A New Life
~Saturday, May 21, 2022~
To avoid 500 mile days, we look for geographic halfway points, then search out the highlights of what there is to see. With Devils Tower as our next destination, we just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see one of America’s most significant sites……Fort Laramie, which was about 25 miles outside our route. And equally great was finding a gem of a campground in Guernsey, just a 15 to 20-minute drive to the Fort. It is mostly a walking tour, and with the weather hanging in there, we thought today was the perfect day to see it.
Fort Laramie, located at the confluence of the North Platte and Laramie Rivers, was perhaps the single most important location in America’s expansion into The West.
Founded in 1834 as a fur trading post, it didn’t become a military fort until 1849. From the eras of the fur trade, the Oregon Trail and the Indian Wars, the fort contributed heavily in a rapidly changing west, until it closed its doors in 1890.
We started with the visitor center. Now that’s what I’m talking about…finally a visitor center with visitor information. It was nothing fancy, but what it was, was an impressive account of what happened in the fort’s 41 years of service. The 20-minute film was excellent as were the exhibits. For Jeff, he’s always loved history, particular Revolutionary War stuff. Since I was never a history buff during my academic years, I’ve had a lot of catching up to do as I’ve become more interested in my older years. Now, I find it completely fascinating. Good thing, or Jeff and I would be doing a lot of things separately.
The evolution of Fort Laramie is pretty fascinating. In its earlier years (1834-1841), it was named Fort William with its sole purpose as a fur trade post which lasted only about 20 years, but brought about immense change, including establishing trails through the Rocky Mountains. It was during that period that letters and tales filtered east, exciting a nation to the limitless land called the “Great American Desert”. At that time, rarely was there a conflict between trappers and the Native Americans who had occupied the land for thousands of years before.
Between the years of 1841 to 1849, the Fort was known as Fort John. Soon began the largest overland migration the world had ever seen. For most, it would be their final goodbye to their families as many would never return. Between thirst, starvation and severe weather, much of the journey was perilous for both people and animals. It’s shocking how many actually made it.
Crossing Native American land, between farmers heading for Oregon, Mormons seeking religious freedom near the Great Salt Lake, and argonauts bound for the California gold fields, they all converged at Fort John.
By the end of 1849, Fort John would be called Fort Laramie, stepping up its role in military operations due to the waning emigration and rising tensions between the Northern Plains tribes and the emigrants. No longer would it be just a rest stop.
During the 1860’s, Fort Laramie stood as a vital supply and communications link between the east and the west. With 500,000 Americans now living west of the Rockies, rapid communication became essential. The first transcontinental express mail service was launched in 1860……the Pony Express. Because of its vital role, a memorial stands at the entrance to the park, celebrating the 120 riders who risked their lives riding over 650,000 miles with only one schedule incomplete and one mail lost, sadly due to 1 rider killed. From April 1860 to October 1861, Fort Laramie was a major post on the Pony Express route between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California. During those years, workmen began stringing miles of galvanized iron wire to tie the nation together which by 1861 completed the Transcontinental Telegraph. What a change to see messages flashed instantly. It was the Fort Laramie volunteer units that kept the lines open and operating. However, the improvements to communication violated land boundaries and as a result, Indian attacks on military outposts, telegraph stations, mail stages and civilians increased. The U.S. Government failed to hold up its end of the bargain.
By 1890, the Fort eventually dissolved. As we all know, the westerners took over the land, ending the Indian uprisings. Thus, the government no longer required the services of Fort Laramie, ordering immediate closure. More than 50 buildings were either sold at auction, removed or demolished until local residents recognized the importance of the Fort. Preservation began in 1927.
After seeing Fort Laramie, I certainly have mixed emotions. On the one hand, I am awestruck by the men and women who labored, sacrificed and dreamt a new life, a better life, heading into unfamiliar territory, and the guts it took to put their familiar lives and the people in it, behind. But on the other hand, I am deeply saddened by the disruption and upheaval we caused Native Americans, ultimately taking away what was theirs. What gave us the right to selfishly not hold up our end of the bargain, forcing these people to defend a land they so fiercely valued? It all seems so unfair, yet a mentality that streams throughout world history. Here is a quote by Sergeant Stephen H. Fairfield, 11th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, reflecting on the Indian War of 1865, that really moved me to tears…..
“Long trains of wagons were winding their way over the plains, the mysterious telegraph wires were stretching across their hunting grounds to the mountains, engineers were surveying a route for a track for the iron horse, and all without saying as much as ‘By your leave’ to the Indians. Knowing that their game would soon be gone, that their hunting grounds taken from them, and that they themselves would soon be without a country, they had resorted to arms to defend their way of life and themselves.”
Following our tour, we continued an extension of the story of the western movement……the Fort Laramie Bridge, now known as the
King Iron Bowstring Bridge. It is the best-preserved King patent tubular bowstring iron bridge in existence. Just a few miles away from Fort Laramie, this 400-foot old Army bridge was erected in 1875, spanning over the North Platte River that served as a vital link between Cheyenne, Fort Laramie and the military outposts. In addition, thousands of fortune hunters crossed this bridge seeking their prosperity in the Black Hills Dakota region, crossing onto the Great Sioux Reservation which in turn violated the Treaty of 1868. Whew…we sure got schooled today!
Before making our way back to our campsite, we thought we’d take a quick drive, and I mean quick, through the VERY small town of Laramie (population 250). Gosh, I wonder what it would be like to grow up in such a small town?