Frontier Towns, Part 6: Fort Laramie, Wyoming
Don’t confuse Fort Laramie with the much larger university city of Laramie – they are 105 miles and world’s apart. Fort Laramie is a small Northern Plains town of approximately 230 residents located close to Fort Laramie National Historic Site. It is also Wyoming’s first permanent settlement. The shared importance of this enduring small town and the nearby fort to westward seeking travelers of the mid-19th century cannot begin to be understated. For several decades, they were the principal commercial, transportation, and military hub of the entire region.
Before there were any other places even remotely close modern civilization west of the Missouri River, there was lonely Fort Laramie, set near the confluence of the North Platte and Laramie Rivers in the eastern part of the future state of Wyoming. The fort and nearby town of the same name were the only significant supply option available to trappers, emigrant wagon trains, mountain men, soldiers, and Native Americans for many years. The fort was also the primary source of protection for hundreds of miles in all directions. Being situated along the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, the Mormon Trail, and later the Pony Express Trail, Fort Laramie was a welcome sight after days and/or weeks of rugged travel across the Great Plains.
Founded originally as a private fur trading post named Fort William in 1834, the facility was renamed Fort St. John in 1841. The fort was again renamed Fort Laramie after it was acquired by the federal government in 1849 to secure protection and assistance to the tens of thousands of emigrants seeking their fortunes and futures in the American west and to serve as a military staging area for the United States Cavalry.
Two historic events in the relations between the United States and the Native American Indian tribes of the Northern Plains occurred at or near Fort Laramie. The Horse Creek Treaty of 1851 sought lasting peace between all the warring tribes of the region and safe passage for settlers headed towards California, Oregon, and Utah. Both of which were noble goals.
On their part, a great council pf more than 10,000 Native Americans from many tribes, some mortal enemies, traveled to and camped in the general vicinity of Fort Laramie* for the completion and signing of this treaty. Unfortunately, the American participants either didn’t understand or didn’t take the time to understand importance of tribal hierarchies and inter-tribal relationships. Furthermore, Congress unilaterally reneged on important parts of the treaty almost immediately. Within four years, the agreement had begun to fall apart, and did so completely by 1864.
*Due to the large attendance, the treaty site was moved several miles to the east of Fort Laramie where Horse Creek empties into the North Platte.
The second document was the Treaty of Fort Laramie (a.k.a. the Sioux Treaty). This agreement sought to set aside lands for the varied Sioux bands and assure their sole ownership of the sacred Black Hills. But, as with all of the treaties the United States made with the Native Americans, we as a country never lived up to our end of the bargain. Illicit actions by the American military under General George Armstrong Custer, combined with the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, concluded with the United States once again reneging on its formal agreement. Even today, the Sioux nation is demanding all its territories that were taken by the United States, especially resulting from the Black Hills Gold Rush, be returned to them immediately.
Fort Laramie’s preeminence as a trading center hub for the Northern Plains was only eclipsed when the Transcontinental Railroad and cross-country telegraph lines utilized a more southerly route in the late 1860s. It remained an important and strategic military post until its eventual closure and auction in 1890. In 1938, Fort Laramie was acquired again by the federal government, but this time as an important part of the National Park System. For anyone even remotely interested in the history of the Old West, Fort Laramie National Historic Site is a necessary stop on the travel itinerary.
- The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin