Once upon a time in the west, there was a pleasant piece of land, of open meadows broken by stands of trees on the headwaters of the North Platte River by the foot of a range of dark hills, in the present state of Wyoming. A creek flowed into the North Platte, just there, where in the very early days of the North American fur trade a French-Canadian trapper named Jaques La Ramee was supposed to have been killed by hostile natives and his body thrown into it. So the little stream and the place where it joined the Platte became known as the Laramie River, and the confluence as the Laramie Fork, or in the alternate spelling of the era “Laremais’ Point.”
Those streams drained a rich and profitable area for trappers, and many of the mountain men, as the hunters and trappers of beaver pelts were called in the early 19th century were issued licenses to trap in the uplands and to trade their takings there. In 1834 a stockade fort built of logs was established there, by William Sublette – he and two other men in the founding party had the first name of William, and so the place was dubbed Fort William. It had not escaped Sublette’s attention that not only was the location on the route into the rich fur-trapping lands in the western mountains, but also on the trail south to Taos. A year later the interest in the newly-established trading post passed into the hands of the American Fur Company, later Pierre Chouteau & Co. Ft. William was described several years later as a quadrangle with block houses at diagonal corners, where Indians camped in great numbers, bringing animal skins to trade for cloth, tobacco, beads and alcohol – and where the whole enterprise came under the sniffy disapproval of various missionaries, even as what sketchy hospitality available was welcomed . . . somewhat grudgingly, I fancy.
Early in the 1840ies a rival trading establishment, Ft. Platte was constructed close by, and the competition – in combination with the rotting of Ft. William’s stockade walls – inspired Chouteau’s company to build a new adobe fort on higher ground, which the explorer John Fremont described as having more the air of a military construction: it was whitewashed adobe brick, with fifteen-foot tall walls, which formed a quadrangle entirely lined with houses. There were two entrances, the main one guarded by square towers loop-holed with firing positions. Most of the residents of the fort were described as French traders and their Sioux wives, for the Sioux tribes came to Laramie to trade and socialize. It was originally called Ft. John, but became known as Ft Laramie. Ft. Platte was described by Francis Parkman as being deserted in 1846, for by then the glory days of the fur brigades were over, and the days of the emigrant trains had begun with the Bidwell-Bartleson Party five years previous.
Every year after 1841, the wagons of emigrants on the Oregon Trail, and those who chose to take the turn-off to California at Fort. Hall, roughly three hundred miles or so farther west, passed by the frontier trading station, coming thicker and faster. Every year there were more and more white-topped wagons splashing through the North Platte on the road from Council Bluffs which ran north of the Platte, or coming up the road that followed the south bank of the Platte from Ft. Kearny, from St. Joe, from Independence and Westport and the other ‘jumping-off’ places along the Missouri River, until the tide of 49ers, seeking gold in the placer mines of California swept all the remnants of the sleepy-nine-months-of-the-year fur-trading station. It was bought by the Army in 1849. The adobe trader post, called “The Old Fort” formed the south edge of the fort parade ground, until demolition and replacement by officers’ quarters in 1870.
But until the deluge of the Gold Rush, it was a welcome outpost, marking one-third of the journey to the golden lands of California, or the rich farm country of Oregon, the gateway between the easy travel along the Platte, to the harsher challenge over the backbone of the Rockies, and the South Pass. Given the timetable of the seasons and the trail, an emigrant company should have reached the confluence of South Platte and Laramie Creek in late June, and might have, in earlier years camped among the skin lodges of the Sioux tribes among the cottonwoods and willow thickets below the whitewashed walls of Old Laramie, in uneasy amity with the Tribes. They might have expected to trade there, for pemmican and dried buffalo meat, for baskets and moccasins and Indian ponies, to look with expressions of pious horror, or genuine intellectual curiosity on Indian graves, air-buried on scaffolds in the trees, to meet and trade with the ‘Other’ and then to continue on their own way, with a lot of mutual incomprehension; two wildly different tribes sliding past each other on the grease of commerce.
(In my novel about an early California-bound wagon-train party, the emigrants stop and visit at Fort Laramie – and trade with the Sioux, with the aid of one of their number who had been a mountain man for many years. This essay came out of the research done for that book. One of the best books about the mountain men – which I did not discover until years later on the recommendation of another writer was this one – a re-telling of some of the best-known stories, but vividly and beautifully written.)