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Fort Laramie, 1845

From 1834 until 1890, Ft. Laramie was at the epicenter of Wyoming history. Adjacent to it were two of the great trails west, the Emigrant's Road, also known as the Oregon Trail, and the Mormon Trail. To the south ran the Texas Trail on which cattle were trailed to Wyoming and Montana. The fort was a stop on the Deadwood Stage Road. From the fort the great expeditions led by both the competent and the incompetent, both military and scientific, commenced. Within its precincts were negotiated the great treaties, honored and dishonored, with the native Americans.

Ft. Laramie has in its history four incarnations: (a) a cottonwood stockade constructed at Laramie's Point, but named by Wm. Sublette "Fort William", 1837 painting by Alfred Jacob Miller below left, interior view by Miller below right; (b) an adobe fort depicted in the engraving above and at the bottom of the page; (c) a military post; and (d) finally its present configuration consisting of a mix of restoration to the fort's 1880's appearance and ruins. The fort served as a terminus of the "Trappers' Trail running from Taos northward. The Trappers Trail fell into disusage when fashions changed and silk replaced beaver in hats. In 1841,the stockade was replaced by an adobe structure depicted in the engraving above and as described by Francis Parkman below. While generally referred to by fort employees as "Fort Laramie," it was named Fort John, after John Sarpy, a partner in the American Fur Company and maintained its importance on the Oregon Trail and Mormon Trail. It was also a terminus for the 300 mile-long Fort Pierre-Fort Laramie Trail. Government freighters continued to use the trail to Fort Pierre until the 1880's.

Left and right, 1837 views of Fort William by Alfred Jacob Miller

Compare with 1850 view at bottom of page. Miller, a professional artist trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, but originally from Baltimore, accompanied the Scottish adventurer Captain Sir William Drummond Stewart on his trip to the 1837 Rendevous discussed with regard to Ft. Bridger. On the trip Miller not only provided the first accurate description of a rendevous, but made a number of pencil sketches, including one of Bridger, featured on the next page, depicting Bridger, drunk, riding around the rendevous grounds in a replica suit of armor given to Bridger by Sir William. Upon his return to the East, Miller used some of the sketches to make a number of oil paintings of Nebraska and Wyoming. Additionally, Miller gave a description of the fort as being:

of a quadrangular form, with block houses at diagonal corners to sweep the fronts in case of attack. Over the front entrance is a large blockhouse in which is placed a cannon. The interior of the fort is about 150 feet square, surrounded by small cabins whose roofs reach within 3 feet of the top of the palisades against which they abut. The Indians encamp in great numbers here 3 or 4 times a year, bringing peltries to be exchanged for dry goods, tobacco, beads and alcohol. The Indians have a mortal horror of the "big gun" which rests in the blockhouse, as they have had experience of its prowess and witnessed the havoc produced by its loud "talk". They conceive it to be only asleep and have a wholesome dread of its being waked up.

Fort Laramie's "Old Bedlam," prior to restoration.

Old Bedlam was constructed in 1849 as the bachelor officers quarters ("B.O.Q."). It was also used for several years as the post headquarters and as a residence for the post commander. Some have theorized that the name, "Old Bedlam" arose from the activities of the young officers when the building was used as the B.O.Q., somewhat in the same manner as some college fraternities have developed an "Animal House" reputation. Supposedly, some of the timbers from the original stockade fort were used in its construction. The remainder of the original fort was recycled as firewood. Old Bedlam is reputedly the oldest standing building in the state. The building has now been restored, as a part of the national monument, to its 1854-1855 appearance as depicted in the next photograph. The restoration was prompted partially due to the efforts of John Hunton, the last post trader. Stabilization and restoration began in 1938 and was completed in 1964.

Restored "Old Bedlam," 2001, photo by Geoff Dobson

In 1849, the Fort was sold by the American Fur Company to the military, officially renamed Fort Laramie, and was rebuilt to the configuaration now seen as a part of the national monument. The Fort was decommissioned in 1890 and made a national monument in 1938. Photo of ruins of post hospital below.

Ruins of Post Hospital, Fort Laramie

The adobe fort was described by Francis Parkman, "The Oregon Trail," serialized in Knickerbocker's Magazine in 21 installments, 1847-48, later published with revisions as "The California and Oregon Trail,":

"The little fort is built of bricks dried in the sun, and externally is of an oblong form, with bastions of clay, in the form of ordinary blockhouses, at two of the corners. The walls are about fifteen feet high, and surmounted by a slender palisade. The roofs of the apartments within, which are built close against the walls, serve the purpose of a banquette. Within, the fort is divided by a partition; on one side is the square area surrounded by the storerooms, offices, and apartments of the inmates; on the other is the corral, a narrow place, encompassed by the high clay walls, where at night, or in presence of dangerous Indians, the horses and mules of the fort are crowded for safe-keeping. The main entrance has two gates, with an arched passage intervening. A little square window, quite high above the ground, opens laterally from an adjoining chamber into this passage; so that when the inner gate is closed and barred, a person without may still hold communication with those within through this narrow aperture. This obviates the necessity of admitting suspicious Indians, for purposes of trading, into the body of the fort; for when danger is apprehended, the inner gate is shut fast, and all traffic is carried on by means of the little window. This precaution, though highly necessary at some of the company's posts, is now seldom resorted to at Fort Laramie; where, though men are frequently killed in its neighborhood, no apprehensions are now entertained of any general designs of hostility from the Indians."

Sutler's store, Fort Laramie, undated

The Sutler on a military post was a civilian who had a license to operate a general store on the post. Although prices were regulated by the government, it remained a highly profitable enterprize. The store at Fort Laramie was constructed in 1849 and received several additions over the years, the most recent being an 1883 addition housing the Officers' Club and the enlisted men's bar. Today in the bar nothing is served stronger than sarsaparilla. But the bartender is still friendly.

Following the Civil War, the title of sutler was changed to "Post Trader." The longest serving sutler was Seth Ward (1820-1903), who held the license from 1857 to 1871 not withstanding that he was a Confederate sympathizer. Indeed, during the Civil War, he vowed that he would not shave until the South had gained its freedom. At the time of his death in 1903 he still had a full white beard. The facility has now been restored to its 1876 appearance.

Fort Laramie, 1850. Engraving from Stanbury Expedition

In 1849-50 Captain Howard Stanbury conducted an expedition to Utah and the Salt Lake. Bridger acted as a guide. The Expedition discovered a "new" route into Utah. Captain Stanbury's report was published in 1853.

Ft. Laramie Photos continued on next page.