One of the most famous of the western Indian forts of the United States is situated on the west bank of the Laramie River, one and a half miles above the junction of that stream with the Platte. Though deserted the post is still a picturesque figure, recalling the days when it administered authority for seven hundred miles around. The property now comprises part of the ranch of Mr. John Hunton.
Before the white man had established a habitation where Fort Laramie stands the whole of the country of the North Platte River was a hunting ground and battlefield for different tribes of Indians. Countless herds of buffalo roamed the land and it was rich in furbearing animals, as well.
In 1834 William Sublette and Robert Campbell, coming to this part of the country to trap beaver, found themselves obliged to construct some sort of protection against the roving bands of vagabond Crows and Pawnees which occasionally swept along the Platte, stealing where they could. They built in that year upon the present site of Fort Laramie a square fort of pickets 18 feet high, with bastions at two diagonal corners, and a number of little houses inside for their employees. In 1835 they sold out to Milton Sublette, James Bridger and three other trappers, who went into partnership with the American Fur Company and continued the beaver trapping business.
In that year the American Fur Company sent two men named Kiplin and Sabille to the Bear Butte and Northern Black Hills to persuade the Sioux Indians to come over and hunt their game and live in the vicinity of the fort. Their ambassadors succeeded so well that they returned with over one hundred lodges of Ogalla Sioux under Chief Bull Bear. This was the first appearance of the powerful Sioux nation in this part of the country, which they speedily overran, driving away Pawnees, Cheyennes, Crows and all others from its very borders.
Of course the fort speedily became a trading post where the Indians bartered a buffalo robe for a knife, an awl, or a drink of “fire water.” Anything that the company had to trade was at least of the value of one buffalo robe. An American horse brought fifty of them; any pony was worth twenty or thirty. Any old scrap of iron was of great value to an Indian and by him would be speedily converted into a knife. Firearms he had none and his arrowheads were all made of pieces of flint or massive quartz, fashioned into proper shape by laborious pecking with another stone. The Sioux then had no horses, but herds of wild horses were abundant on their arrival and it was not many years before they learned their use.
In 1836 the picket fort began to rot badly and the American Fur Company rebuilt it of adobe at an expense of $10,000. The people who lived inside of the fort at this time called it “Fort William,” after William Sublette, but the name could not be popularized. The fort being built on the Laramie River, not far from Laramie Peak, the American Fur Company’s clerks in their city offices labeled it Fort Laramie and by that name it was destined to be called.
It seems that Laramie was a trapper, one of the first French voyageurs who ever trapped a beaver or shot a buffalo in the Rocky Mountains. He was one day killed by a band of Arapahoes on the headwaters of the stream, which has ever since been called by his name.
The American Fur Company retained possession of the fort until 1849 when it sold it to the United States government for four or five thousand dollars. Bruce Husaband was the last representative of the company who had charge of Fort Laramie.
The first United States troops which arrived here came in July 1849, under the command of Major Sanderson of the Mounted Rifles. They were companies C and D of that regiment. Company G of the Sixth United States Infantry arrived in August of the same year under command of Captain Ketchum. In the summer and fall of 1849 a large number of additions were made to the buildings at the post.
In 1846, just prior to its occupancy by the United States, Francis Parkman, the future historian, then little more than a boy, visited Fort Laramie and wrote a description of the place in that singularly vivid style which characterized his best work as a historian. His description may be abridged:
Looking back, after the expiration of a year, upon Fort Laramie and its inmates, they seem less like a reality than like some fanciful picture of the olden time; so different was the scene from any which this tamer side of the world can present. Tall Indians, enveloped in their white buffalo robes, were striding across the area or reclining at full length on the low roofs of the buildings, which enclosed it. Numerous squaws, gaily bedizened, sat grouped in front of the rooms they occupied; their mongrel offspring, restless and vociferous, rambled in every direction through the fort; and the trappers, traders, and engagers of the establishment were busy at their labor or their amusements. . . .
Fort Laramie is one of the posts established by the “American Fur Company” which well nigh monopolizes the Indian trade of this region. Here its officials rule with an absolute sway; the arm of the United States has little force; for when we were there the extreme outposts of her troops were about seven hundred miles to the eastward. 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 offices, storerooms and apartments of the inmates; on the other is the corral, a narrow place, encompassed by 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, 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 the 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 window. This precaution, though necessary at some of the Company’s posts, is seldom resorted to at Fort Laramie; where though men are frequently killed in the neighborhood no apprehensions are felt of any general design of hostility from the Indians.
A train of emigrants encamped outside the fort for the night on their long journey across the plains.
A crowd of broad rimmed hats, thin visages, and staring eyes appeared suddenly at the gate. Tall, awkward men in brown homespun; women, with cadaverous faces and long lank figures, came thronging in together, and as if inspired by the very demon of curiosity ransacked every nook and corner of the fort. The emigrants prosecuted their investigations with untiring vigor. They penetrated the rooms, or, rather, dens, inhabited by the astonished squaws. Resolved to search every mystery to the bottom, they explored the apartments of the men, and even that of Marie and the bourgeois (the commandant of the fort). At last a numerous deputation appeared at our door but found no encouragement to remain. Having at length satisfied their curiosity, they next proceeded to business.
On the 19th of August 1854, a Mormon train was encamped about ten miles below the fort on the Platte River. The Indians having killed a cow or ox belonging to the train had been complained of by the Mormons to the commanding officer, who sent Lieutenant Grattan, of the Sixth United States Infantry, with thirty men of Company G and two howitzers, to recover the cow and bring the thieves to the garrison. They met a large number of Indians (Sioux) under the leadership of a chief named Mattoioway about eight miles from the fort and a conflict ensued in which Lieutenant Grattan’s command, with the exception of one man, was annihilated. The survivor was hidden in some bushes by a friendly Indian and brought to the fort that night where he died two days afterward. The bodies of the slain were buried in one grave where they fell and a pile of stones marks their resting place.