Fort Laramie History
Fort Laramie, Wyoming, was located at the Crossroads of a nation moving west. A fur trading post was created in 1834, where the Cheyenne and Arapaho traveled, traded, and hunted. Though it was not a military fort at first, it was called Fort William and soon became known as a place of safety as settlers moved across the continent.
By the 1840s, wagon trains rested and re-supplied here, bound for Oregon, California, and Utah. In 1841, Fort John was constructed, replacing the original wooden stockade of Fort William. Built of adobe brick, Fort John stood on a bluff overlooking the Laramie River. It was named for John Sarpy, a partner in the American Fur Company, but was more commonly called Fort Laramie by employees and travelers.
Fort Laramie, the military post, was founded in 1849 when the army purchased the old Fort John for $4000 and began to build a military outpost along the Oregon Trail. For many years, the Plains Indians and the travelers along the Oregon Trail had coexisted peacefully. As the number of emigrants increased, tensions between the two cultures began to develop.
To help ensure the safety of the travelers, Congress approved the establishment of forts along the Oregon Trail and a special regiment of Mounted Riflemen to man them. Fort Laramie was the second of these forts to be established.
The popular view of a western fort, perhaps generated by Hollywood movies, is an enclosure surrounded by a wall or stockade. Fort Laramie, however, was never enclosed by a wall. Initial plans for the fort included a wooden fence or a thick structure of rubble, nine feet high, that enclosed an area 550 feet by 650 feet. Because of the high costs involved, however, the wall was never built. Fort Laramie was always an open fort that depended upon its location and garrison of troops for security.
In the 1850s, one of the main functions of the troops stationed at the fort was patrolling and maintaining the security of a lengthy stretch of the Oregon Trail. This was a difficult task because of the small size of the garrison and the vast distances involved. In 1851, a treaty was signed between the United States and the most important tribes of the Plains Indians. The peace that it inaugurated, however, lasted only three years. In 1854, an incident involving a passing wagon train precipitated the Grattan Fight, in which an officer, an interpreter, and 29 soldiers from Fort Laramie were killed. This incident was one of several that ignited the flames of a conflict between the United States and the Plains Indians that would not be resolved until the end of the 1870s.
The 1860s brought a different type of soldier to Fort Laramie. After the beginning of the Civil War, most regular army troops were withdrawn to the East to participate in that conflict. The fort was garrisoned by state volunteer regiments, such as the Seventh Iowa and the Eleventh Ohio.
The stream of emigrants along the Oregon Trail began to diminish, but completing the transcontinental telegraph line in 1861 brought new responsibility to the soldiers. Inspecting, defending, and repairing the “talking wire” was added to their duties. During the latter part of the 1860s, troops from Fort Laramie supplied and reinforced the forts along the Bozeman Trail until the Treaty of 1868 was signed.
Unfortunately, the Treaty of 1868 did not end the conflict between the United States and the Plains Indians, and, by the 1870s, significant campaigns were being mounted against the plains tribes.
The discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874 and the resultant rush to the goldfields violated some of the treaty’s terms and antagonized the Sioux, who regarded the Hills as sacred ground. Under leaders such as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, they and their allies chose to fight to keep their land. In campaigns such as those in 1876, Fort Laramie served as a staging area for troops, a communications and logistical center, and a command post.
Conflicts with the Indians on the Northern Plains had abated by the 1880s. Relieved of some of its military function, Fort Laramie relaxed into a Victorian era of relative comfort. Boardwalks were built in front of officers’ houses, and trees were planted to soften the stark landscape.
By the end of the 1880s, the Army recognized that Fort Laramie had served its purpose. Many important events on the Northern Plains had involved the Fort, and many arteries of transport and communication had passed through it. Perhaps the most important artery, however, the Union Pacific Railroad, had bypassed it to the South. In March 1890, troops marched out of Fort Laramie for the last time. The land and buildings that comprised the Fort were auctioned to civilians.
Fort Laramie National Historic Site
This unique historic place preserves and interprets one of America’s most important locations in the history of westward expansion and Indian resistance. When Fort Laramie closed in 1890, its legacy was one of peace and war, cooperation and conflict; a place where the west we know today was forged.
Fort Laramie was proclaimed a National Monument in 1938 and named a National Historic site in 1960.
Today the site preserves a 19th-century United States military post, including 11 restored buildings, such as “Old Bedlam,” the post headquarters and officers’ quarters built in 1849; the cavalry barracks built in 1874; Sutler’s Store; a stone guardhouse; and a bakery. A museum exhibits artifacts of the Northern Plains.
The National Park Service administers the historic site, which encompasses 833 acres.
In 1851 United States government officials met with Great Plains tribal leaders in Fort Laramie, Wyoming. They negotiated the Fort Laramie Treaty, which was meant to resolve conflict among hostile Native American groups and between Native Americans and whites. This treaty established territorial claims for the Blackfoot in north-central Montana, for the Crow in the Yellowstone Valley, and for the Assiniboine in northeastern Montana.
Four years later, Washington territorial governor Isaac Stevens opened negotiations with the Flathead, Kootenai, Pend d’Oreille (primarily in Idaho), and later with the Blackfoot. Stevens intended to remove Native Americans to reservations.
In exchange for ceded lands, Stevens promised the Native American groups improvements to reservations and annuities. The Flathead, Pend d’Oreille, and Kootenai agreed to share the Jocko Indian Reservation, which covered about 518,000 hectares (about 1,280,000 acres) to the south of Flathead Lake. The Flathead, reluctant to leave the Bitterroot Valley, inserted a clause into the treaty that allowed them to stay in their home temporarily. The Blackfoot also signed a treaty bound them to a region in northern Montana. By 1868 nearly one-quarter of Montana had been set aside for reservations. However, whites frequently violated the treaties by using Native American land.
As Montana became more populated during the gold rushes in the 1860s, white settlers and Native Americans clashed. Although the incidents were generally minor — a stolen horse or missing livestock –occasionally, settlers or Native Americans were killed. In response to these incidents, the white immigrants demanded federal protection. In 1866 the army established Fort C.F. Smith, its first post in Montana. Later forts were built along the Mullan Road, near the Bozeman Trail, and to the east of Helena.
In 1869 a series of attacks on white settlers and Native Americans drove the settlers from around Fort Benton to demand military action. Major Eugene M. Baker, who believed that the Blackfoot were responsible for the violence, led an attack on an innocent Blackfoot camp. This offensive left 173 Blackfoot dead. The Blackfoot, divided about how to react to the massacre, did not mount a counterattack.
The gold rush also provoked conflict between the Sioux in Montana and the white settlers. The Sioux opposed settlers using the Bozeman Trail, which crossed Sioux territory in the Great Plains region, to reach mining districts. The federal government attempted to negotiate with the Sioux at Fort Laramie in 1866, but the Sioux broke off the talks. The Sioux regularly attacked settlements and travelers along the Bozeman Trail for the next few years. In 1868 the government and the Sioux met at Fort Laramie again. They signed a treaty, which closed the Bozeman Trail and provided a reservation for the Sioux in the Black Hills in Dakota Territory.
Some Sioux were dissatisfied with this agreement, including Sioux leaders Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. This group continued to live near the Bozeman Trail. In 1874 gold was found within the boundaries of the reservation in the Black Hills, bringing in white prospectors. Some Sioux left the reservation to join Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. In 1876 the United States government sent troops, including Lieutenant Colonel George Custer and his regiment, to relocate this group to the reservation. On June 25, 1876, a Sioux force under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse defeated Custer’s troops at the Little Bighorn. Although the Sioux were victorious in this famous battle, the United States sent reinforcements, and Crazy Horse gave up his arms in 1877. Sitting Bull conceded victory to the United States in 1881.
Go to: Fort Laramie Treaty Document
“Fort Laramie Treaty” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2003
Fort Laramie National Park Service