History Friday – The Fort at La Ramie

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.)

7 thoughts on “History Friday – The Fort at La Ramie”

  1. Thanks, Sgt. Mom. I really enjoy your writing. I am again in awe at the resilience of the settlers of the West during the 1800’s. We were preceded by sturdy, resourceful and optimistic folk. Rugged individualism and family were defined for more than a century in our culture by their struggles and victories.


  2. One reason I like the TV movie, “Broken Trail,” is that the end is so idyllic. Except I don’t why he wouldn’t accept that woman’s offer to stay. It gets cold there in winter and beds get cold. The movie has been rightly criticized for some inaccuracies but it is still a nice story.

  3. Thanks, guys – I think one of the reasons that I do like the 19th century was because of the general optimism about life, even in the middle of hardship. Not many people went all-in to angsty navel-gazing. They just went out and did the job, whatever it was. Which is heroic in it’s own way.

  4. I think most people were optimistic until the Vietnam War. My mother was a sunny and optimistic person. She remembered the sinking of the Titanic when she was 14. She wrote letters to guys in the army in WWI. She was in California living with a cousin when the 1929 crash caused that family to lose all their money and their home. She and my father dated for years before the could afford to marry. When WWII began she was 43 and her nephews were all going to war. In 1946, she and my father had big parties for the guys as they came back home. Quite a few met their wives among the pretty friends of my two cousins. My father had business troubles in the 50s and she went back to work. It was she who encouraged me in school. She was still an optimist at the age of 100 when we had a big birthday party for her.

    I think the 60s have wrecked the culture and eroded the work ethic. My kids still seem to have the work gene but I wonder about those kids now entering college age. Certainly the culture has been debased for a generation.

  5. Not many people went all-in to angsty navel-gazing. They just went out and did the job, whatever it was. Which is heroic in it’s own way.

    I have give a lot of thought to this over the years and do you think part of the reason they “just did it” was the fact they had nothing to fall back on? Marriages usually stayed for life – even if the spouses hated each other – because of economic necessity.

    I think when all you owned was in that wagon you did your best to get there.

    Had an interesting little experience today Mike. I am getting my hair cut at these Korean barbers – who have a shop in a strip mall in town. Now they are 20 miles away from my house but I learned about them because of a friend I visit – they are even open on Sunday.

    So I happen to be in that area of town this afternoon and stop in.

    I didn’t see any sign giving heir hours so I ask the one – it seems to be a mother and daughter there – when she takes time off.

    “I am here 7 days a week. My time off is a holiday”.

    Talk about a work ethic. No wonder the Asians are filling up the Universities.

  6. “Talk about a work ethic. No wonder the Asians are filling up the Universities.”

    They are also filling the medical schools, which is a bit of a surprise as medicine seems not to be the wave of the future. Either they know something I don’t or the profession is attractive for other reasons. I know doctors who are thinking about other fields. I know an ER doc who went into construction but he may now be back in medicine . Like nursing, it is always there to fall back on. An OB friend of mine went to the MacDonalds’ Hamburger University to learn how to run a MacD’s. Before he could do anything about it, he died of pancreatic cancer.

  7. All that foot traffic inspired some one to build a railroad from Baltimore to Oakland.

    How did they build the railroad without government funding, environment impact statements, Davis Bacon, Dodd Frank, or the million pages of regulations we enjoy today? The congress did give the railroad title to land which had been owned by Indians since the last ice age but no money to pay for it.

    Imagine what would have happened if today’s laws were in effect back then. How much better off everyone would have been.

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