Fort Laramie Photos

From Wyoming Tales and Trails

This page: Establishment of Fort, Alfred Jacob Miller, the Trappers' Trail, Fort Platte, Trading with the Indians.

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Table of Contents
About This Site

General View of Fort Laramie.

As depicted on the Previous Page Ft. Laramie has in its history four incarnations:
(A) a cottonwood stockade constructed at Laramie's Point by the fur trading company of Sublette and Campbell named by Wm. Sublette "Fort William", 1837;
(B) an adobe fort, named "Fort John" but usually referred to as "Fort Laramie." Some question exists as to the identity of Laramie from whom the location derived its name. As discussed on later pages, it is possible that the location took its name from a West Point graduate, Louis Lorimier, who entered, like his father before him, the fur trading business and was killed by Indians along the Laramie River. [Writer's note: Although there was a family in St. Louis named Aubry dit Laramie, originally from Quebec, no connection between the Aubry family and the fur trade has been found. Thus, it appears more likely that the name Laramie comes from the former second lieutenant. "Dit" denotes an adopted name which was not a part of the patronomic name borne by a family. It was used to distinquish from other families bearing the same surname. Dit, pronounced "dee," is close in meaning to the obsolete English word "yclept."]
(C) a military post;
(D) Finally, as depicted above, its present configuration consisting of a mix of restoration to the fort's 1880's appearance and ruins.

As later sidcussed, in 1825, William Ashley of Missouri commenced the practice of holding rendezvous for the purpose of trading goods for furs. John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company maintained trading posts along the upper Missouri for the same purpose. One of those trading posts or forts was Fort Union at the confluence of the Yellowstone and the Upper Missouri. An upstart trading company Campbell and Sublette, owned by two mountain men William Sublette and Robert Campbell, determined to beat the American Fur Company at its own game and constructed a rival fort a mere two and a half miles from Fort Union. At the same time, there came a decline in demand for beaver pelts as a result of a change of fashions in the Court of the French king, Louis-Philippe. His Majesty had appeared with a silk top hat rather than with a beaver hat as was the style of the day. Beaver, as do wolves and sled dogs, have a soft almost silky underfur from which the hats of the day would be made. Thus, the demand for beaver pelt was for the underfur, not the coarser outer fur. As a result of the decline in the demand for beaver, stricter enforcement of laws relating to sale of alcohol to Indians, and competition, John Jacob Astor and William Sublette entered into an agreement by which Sublette and Campbell withdrew from the upper Missouri and Astor's American Fur Company withdrew from east of the Rockies and South of the three forks of the Missouri.

Indian Funerary Platform at Deer Creek, near Fort Laramie, woodcut, Harper's Weekly, 1869, based on photo by Alexander Gardner.

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. The fading of the Trappers' Trail proved the wisdom of Sublette and Campbell. The fort 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.

In due course, a license was obtained from the Indian Superintendent William Clark to construct a trading post at the confluence of the Laramie River and the North Platt. In May 1834, William Sublette headed west and at Laramie Point the little fort took shape. Inside were barracks, a storehouse, blacksmith's quaters and a horse corral. One of the Company, William Anderson, proposed to called the fort "Fort Sublette." Sublette proposed "Fort Anderson." A compromise was reached honoring both, "Fort William."

In short order, however, Sublette and Campbell realized that the fort would probably be a money-loser. Ceran St. Vrain and the Bent Brothers had already annouced plans to construct a rival fort. In early 1835, the fort was sold Fitzpatrick and Fontenelle, associated with the American Fur Company.

The artist Miller provided 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.

A mile or so to the west of the Fort was another rival trading post known as Fort Platte. Ft. Platte operated, however, for only about five years before it was abandoned. Fort Platte was established in 1840-1841 by Lancaster Platt Lupton (1807-1885). It subsequently passed through the hands of Sybille and Adams and Bernard Pratte and John Cabanne before it was abandoned in 1845. Lupton also established trading posts near Chadron, Nebraska, and at Fort Lupton, Colorado. Rufus B. Sage in his 1846 Rocky Mountain Life described the fort:

Fort Platte, being next to Fort Hall, the most important point on the route to Oregon, calls for a brief description. This post occupies the left bank of the North Fork of Platte river, three-fourths of a mile above the mouth of Laramie, in lat. 42o 20' 13" west from Greenwich and stands upon the direct waggon road to Oregon via South Pass.
It is situated in the immediate vicinity of the Oglallia and Brule divisions of the Sioux nation, and but little remote from the Cheyennes and Arapaho tribes. Its structure is a fair specimen of most of the establishments employed in the Indian trade. Its walls are "adobies," (sun-baked brick,) four feet thick, by twenty high -- enclosing an area of two hundred and fifty feet in lenght, by two hundred broad. At the northwest and southwest corners are bastions which command its approaches in all directions.
Within the walls are some twelve buildings in all, consisting as follows: Office, store, warehouse, meat-house, smith's shop, carpenter's shop, kitchen, and five dwellings, -- so arranged as to form a yard and corel, sufficiently large for the accommodation and security of more than two hundred head of animals. the number of men usually employed about the establishment is some thirty, whose chief duty it is to promote the interests of the trade, and otherwise act as circumstances require.
The Fort is located in a level plain, fertile and interesting, bounded upon all sides by hills, many of which present to view the nodding forms of pines and cedars, that bescatter their surface, -- while the river bottoms, at various points, are thickly studded with proud growths of cottonwood, ash, willow, and box-elder, thus affordings its needful supplies of timber and fuel.

The alcohol, noted by Miller, was brought up the Trappers Trail from Taos and sold for $4.00 a pint. Sage described the effect of the alcohol on the Indians:

Soon, individuals were noticed passing from one to another, with mouths full of the coveted fire-water, drawing the lips of favored friends in close contact, as if to kiss, and ejecting the contents of their own into the eager mouths of others, -- thus affording the delighted recipients tests of their fervent esteem in the heat and strength of the strange draught.
At this stage of the game the American fur Company [Ft. Laramie], as is charged, commenced dealing out to them, gratutiously, strong drugged liquor, for the double purpose of preventing a sale of the article by its competitor [Ft. Platte] in in [sic] trade, and of creating sickness, or inciting contention among the Indians, while under the influence of sudden intoxication, -- hoping thereby to induce the latter to charge its ill effects upon an opposite source, and thus, by destroying the credit of its rival, monoplize for itself the whole trade.
It is hard to predict, with certainty, what whould have been the result of this reckless policy, had it been continued through the day. Already its effects became apparent, and small knots of drunken Indians were seen in various directions, quarrelling, preparing to fight, or fighting, -- while others lay stretched upon the ground in helpless impotency, or staggered from place to place with all the revolting attendencies of intoxication.
The drama, however, was here brought to a temporary close by an incident which made a strange contrast in its immediate results.
One of the head chiefs of the Brule village, in riding at full speed from Fort John to Fort Platte, being a little too drunk to navigate, plunged headlong from his horse and broke his neck when within a few rods of his destination. There was a touching display of confusion and excitement. Men and sqaws commenced bawling like children; -- the whites were bad, very bad, said they, in their grief, to give Susu-ciecha the fire-water that caused his death. But the height of their censure was directed against the American Fur Commpany, as its liquor had done the deed.

The whites were hardly better at holding their liquor. Sage described the effects on his Company:

The night of our arrival at Fort Platte was the signal for a grand jollification to all hands, (with two or three exceptions,) who soon got most gloriously drunk, and such an illustration of the beauties of harmony as was then perpetrated, would have rivalled Bedlam itself, or even the famous council chamber beyond the Styx.
Yelling, screeching, firing, shouting, fighting, swearing, drinking, and such like interesting performances, were kept up without intermission, -- and woe to the poor fellow who looked for repose that night, -- he might as well have though of sleeping with a thousand cannon bellowing at his ears.
The scene was prolonged till near sundown the next day, and several made their egress from this beastly carousal, minus shirts and coats, -- with swollen eyes, bloody noses, and empty pockets, -- the latter circumstances will be easily understood upon the mere mention of the fact, that liquor, in this country, is sold for four dollars per pint.

In 1841, the stockade was replaced by an adobe structure. 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. The fort maintained its importance on the Oregon Trail and Mormon Trail and subsequently during the Indian Wars.

Ft. Laramie, 1849, sketch by James Wilkins

The adobe construction of Fort Laramie 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."

In 1849, the military purchased the fort for the sum of $4,000. The first units arrived on July 16, 1949.

One of the first structures construced was a pre-fabricated building now known as "Old Bedlam" brought in pieces from Fort Leavenworth allegedly at a total cost of $40,000.

"Old Bedlam" undated.

Old Bedlam apparently took its name from the antics of young officers when the structure was used as Bachelor Officers' Quarters. One officer, James Regan, "Military Landmarks" , Unites Service, Vol. 3, 1880 p. 148 et seq wrote of Old Bedlam, "The episodes connected with this old building, were they well known and properly told, would form a volume in themselves. We have ourselves seen every room from lower to upper story brilliantly lighted and filled with card-parties, composed of officers, some of whom have since become distinguished."

Officers on steps of "Old Bedlam," 1860's.

It has been contended that the above photo was taken in 1864 and shows the only known adult image of Caspar W. Collins after whom Ft. Caspar and Casper, Wyoming were named. See D. P. Robrock, The Eleventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry on the Central Plains, 1862-1866. The National Park Service has dated the photo as 1864 which would have been consistent with the Eleventh Ohio. It has also been contended that the photo is from the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty negotiations and shows infantry officers. See John Dishon McDermott, Circle of Fire, The Indian War of 1865, Stackpole Books, 2003. McDermott writes:

"For many years, historians believed that US Signal Corps Photo 102953 included Collins. However, careful examination of the officers' insignia showed the men to be members of the 4th US Infantry." p. 199

Allegedly, in the front row on the left is Capt Levi Monroe Rinehart. Next to him, with the dog at his feet, is Lt. Caspar W. Collins. Capt. Rinehart, Company G, 11th Ohio Volunteers, was killed in a skirmish with Cheyenne Indians on the North Platte near Deer creek on February 13, 1865. He had previously served in the Union Army, was captured by Confederate forces near Harper's Ferry, but was exchanged. Lt. Collins was the son of the commander of Fort Laramie, Lt. Colonel William O. Collins. Lt. Collins was kiled on July 26, 1865 at the Battle of the Platte River Bridge.

Officers' insignia were worn on the front of the forage caps worn by most of the men in the photograph. Cavalry insignia would have been a pair of crossed sabers, whilst infantry would at the time have been an infantry horn. The Cavalry insignia would have been symmetric The bell side of the horn would have provided a slightly asymetric image with the larger side on the viewer's left. Although even enlarging the photo and sharpening the image still provides an indistinct image of the insignia, the asymmetry, however, leads the writer to the belief that more likely than not, the officers are infantry.

Officers Quarters, undated.

The above building is still in existence. It was orginally constructed as the quarters for the commanding officers, but was converted into a duplex. When the fort was abandoned, the building was sold to Meade Sandercock who occupied it until 1916. Thereafter it was rented out and finally abandoned. See photos next page. The commanding officer's quarters was divided into a duplex and the commanding officer used another structure depicted on the next page as his quarters. The building depicted has now been restored and sits partially on the site of the original Fort William.

Ft. Laramie Photos continued on next page.