Wyoming: Fort Laramie Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This National Historic Site was originally a trading post built by fur traders William Sublette and Robert Campbell. It was purchased by the American Fur Company in 1836, then sold to the U.S. Army on June 6, 1849. The post was ordered to be abandoned in August, 1889.

Site Office

Fort Laramie National Historic Site

HC 72, Box 389

Fort Laramie, WY 82212

ph.: (307) 837-2221

fax: (307) 837-2120

Web site: www.nps.gov/fola/

Until the coming of the railroad, Fort Laramie was the capital of a vast domain extending from the northern Missouri River posts to Denver and Sante Fe. For more than fifty years, first as a trading post and later as a military fort, Laramie served in the advance of an epic westward migration across the plains to Oregon and California. The post’s key location compelled it to play a leading role in the fur trade, the Oregon and Overland Trails, the Pony Express, the transcontinental telegraph line, and the U.S. military campaigns against the Plains Indians.

Early History

Fort Laramie was originally built by fur trader and pioneer William Sublette. In the early 1830’s, Sublette and his partner, Robert Campbell, established a trading post near the mouth of Yellowstone River, a few miles from Fort Union, which was owned by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. The new trading fort posed an immediate threat to Astor’s monopoly over the upper Missouri fur trade and led to an agreement providing for Sublette and Campbell to abandon their post and Astor’s company to retreat from the central Rocky region for one year. In 1834 Sublette and Campbell withdrew from the upper Missouri and built a new trading fort at the river junction of the North Platte and Laramie’s Fork. The strategic and commercial advantages of the post became immediately apparent, as it was located at the intersection of the Great Plains route to the mountain fur areas and the Trappers Trail south to Taos, as well as within trading distance of various Indian tribes.

Originally named Fort William, the post hastened the decline of the fur rendezvous in the central Rockies, an annual trading fair among trappers, Indians, and traders, in favor of the buffalo robe trade based in settlements and fixed outposts. Also, the fort marked the first permanent outpost of white society in Indian country in the central Rocky region. Within a year of the fort’s beginnings, Sublette lured the nomadic Oglala Sioux south from the Dakota trading posts in the Black Hills to the North Platte with inducements of better trading goods, richer grasslands, and numerous buffalo.

In years following, the Oglala Sioux, more than any other tribe, made the trading post its home base. Other tribes also followed, including the Arapaho, the Cheyenne, and the Crow. The new fort signaled the expansion of permanent trading posts that had started on the upper Missouri following the War of 1812. A booming market for buffalo robes in the 1830’s had developed in the American East, and traders offered every enticement to involve the Indians in the expanding robe trade. As a result, the Plains Indians slaughtered buffalo, trading the robes for guns, powder, ammunition, knives, blankets, whiskey, and other goods. Trading at the annual rendezvous and at river posts became a vitally important event each year, often leading the Indians to satisfy both their need for trade goods and the huge market for buffalo robes.

In 1835, Sublette and Campbell sold the fort to the Rocky Mountain Fur Company run by Thomas Fitzpatrick, Jim Bridger, and Milton Sublette (younger brother of William), who in 1836 sold it to their archrival, the American Fur Company. In the late 1830’s, the company considerably expanded Fort William into a major center of trade with the Plains Indians–the Sioux, the Arapaho, the Cheyenne, and the Crow. The post consisted mostly of trading and repair rooms, small living quarters, and, in the middle of the central open area, a large tree that served as a flagpole on special occasions.

In 1841, Lieutenant Lancaster P. Lupton established a new trading post, named Fort Platte, about a mile and a half from Fort William on the North Platte River above the mouth of the Laramie River. The appearance of Lupton’s post and the rotting condition of old Fort William compelled the American Fur Company to construct a new adobe fort on higher ground a mile upstream. The company christened the new post Fort John after John B. Sarpy, a partner in the American Fur Company, but it was soon commonly called Fort Laramie. With competition from Fort Platte also came the explosive liquor trade, wreaking degradation on Indian tribes in spite of its suppression by the Bureau of Indian Affairs starting in 1842.

The Oregon Trail

William Sublette not only had built the original fort but also pioneered the trail that would reinforce Fort Laramie’s importance as a major way station for emigrants headed to Oregon and California. From 1830 to 1838, Sublette helped forge a wagon trail up the Platte and over South Pass to the fur rendezvous. Thomas Fitzpatrick followed this same path on his treks to the West Coast. In 1841, Fitzpatrick led a small band of settlers on the first westward journey across the plains to the Pacific coast, starting a tide that would soon rise to flood proportions and cast Fort Laramie in the forefront of the mass western migration. In 1842, Fitzpatrick guided another group of settlers to the Oregon Territory in the face of Indian hostility. Although the trail over the Continental Divide was already well known among many fur trappers and wilderness guides, publicity generated by Lieutenant John C. Frémont’s expedition to South Pass opened the way for mass migration to the Pacific coast. To protect emigrants along the Oregon Trail, Frémont also advocated the establishment of a military post at Fort Laramie.

With the Democratic presidential victory of 1844, expansionists were determined to claim Oregon and California as U.S. soil. As a result, President James K. Polk recommended that a chain of forts be built on the route between the frontier settlements on the Missouri and the Rocky Mountains, and in 1846 Congress legislated the establishment of such military posts along the Oregon Trail. The outbreak of hostilities with Mexico, however, delayed action. At the war’s conclusion in 1848, the United States had won California and the vast southwestern territory beyond the Rocky Mountains. In addition, Great Britain had ceded Oregon Territory up to the forty-ninth parallel to the United States in 1846. The Far West became U.S. soil awaiting settlement by eastern emigrants. The compelling need to turn Fort Laramie into a military post became even more apparent with the discovery of gold in California in 1848, igniting a frantic gold rush across the Overland Trails and reinforcing Fort Laramie’s role as a major provisioning station and safe haven for emigrants headed west. At the height of the California gold rush, it was reported that more than nine thousand wagons passed by Fort Laramie in a single day.

The Oregon and California (Overland) Trails started out as nothing more than a crude network of rutted traces across the western United States. Starting from Independence, Missouri, the trails ran together across the plains of Kansas and Nebraska into North Platte River country to Fort Laramie. From Fort Laramie emigrants crossed the Continental Divide at South Pass and normally headed for Fort Bridger on the edge of present-day Wyoming. At Soda Springs, Idaho, the California Trail split off heading southwest while the Oregon Trail turned northwest toward the Snake River valley. Travelers could take alternative routes, including Sublette’s Cutoff just west of South Pass, which crossed a fifty-mile stretch of barren country devoid of water and grassland. Those who successfully made the arduous trek saved eighty-five miles and a week of travel to Oregon. Western-bound emigrants usually started in the spring when the land along the trail provided them with abundant water and grass for livestock. If they began the journey early enough in the year, the waterholes and grasslands would not be fouled or overgrazed. Most emigrant deaths resulted from disease, especially cholera. At Fort Laramie and other depots along the way, emigrants could replenish dwindling stocks of food and other staples, repair wagons, and allow livestock to graze before grasslands became scarce farther on.

Erection of Fort Laramie

During the gold rush stampede, the U.S. War Department sent Brevet Major Winslow F. Sanderson heading a company of mounted riflemen to reconnoiter the surrounding country around Fort Laramie to determine the best site for a military outpost. Given Fort Laramie’s strategic location, Sanderson ordered its purchase from the American Fur Company for four thousand dollars. On June 26, 1849, the U.S. Army assumed ownership of the old fort that had served as the main trading station for the central Rockies. By mid-August, a second company of mounted riflemen and a company of infantry along with wagonloads of supplies and equipment joined Sanderson at Fort Laramie. After being fully garrisoned, the fort underwent immediate and continual improvements with the building of the first officers’ quarters, a two-story edifice known as “Old Bedlam,” quartermaster and commissary storehouses, warehouses, stone guardhouses, the magazine, a hospital, a permanent bakery, stables, additional quarters for officers and enlisted men, and a post trader’s store. Following its fur trade phase, the fort never stood as a fortified post even after the Indian troubles of 1854. The Fort Laramie garrison typically ranged in strength from sixty to two hundred soldiers until the Utah War of 1858. Troop strength was again reduced during the U.S. Civil War, despite the Sioux uprisings along the Powder River.

In the spring of 1850, the tide of emigration past Fort Laramie swelled to more than fifty thousand in search of gold, causing widespread destruction of grasslands and loss of buffalo along the trail. The vast devastation prompted bitter complaints among various Indian tribes and led to increasing tensions on the plains. Thomas Fitzpatrick, who had led the first emigrant party over the Continental Divide and was now an Indian agent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, recognized the need to alleviate a potentially explosive situation. He advocated a general treaty with the Plains Indians to compensate them for the mass despoiling of grasslands and the disappearance of the buffalo.

Consequently, Congress appropriated $100,000 to support Fitzpatrick’s treaty plans, and in 1851 a grand council was held in the vicinity of Fort Laramie, thirty-five miles downstream on the North Platte at Horse Creek, where more than ten thousand Sioux, Cheyenne, Assiniboin, Shoshone, Arikara, Gros Ventre, Mandan, Arapaho, and Crow gathered for the mass assembly. The greatest gathering of Indians ever held on the Plains was moved from the original site of Fort Laramie to Horse Creek to provide better foraging grounds for the Indians’ horses.

Colonel David D. Mitchell, superintendent of the western Indian country, proposed the terms of the treaty–that the Indian nations cease warring among themselves and that the nations agree to delineate the boundaries of their territories. Within these boundaries each tribe would be responsible for maintaining peace and order. Furthermore, each tribe was to elect one chief to conduct the transaction of business with the U.S. government. In return, the Indian nations were promised an annual annuity of fifty thousand dollars for fifty years to be given in the form of merchandise and provisions. The U.S. Senate later reduced the time period to ten years but increased the annuity to seventy thousand dollars as compensation. The patronizing terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty signaled the beginning of the end of Plains Indian independence as tribes grew increasingly reliant on trade goods and government benevolence.

Conflict on the North Platte

Tensions mounted on the North Platte. The ever-growing Overland traffic continued to destroy grasslands and reduce the buffalo herds, increasing the impoverishment and desperation of the Indians. The stationing of regular troops who were unsympathetic to Indian ways at Fort Laramie exacerbated tensions still further. A skirmish between Fort Laramie troops and the Miniconjou group of the Sioux in June, 1853, resulting in the death of three Indians, presaged more troublesome times ahead. On August 18, 1854, open hostilities broke out following an incident eight miles east of Fort Laramie near a trading post. More than one thousand hungry Sioux had gathered in the vicinity of the fort to receive their annual annuities when one of them killed a lame cow that strayed into their camp from a Mormon wagon train. After the Mormons reported the incident at Fort Laramie, Lieutenant John L. Grattan led a detachment of twenty-eight volunteer soldiers, field guns, and an interpreter on an expedition to capture the accused Miniconjou. A drunken interpreter and Grattan’s rash orders to fire peremptorily on the Sioux resulted in the wounding of Chief Conquering Bear, a signer of the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty, and sparked the massacre of the entire Fort Laramie detachment, beginning a twenty-five-year period of intermittent warfare.

In 1854, Congress created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and passed the Preemption Law to enable farmers to settle the land at nominal prices. The great land rush that ensued at first had little effect on the Plains Indians, but the new territories stretched all the way to the Rockies, including tribal hunting grounds and Fort Laramie. One year later, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior began constructing roads to the Rockies and beyond, soon traversed by thousands more emigrants going west to Utah, California, and Oregon; stage coach lines; and the Pony Express. In the early 1860’s, Western Union began building the first transcontinental telegraph line. The mass of relentless white advancement mainly followed the Oregon and Overland trails, along which stood the military post of Fort Laramie. As in previous years since 1849, the fort continued to protect transportation and communication lines from Indian hostilities and to serve as an important way station for supply, intelligence, reinforcement, and diplomacy for the military campaigns against the Sioux.

Wars with the Sioux

As a result of the Grattan incident and Chief Conquering Bear’s subsequent death, the Sioux began attacking emigrants on the Oregon-California Trail. On November 13, 1854, a small band of Brule Sioux attacked the monthly mail wagon to Salt Lake, killing three, wounding one, and making off with ten thousand dollars in gold. By that time, Indian hostilities spread from the Platte to the Missouri as other Sioux tribes joined the war. In retaliation for the Grattan massacre and the continuing Indian insurgency, Brevet Brigadier General William C. Harney was ordered to deal with the Sioux emergency. An experienced soldier who had fought Indians from Florida to Wisconsin, Harney led an expedition of some seven hundred cavalry, infantry, and light artillery soldiers to pacify the central plains and secure the military post of Fort Laramie. The punitive expedition culminated in 1855 when Harney massacred one hundred Brule Sioux at Ash Hollow after tracking them down one hundred fifty miles south of Fort Laramie. On March 1, 1856, Harney forced the Sioux to sign a peace treaty at Fort Pierre, essentially restating the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851.

The Civil War Years

The years during the Civil War marked some of the most dangerous in the fort’s history. The exigencies of the southern rebellion compelled the reduction of the Fort Laramie garrison to skeletal strength. Under the command of Colonel William O. Collins, the Eleventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry was spread thin for hundreds of miles at outposts from Mud Springs to South Pass to protect the new telegraph line from Sioux attack. The discovery of gold in 1862 in Montana territory prompted another gold rush along the Oregon Trail, and in 1864 John Bozeman pioneered a new road to Montana, which split off from the Oregon Trail west of Fort Laramie through Powder River country, the heart of Sioux territory. The flood of prospectors and the continuing mass emigration to California and Oregon ignited the Powder River War.

In 1866, as peace negotiations were under way with the Sioux at Fort Laramie, Colonel Henry B. Carrington led an expedition to establish two military posts along the Bozeman Trail. Despite warnings from the Sioux, Carrington proceeded with the expedition, prompting Red Cloud to declare war and lay siege to the Bozeman Trail. Ironically, Fort Laramie not only supplied the U.S. Army with weapons, intelligence, and communications, but also filled a similar role for the warring Sioux. Fort Laramie was never without ostensibly friendly Indian bands who traded and camped near the post, providing needed arms and intelligence to the hostile tribes. In 1868, an uneasy peace ensued with the signing of the second Fort Laramie Treaty. It lasted until the discovery of gold in the Black Hills and the subsequent eruption of the Sioux Black Hills campaign of 1876-1877, in which the fort again played a central military role.

Coming of the Railroad

In the 1860’s and 1870’s, the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad seventy miles to the south and the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad fifty miles to the north effectively bypassed Fort Laramie and signaled the beginning of its decline in importance. The military post continued to field expeditions and patrols but was ordered to be abandoned in 1889. The last troops left the fort in March, 1890, months before the last military action against the Plains Indians, the Massacre at Wounded Knee.

A year later, the buildings at Fort Laramie were sold at public auction and subsequently razed or moved, leaving mostly archaeological remains. Three purchasers, however, bought the fort and preserved a substantial part of the historic post. Through the efforts of John Hunton, the last post trader, most of “officers’ row,” including Old Bedlam, two officers’ quarters, and the trader’s store, was preserved. Others converted the cavalry barracks to a hotel and the nearby commissary warehouse and bakery to barns. The captain’s quarters of 1870 and the 1866 guardhouse were preserved in their original state. Ten principal buildings survived, albeit in a dilapidated condition, until 1938, when the National Park Service received the site from the state of Wyoming and subsequently declared it a National Historic Site.

Modern Preservation Efforts

Since 1950, the site has undergone a continuing program of stabilization and restoration of historic structures. Today, the restored buildings include the trader’s store and complex comprising the officers’ club, enlisted soldiers’ bar, and post office; Old Bedlam, complete with commanding officer’s headquarters and bachelor officers’ quarters; two additional concrete officers’ quarters; and bakery, guardhouse, magazine, commissary, and cavalry barracks. The site also encompasses remains of the hospital, administration building, several officers’ quarters, and other structures. The old 1876 bridge across the North Platte has been preserved, as well as sections of the Oregon-California Trail, deep ruts carved into the land by the passage of thousands of wagon wheels. The contemporary historic site celebrates Fort Laramie as an outpost of empire which played an important role in the fur trade, the Oregon and Overland Trails, and the Plains Indian Wars.

For Further Information
  • DeVoto, Bernard. Across the Wide Missouri. 1947. Reprint. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. Contains a description of Fort Laramie. Deals with the Rocky Mountain fur trade.
  • _______. The Year of Decision, 1846. 1943. Reprint. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989. A narrative story of the pre-Civil War, far western frontier that describes Fort Laramie.
  • Frazer, Robert W. Forts of the West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963. Offers a brief description of the fort.
  • Hart, Herbert M. Old Forts of the Northwest. Seattle: Superior, 1963. Contains a brief description of the fort.
  • Mattes, Merrill J. The Great Platte River Road: The Covered Wagon Mainline Via Fort Kearny to Fort Laramie. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988. A comprehensive study of the pioneer trail on the Great Platte River Road, including two chapters on Fort Laramie dealing with the 1849 California gold rush and the fort’s role as the gateway to the mountains.
  • Nadeau, Remi. Fort Laramie and the Sioux. New rev. ed. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Crest, 1997. A readable account of the effect of Fort Laramie as a trading and military outpost of the American frontier on the high Plains Indians–the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. The book’s major theme concerns Fort Laramie’s role in advancing the settlement of the West and precipitating the decline and fall of the those Indian nations.
Categories: History