Alfred Jacob Miller - Fort Laramie - Walters

History of Fort Laramie

For more than half a century Fort Laramie was the most important historical point in the great Northwest region between the Missouri River and the Pacific Coast. It was the central base of supplies and a military station on the overland trails across the plains and mountains to Oregon, California and Utah, over which the “forty-niners,” Mormons and Oregon emigrants trekked in huge trains and cavalcades. For many years it was the rendezvous of the most powerful Indian tribes of the Northwest. It was the headquarters of the most famous explorers, hunters, trappers, scouts, guides and fur traders known in western history, including such men as Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, Jim Baker, Bordeau, Chatillion. La Ramie, St. Vrain. etc., and later Buffalo Bill, Frank Grouard, Big Bat and others.

Among the noted explorers and authors who at different times made camps or visits at Fort Laramie may be mentioned Captain Bonneville, Gen. John C. Fremont, Theodore Winthrop, Captain King, Francis Parkman, the historian, Henry M. Stanley, the African explorer, Marcus Whitman, Captain Stansbury, Eugene F. Ware and many others. Nearly all of the early United States geological surveys and reconnaissance made Fort Laramie a base of operations or supplies. Many important military expeditions were organized there and some of the most noted Indian treaties were there concluded.
As a midway station on the old Government trail, it afforded protection and a resting place to thousands of emigrants crossing the plains bound westward, who recuperated their stock on the grasses of the valleys of the North Platte and Laramie rivers and here they purchased needed supplies before entering on their long and tedious journey through the mountains. When the Indians were on the war path they were here given military escort. During its early days as a military post many of the most famous generals of the Civil war were stationed here, such as Merritt, Gibbon, Crook, Dodge, Sumner and others.

The Old Trading Post

Old Fort Laramie, 1899
The building on the left is “Old Bedlam” made famous by Captain King’s story of that name.

The old fort or trading post was built in 1834 by Smith, Jackson & Sublette and afterward sold to Robert Campbell, who named it Fort William after his partner, William L. Sublette. Mr. Campbell soon after named it Laramie, in honor of a brave French trapper who was killed on the river which also bears his name. The names, Adams, John and Platte have also been attributed to Fort Laramie, but they were simply other trading posts in that vicinity and were independent establishments. Investigation shows that they were not located at the point where Fort Laramie stood and were not transferred with the old trading post when it was sold to the government Robert Campbell sold the trading post which he had named Fort Laramie, to the American Fur Company in 1836.

To establish the separate identity of Forts Adams, John and Platte it is sufficient to say Fort Adams is described by Fremont as being two miles from Fort Laramie; that Fort John was built several miles away in 1839, and abandoned in 1846: and Fort Platte, three miles distant on the Platte, was not built till 1840.

Described By Fremont

The fort as built by the American Fur Company is described by Fremont on his first expedition in May, 1842. He says: “This was a large post having more the air of military construction than Fort Adams, at the mouth of the river, being some twenty-five feet above the water, and its lofty walls whitewashed and picketed, with large bastions at the angles, gave it quite an imposing appearance in the uncertain light of evening. A cluster of lodges belonging to Sioux Indians was pitched under the walls outside and with the fine background of the Black Hills and the prominent peak of the Laramie Mountains, strongly drawn in the clear western sky, where the sun had already set, the whole formed at the moment a strikingly beautiful picture.

“I walked up to visit our friends at the fort, which is a quadrangular structure built of clay adobe, after the fashion of the Mexicans, who are generally employed in building them. The walls are fifteen feet high, surmounted by a wooden palisade and form the outside portions of the rows of houses which entirely surround a yard of about one hundred and thirty feet square. Every apartment has its door and window opening inside. There are two entrances, the main entrance having two gates with an arched passage intervening. A little square window high above the ground opened from an adjoining chamber, so that when the inner gate is closed and barred anyone inside may communicate with outside parties. This obviated the necessity of admitting suspicious persons.”

Parkman’s description

Francis Parkman, the historian, visited Fort Laramie in the spring of 1846, with Henry Chatillion as a guide. He started from St. Louis, went on the south side of the Platte and forded the Laramie River directly at the fort. Parkman stayed at the fort for a while and then went out and lived among the Indians to study their habits and customs. The Indian village where he lived was at the point on the Laramie River now called Uva, some twenty-five miles from the fort, with which he always kept in touch. When he reached Fort Laramie with his party, Bordeaux was in charge, Papin, the manager of the fur company’s affairs, being absent. He welcomed Parkman’s party and took them into the fort. Parkman’s description of the fort agrees with Fremont’s. He describes the scene as they came in as follows: “Tall Indians in their buffalo robes were striding across the area or reclining at full length on the low roofs of the buildings. Numerous squaws gaily bedizened sat grouped about in front of the rooms they occupied, their mongrel offspring’s, restless and vociferous, rambled in every direction, and the trappers, traders and employees of the establishment were busy in their labors or amusements.”

He says the officials of the fur company had absolute sway over the vast region around them, as the nearest United States troops at that time were 700 miles to the east, while the west was practically an unexplored wilderness. Looking from the walls upon the surrounding hills, he observed scaffolds rising in the distance against the red western sky. They bore upon them the dead of the Dakota chiefs whose remains were placed in the vicinity of the fort for protection from enemy tribes, yet frequently the Crows ranging through had broken down the scaffolds and thrown the bodies to the wolves. Around many of these scaffolds were placed white buffalo skulls arranged in a mystic circle.

Parkman bravely took his chances in living among the Indians, but he saw that the country must soon be garrisoned with troops, for he observes: “A military force and military law are urgently needed in this perilous region, and unless troops are speedily stationed at Fort Laramie or in the neighborhood, emigrants and travelers will be exposed to imminent risks.”

General Kearney and the Indians

The first troops to reach Fort Laramie before it became a military post was an expedition organized under Gen. Stephen W. Kearney in 1845. Kearney, with several companies of dragoons, left Fort Leavenworth and marched to Fort Laramie. From there he sent a part of his command to the Sweetwater, while he remained at the fort. Then, for the first time, the Indian tribes of that vicinity saw white warriors and were lost in astonishment at their fine equipment and gay attire, and at the regular order of their marches and evolutions.

The Arapahoes at that time having committed several murders, General Kearney had them called in, and told them he would annihilate the whole tribe if they killed any more white people. To add to the eftect of his threat, he ordered a howitzer fired and a rocket thrown up. This created the utmost consternation among them. Many threw themselves on the ground and others ran away in terror and amazement. It is related that on his trip across the plains Kearney

had a mountain howitzer loaded on his rear wagon and concealed by the canvas wagon cover. On one occasion the train was attacked by a large band of Indians on horseback, who rode up behind and began to shoot arrows into the train. The howitzer was turned loose on them with great effect. Many were knocked off their horses and killed. It was as if a bolt of lightning had come out of a clear sky. They were terribly surprised. As a frontiersman would say, they “hit the breeze” with great suddenness and unanimity. For a long time they would not go near a wagon, as they had a superstition that a “white man’s wagon heap shoot.”

Early Explorers

Captain Bonneville’s party encamped on the Laramie River, May 25, 1832, and spent six weeks between Fort Laramie and the Sweetwater examining the country. An account of this expedition is given in another part of this history.

The Oregon expedition, undertaken by Nathaniel J. Wyeth in 1834, reached Fort Laramie on June 1st of that year. On this expedition Wyeth built a fort near Jackson’s Hole.

The first considerable emigration across the continent by the Oregon Trail began in 1841 and most of it went to Oregon up to about 1847, when the Mormon influx began, which was followed by the California gold seekers in 1849. The caravans were mostly made up of ox teams which traveled slowly. All the trains made a stop at Fort Laramie, whether it was a trading post or a fort.

In 1846 Congress passed an act providing for the building of forts along the Oregon-California Trail. The Mexican war, then in progress, stimulated overland travel to the Pacific coast, and the new explorations of the West and the increasing trade with the Indian tribes aroused the ambition and enterprise of Americans to plunge into the frontier.

The Fort Established

It was not until 1848, however, that Lieut. Daniel P. Woodbury of the United States Engineer Corps was sent out to select sites for the new forts. He first recommended the site of the American Fur Company at the fork of the Laramie and Platte rivers as a proper and needed location for a fort, and having obtained an offer of the property for $4,000, he was authorized to make the purchase from the fur company. Soon thereafter new buildings were constructed, the first structure of good size being the building which afterwards was named “Old Bedlam,” the lumber for its construction having been brought 800 miles in wagons from Fort Leavenworth at a cost of $60,000. This building was used for quarters and clubhouse of bachelor officers and was the scene of Captain King’s story entitled “Laramie, or the Queen of Bedlam,” and was one of the earliest of his popular military novels. The first United States troops garrisoned at the fort were Companies C and D, Third Cavalry, under Major Sanderson. A little later they were followed by Company G, Sixth United States Infantry. The Govern-ment afterwards set apart a military reservation of fifty-four square miles, being a parallelogram nine miles north and south and six miles east and west. A timber reserve was also established near Laramie Peak, about fifty miles west of the fort, where the post thereafter secured its wood and lumber supplies. Other buildings were added from time to time, mostly built of concrete. Officers’ quarters, cavalry and infantry barracks, large supply warehouses, stables, black-smith and other workshops were substantially built. Numerous small cottages were built for married sergeants and civil employees, together with a guard-house and hospital, which in early days were utilized by citizens, settlers and civilian employees. Many settlers located on ranches nearby, to be under the protection of the military forces. They engaged in raising grain, vegetables, cattle, horses and hay, and working teams on Government contracts. Thus Fort Laramie became not only a military post, but a busy emporium of trade for the whole surrounding region, a city in the wilderness.

The Tide of Emigration

The Oregon emigration was greatest from 1841 to 1845. The Mormon immigration began in 1847, the first Mormon colony reaching the fort in the spring of that year. They were followed by another Mormon party, which reached Fort Laramie in June, both expeditions moving on to Salt Lake after a brief stay at the fort. It is estimated that one hundred thousand Mormons crossed the plains by way of Fort Laramie in the succeeding five years.

But the high tide of emigration was reached about 1850-51. A new era in the life and settlement of the mountain West began with the discovery of gold in California. To the dull routine of ox team travel over the Oregon Trail was added the zest of fortune hunting and adventure. The rush of the gold seekers was one of the most unique phases of American history and led to the rapid settlement and development of all the far western states. In the early season of 1850, Langworthy says 60,000 gold seekers went over the Government Trail, and teams had gone forward before he arrived at Fort Laramie on June 13th of that year. He says the excitement and hurry of the travelers were so great that they threw away much of the freight which impeded their progress. Thus the trail was marked with an\ils, crowbars, drills, axes, grindstones, trunks, clothing, etc. Another estimate says that ninety thousand animals went over the trail during one season. One traveler, in going five miles, counted 429 wagons with their human freight and supplies. One might travel a hundred miles and never be out of sight of moving trains. Thus Fort Laramie became the center, the “Midway Plaisance,” of all these trains and the immense traffic they brought.

Expeditions and Treaties

The various expeditions fitted out for Indian campaigns at Fort Laramie and the important Indian treaties made there are described in other portions of this history. It will be sufficient to mention them without details. Passing over the early expeditions of Bonneville, Marcus Whitman, Wyeth and Fremont, which became history before the United States made Fort Laramie a military post, we can refer to the following:

Captain Stansbury’s expedition in 1849, to make a reconnaissance for a railroad from Fort Laramie to Fort Bridger; General Harney’s expedition in 1855 against the Sioux; Lieutenant Warren’s expedition in 1857 from Fort Laramie to the Black Hills for geologic and topographic investigations; General Sumner’s expedition in 1857 to suppress Indian outbreaks; General Connor’s expedition in 1865 against the tribes of Western Wyoming and Utah; Colonel Carrington’s expedition in 1865 to establish Forts Phil Kearny, Reno and C. F. Smith; and General Crook’s expeditions of 1875 and 1876 against the Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull bands of Indians.

Of the treaties made at Fort Laramie that of September, 1851, was the first. Col. D. D. Mitchell, superintendent of Indian affairs, called a council at the fort to fix the boundaries of the different tribes. The council was in session twenty-three days and was attended by 10,000 Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho and Crow Indians. When the provision trains arrived the Indians and whites joined in a grand feast. Under this treaty the Government paid the Indians $50,000 annually for ten years for a trail and right of way over their lands, and each tribe accepted certain boundaries as hunting territory.

On June 1, 1865, Col. H. F. Maynadier, commandant at Fort Laramie; E. B. Taylor, superintendent of Indian affairs; Thomas Wister, of Philadelphia; and R. N. McLaren, of Minnesota, as United States commissioners, met the principal chiefs of that section and concluded a treaty of peace and the concession of a right of way over the Bozeman Road to Montana. Red Cloud refused to sign this treaty and withdrew from the council, resulting in further Indian wars. Another treaty was made in 1866, which was not ratified by the Government. The Indians began to get bad and committed many depredations. Early in 1868 all the ranches between Fort Laramie and Fort Fetterman were destroyed and several settlers were killed at Horse Shoe, Twin Springs and La Bonte.

Famous Treaty of 1868

This condition precipitated the famous treaty of 1868, when Generals Sherman, Terry and Augur, representing the army, and John Sanborn, Samuel F. Tappan, Nathaniel G. Taylor and J. B. Henderson, civilians, were appointed a committee to negotiate with the Indians. Henry M. Stanley accompanied the commission as newspaper correspondent. They came to Fort Laramie in May and called the Indians together. The treaty gave the Indians the country north of the Platte as hunting ground. The Indians who signed the treaty were the Sioux chiefs. Red Cloud, Medicine Eagle, Black Tiger, Man-Afraid-of-His-Horse, and a number of minor chiefs.

A treaty made by the same commission with the head men of the Crow nation gave that tribe a reservation in Southern Montana, and they in return ceded the greater part of their lands in Wyoming to the whites. Three days later the commission concluded a treaty with the Cheyennes and Arapahoes by which they relinquished all claims to lands and agreed to accept homes and Government aid on specified reserves. Later in 1875 the Arapahoes agreed to accept homes on the Wind River reserve, where they are now located.

The Romance of AH-H0-AP-PA

The romance of the love story and death of Spotted-Tail’s daughter has been made the basis of much writing, interspersed with fact and fiction.

For several years Ah-ho-ap-pa lived in the Indian village near the fort and became a constant visitor, until she was well known to the officers and soldiers. She especially enjoyed seeing dress parade and guard mount.

It seems to be a well authenticated fact that she fell in love with a cavalry officer, Captain Rhinehart and became deeply infatuated with him, although he showed her only polite attention, which was her due as daughter of a celebrated chief. The captain was killed in an expedition against the Sioux, and the Indian maid mourned him inconsolably. In the meantime Spotted-Tail took his band up into the Powder River country and moved backwards and forwards to Big Horn, Rosebud and Tongue rivers, taking his daughter with him.

Eugene F. Ware, afterwards United States commissioner of pensions, who was then adjutant at Fort Laramie, wrote at that time as follows of the situation in .Spotted-Tail’s camp:

“Ah-ho-ap-pa was living in a chilly and lonesome tepee among the pines on the west bank of Powder River. She had not seen a white person since her visit to Laramie in August, 1864. Ah-ho-ap-pa’s heart was broken. She could not stand up against her surroundings. In vain her father had urged her to accept the conditions as they were, to be happy and contented, and not worry about things out of her reach. She had an ambition a vague one; but her hopes were gone.

“Shortly before her death a runner from Fort Laramie announced to the Indians on Powder River that commissioners would come, with the grass, who would bring the words of the Great Father to his Indian children. Shan-tag-alisk (Spotted-Tail) was urged to send runners to all the bands south and west of the Missouri River and to meet at Fort Laramie as soon as their ponies could live on the grass.

“Ah-ho-ap-pa heard the news, but it did not revive her. She told her father that she wanted to go, but she would be dead ; that it was her wish to be buried in the cemetery at Fort Laramie, near the grave of ‘Old Smoke,’ a distant relative and a great chief among the Sioux in former years. This her relative promised her.

“When her death took place, after great lamentations among the band, the skin of a freshly killed deer was held over the fire and thoroughly permeated and creosoted with smoke. Ah-ho-ap-pa was wrapped in it and it was tightly bound around her with thongs so that she was temporarily embalmed.”

This was in the spring of 1868. Spotted-Tail started with the body on their sad journey to Fort Laramie, 200 miles distant. When the funeral party arrived within fifteen miles of Fort Laramie it camped and a runner was sent in to announce its coming to Colonel Maynadier. That officer was a prince at heart, as well as a good soldier. Moreover, he had been sent to Fort Laramie to smooth the way for the big peace commission. Spotted-Tail still stood high among his people. Why not take pains to impress him with the good intentions and peaceful views of the whites? The post commander at the time was Maj. George M. O’Brien, a graduate of Dublin University, subsequently brevetted to the rank of general. He afterwards practiced law at Omaha and died there. He was a brother of Col. “Nick” O’Brien of Cheyenne, now known as the hero of Julesburg.

Burial Ceremonies

The result of a consultation held by the officers was that an ambulance was dispatched to the Indian camp, guarded by a company of cavalry in full uniform, followed by two twelve-pound mountain howitzers with postilions in red chevrons. When the camp was reached, Ah-ho-ap-pa’s body was placed in the ambulance, her two white ponies were tethered behind the vehicle, and the procession slowly moved toward the fort. Concerning what follows, Eugene F. Ware says:

“When the cavalcade had reached the river, a couple of miles from the post, the garrison turned out and, with Colonel Maynadier at the head, met and escorted them into the post, and the party were assigned quarters. The next day a scaffold was erected in the military cemetery near the grave of “Old Smoke.’ It was made of tent poles, twelve feet long, embedded in the ground and fastened with thongs, over which a buffalo robe was laid and on which the coffin was to be placed.

“To the poles of the scaffold were nailed the heads and tails of the two white ponies, so that Ah-ho-ap-pa could ride through the fair hunting grounds of the skies. A coffin was made and lavishly decorated. The body was not unbound from the deerskin shroud, but was wrapped in the coffin mounted on the wheels of an artillery caisson. After the coffin came a twelve-pound howitzer, and the whole was followed to the cemetery by the entire garrison in full uniform.

“The tempestuous and chilly weather moderated somewhat. The Rev. Mr. Wright, who was the post chaplain, suggested an elaborate burial service. Shan-tag-a-lisk was consulted. He said he wanted his daughter buried Indian fashion, so she would go not where the white people went, but where the red people went. Every request of Shan-tag-a-lisk was met by Colonel Maynadier with a hearty and satisfactory ‘Yes.’ ” .

The Indian customs were adopted, according to the chief’s request, but in his honor the military burial service was added, with the post band, flags, detachments of troops, etc. When the parade reached the burial ground each of the Indian women came up, one at a time, and talked to Ah-ho-ap-pa. Some of them whispered to her long and earnestly as if they were sending by her a hopeful message to a lost child. Each put some little remembrance in the coffin. One put in a little looking glass, another a string of colored beads, another a pine cone with some sort of embroidery of sinew in it. Then the lid was fastened on, the women took the coffin, raised it and placed it on the scaffold. The Indian men stood mutely and stolidly around looking on, and none of them moved a muscle or tendered any help.

The sequel to this interesting story is told in the return of Spotted-Tail to the fort for the remains of his daughter in 1875. John S. Collins, who was post trader at the time, says in his book of “Frontier Experiences”:

“Spotted-Tail came to the fort in 1875 for his daughter, who had died several years before and had been placed in a box and set up on four posts at the sand bluffs. At her head was nailed the head of her favorite white pony and at her feet its tail, to travel with her to the happy hunting grounds. In the box were placed trinkets and ornaments she wore when alive.

” ‘Spot’ said to me, “My daughter was buried here where my Indians lived and many of our children were born. We traded here, raced our ponies here and the soldiers were good to us. Now that has passed, we want our dead at one place. I came to take her to my agency at Beaver Creek.’ “

Thus the story of Ah-ho-ap-pa ends. Her father, Spotted-Tail, was greatest among the chiefs of his day. He was a born orator and a natural diplomat and statesman.

Up to August, 1865, Fort Laramie was headquarters of the military division called the “District of the Plains.” The district was abolished by General Pope and the District of Nebraska was formed to include Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming, with Major General Wheaton in command.

The fort was abandoned by the Government in the spring of 1890, and the reserve opened to homestead settlers. The last troops left the fort April 20, 1890. The Government sold the military supplies by an auction sale in March and the buildings were sold at another sale in April, that year. Following this, homestead filings were made on the best lands of the reserve, John Hunton, the last post trader at the fort, locating the most central and valuable quarter section, containing a number of fort buildings, some of which he built at his own expense for carrying on his trade at the post. Joe Wilde, another old-timer, got by purchase and entry other valuable lands and buildings. Together they projected a fine irrigation system, and constructed a large canal from a point on the Laramie River several miles southwest, and thus the new Fort Laramie was made “to blossom as the rose.”

The writer visited the fort in May, 1918, as the guest of Mr. Hunton and his estimable wife, and while the vestiges of the old fort are still standing, some of the buildings in ruins and others rehabilitated, the scene was indeed an attractive one. The glistening waters of the Laramie winding in and out through grassy meadows and cottonwood groves, the fields of alfalfa, beautifully green, from which the meadow larks were rising and singing, the surrounding hills in – the distance cut through into deep gorges by the big Government Platte River project, and showing piles of sand resembling the great pyramids, made a new and impressive picture of nature in its quiet and serene moods, in which the Indian, the trapper, the soldier and the mule skinner faded from view and the memories of those old, stirring, heroic times became but a fleeting vision of “a tale that is told.”

Source: History of Wyoming, Volume 1, by I. S. Bartlett, Chicago, The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1918

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