powder magazine to house and support the fort garrison.
As the years went by, the post continued to grow in size and importance. Fort Laramie soon became the principal military outpost on the Northern Plains. Fort Laramie also became the primary hub for transportation and communication through the central Rocky Mountain region as emigrant trails, stage lines, the Pony Express, and the transcontinental telegraph all passed through the post.
Fort Laramie played an important role hosting several treaty negotiations with the Northern Plains Indian Nations, the most famous of which were the Horse Creek Treaty of 1851 and the still controversial and contested Treaty of 1868.
Sadly, relations that began amicably between Native Americans and the Army began to change as the number of emigrants using the overland trails swelled. As conflicts grew, major military campaigns were launched from the fort against the Northern Plains tribes, who fiercely defended their homeland against further encroachment by a nation moving west.
As the Indian Wars came to a close Fort Laramie’s importance diminished. The post was abandoned and sold at public auction in 1890. Over the next 48 years, it nearly succumbed to the ravages of time. Preservation of the site was secured, however, in 1938 when Fort Laramie became part of the National Park System.