While we were in Wyoming visiting Guernsey, we also made a stop at Fort Laramie. If you want to see original ruins of a fort, this is the place for you. They have restored some buildings, but also have originals for you to view. RVs would easily fit in their parking lot.
How was the West won? Well, taking a look at Fort Laramie’s history shows us how the passage of time brought new travelers to the frontier until it ceased to exist.
Fort Laramie had its beginnings as Fort William in 1834. It was built to dominate the Central Rocky Mountain fur trade, which was a fierce competition once large fur trading corporations were involved. It was a bustling trading post for mountain men, Indians, etc.
Fort John replaced Fort William in 1841 and served as a respite for the overland travelers. By this time the trapping industry was in major decline, and the path to the West was being used by families.
In 1849, Fort John the trading post was purchased by Lieutenant Woodbury. By the 1850s, the tens of thousands of travelers per year were making a much bigger impact on the trail routes. The game along the trails was killed and driven off, the emigrants’ livestock destroyed the grass for several miles wide, and the encroachment was taking its toll on the Indians’ livelihood. In 1851, the Fort Laramie Treaty was signed in which the Northern Plains tribes pledged peace; however, this peace would only last a few years. The Northern Plains Indian wars would rage for the next 25 years forcing the fort to leave behind its tradition as a trade and rest stop and become a military base.
During the 1860s, big changes were afoot in the states. In 1861, the Transcontinental Telegraph replaced the Pony Express. During the Civil War, troops were withdrawn form most of the western forts and were replaced with volunteers. Indian attacks increased with the rate of infringements on their territorial rights. In 1868 more treaties were signed promising reservations without trespassers, but these too would be broken. Many of the tribes were moved to reservations in Dakota where food and supplies were promised. The decimation of the buffalo herd made Plains Indian life no longer supportable.
In 1874, gold was found in the Black Hills. Despite the government’s attempt to uphold the Indian property rights, greed pushed whites in to their territories. In 1876, the army launched the Bighorn-Yellowstone Expedition to force Indians back to their agencies, which culminated in their defeat at the Little Bighorn. This was a turning point in the Northern Plains Indian Wars, as the army retaliated by relentlessly pursuing the Indians. By the end of this decade, settlers were making former Indian land their homes, and ranchers were acquiring large tracts of land to replace the buffalo with cattle.
These were the golden years at the fort. By this time, the military purpose was waning. Soldiers were still drilling, but officers were enjoying the “Victorian Era” thanks to the railroad passing nearby. Picknicking, socializing, hunting and fishing were the activities to pass the day for officers and their families. The fort saw major building projects completed, streetlights were installed and even birdbaths lined the Officers’ quarters.
Fort Laramie was abandoned. Wyoming was proclaimed a state. The Battle at Wounded Knee Creek definitively ended the Northern Plain Indian conflicts. The Superintendent of the Census declared the American frontier had ceased to exist.
A slideshow of the fort’s highlights (with a little western ditty)…