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THE CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH AND

FORT LARAMIE AS A MILITARY POST:

TWIN SESQUICENTENNIAL EVENTS

 

In 1841 two unconnected events occurred at widely separated points, two events destined to change the face of the still relatively new United States of America. In that year, Thomas Fitzpatrick, the mountain man called "Broken Hand" by the Indians, led the Bidwell-Bartleson Party across South Pass on their way to California and Johann August Sutter, a Swiss emigrant, established his namesake fort near the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers.

Fitzpatrick, of course, had been co-leader of the party of mountain men which had effectively discovered South Pass in 1824, thus marking out a trail across the Continental Divide that could, with effort, be followed not just by men on horseback but also by families traveling in wagons. In 1841, he also guided the Bidwell-Bartleson Party west--the first bona fide wagon train to make the journey. They were followed by modest numbers of emigrants for the better part of a decade.

Then, on January 24, 1848, James Marshall, supervising the construction of a mill on the Coloma River about fifty-five miles from Sutter's Fort, now called Sutter's Mill, discovered gold. Efforts to keep the discovery secret were totally unsuccessful. News of the discovery on the American and Feather Rivers spread across the continent like wildfire. Any lingering doubt as to its authenticity was removed once and for all on December 5 when President James Polk delivered a farewell address to Congress in which he spoke in the most positive terms of the prospects for gold mining in California. And well might President Polk have savored such an allusion, for the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending what his opponents had called "Mr. Polk's War" had been signed just nine days after James Marshall's eye had been attracted to some glittering objects in the Coloma River. The settlement of the conflict had resulted in the forced cession by Mexico to the United States of the present states of California, Nevada and Utah as well as most the present states of Arizona and New Mexico. California, gold-rich California, now belonged to the United States!

In 1849, the gold rush began in earnest, peaking in 1850 but continuing for years. Whether called 49'ers, Argonauts, or gold rushers, thousands took to the trail bound for California. Such a massive response accelerated an already existing Government policy of acquiring military establishments on the main route of overland travel. The year before, in 1848, Old Fort Kearny became New Fort Kearny with the establishment of the latter on the south side of the North Platte River in central Nebraska. Several years earlier, Thomas Fitzpatrick, now the first Agent for the Indians of the Upper Platte and Arkansas, had given his "opinion . . . that a post at or in the vicinity of Laramie is much wanted. It would be nearly in the vicinity of the buffalo range, where all the most formidable Indian tribes are fast approaching, and near where there will eventually (as the game decreases) be a great struggle for the ascendancy. Three hundred mounted men at that post would be necessary."

Based in part on this advice the Government moved to acquire another post further west, a feat accomplished in the spring of the following year. On June 26, 1849, Lieutenant Daniel Woodbury of the Corps of Engineers consummated the purchase of adobe-walled Fort John from the American Fur Company for the sum of $4000. Initially garrisoned by two officers and 60 men (with fifty-five more troops added on August 12), the fur trade post whose history dated back to 1834 when it had been constructed as Fort William on the orders of William Sublette and Robert Campbell, was also re-named. Henceforth it would bear the name Fort Laramie. Thus, today, we celebrate the sesquicentennial both of the gold rush to California and the establishment of arguably the most famous military post on the northern plains. The location of the original Fort William remains a matter of contention and conjecture, but in her 1850 diary, Lucena Parson entry for August 1 informs us that "The Fort is built on the Larimiee fork some 1 1/2 miles from the river."

Almost immediately construction was begun on buildings beyond the limits of Fort John's adobe walls. Two of them are still standing: the Sutler's Store and the two-story, veranda-enclosed structure which variously served as Post Headquarters and as Bachelor Officers Quarters bearing the sobriquet "Old Bedlam". Preserved through the joint efforts of the State of Wyoming and The National Park Service, these two structures, along with more than a dozen other restored historical buildings, are available for viewing and visiting by contemporary travelers. But how did the post appear to the 49'ers, and the even greater number of emigrants in the following several years, including 1850, the year of greatest gold rush travel, when about 55,000 passed through or by Fort Laramie?

On June 19, Sallie Hester, a teen-aged 49'er, described the fort as being made of "adobe, enclosed with a high wall of the same, The entrance is a hole in the wall just large enough for a person to crawl through. The impression you have on entering is that you are in a small town." A year later, on June 8, 1850, Margaret A. Frink provided additional detail: "The fort is one hundred and eighty feet square, having adobe walls fifteen feet high, on the inside of which are rooms built against the walls all around, of the same material. The parade-ground in the center is one hundred and thirty feet square. On top of the wall are wooden palisades. Over the front gateway is a square tower with loopholes for rifles." Amelia Hadley, writing on June 7, 1851, described "brick 3 story high stores in the lower stories" where " you can get almost any thing you want. . . .the town is a square, block, and brick side walks. . . .there are quite a number of frame buildings. . . a good blacksmith shop. . .any quantity of wigwams and Indians about 5 or 6 hundred." She also noted "They have a sawmill, about 10 miles from the fort, which is strange for this place." Finally, in 1852, Eliza Ann McAuley and Mariett Foster Cummings offer brief descriptions, Cummings on June 12 and McCauley on June 15.

Mariett Foster Cummings: "There are two fine two-story buildings at the fort, one of them officer's quarters and the other a trading post. We found dried fruits and hams and bacon as cheap as at St. Joe.

Eliza Ann McAuley: There are two or three nice looking houses in the fort, the first we have seen since leaving the Missouri River."

The number of troops stationed at Fort Laramie during the first years of the gold rush varied, if emigrant testimony is to be credited. In early August,1850, Lucena Parsons reported the presence of "250 soldiers & some 12 families; Amelia Hadley reported that there "are only about 80 soldiers here now some of them have their wives with them" on June 7, 1851; and, in 1853, Celinda Hines noted she "was much surprised at seeing no fortifications. There are at present 64 soldiers."

By the time emigrants reached Fort Laramie they had, of course, been following the North Plattte River since entering the valley at Ash Hollow (if they were traveling on the south side) or since the forks of the Platte even further east (if they were "northsiders). That river today bears very little resemblance to its historic predecessor; dams such as Pathfinder, Alcova and Kingsley now control the seasonal flow. One hundred and forty-seven years ago, however, Eliza Ann Mcauley described her party's place of camping as being at the point at which "the River become narrow and swift". Three days earlier, on June 12, 1852, Mariett Foster Cummings noted another characteristic as her party "struck the river which was bordered with trees, the first we have seen on this side (north side) for over 200 miles." Those traveling early in the season usually found adequate to good supplies of wood and grass, but not all! Amelia Hadley (1851), for instance, noted on June 5 that the "road still near the river, cotton wood plenty, good grass, within 6 miles of Fort Larimi. . .plenty of timber." Three days later, on Sunday June 8, Susan Amelia Cranston (1851) held a contrary opinion. Camping two miles from the point at which her party had forded the Laramie River, she remarked on the "sandy road" and the fact that they "had poor grass".

While trains on both sides of the river followed the North Platte deep into central Wyoming, for southsiders the Laramie River posed much more substantial concerns and potential problems. The reason? The Laramie had to be forded or ferried, either at the fort or at a point several miles below or above. Even those travelers who did not experience much difficulty themselves were all too aware that the river had exacted a terrible cost from others. "When we came to the Laramie river, the water was very high, and ran into our wagon" wrote Margaret A. Frink on Saturday, June 8, 1850, adding "This is a dangerous ford, where a number of persons have been drowned." Though her party "had no trouble in fording it (the Laramie River) the water being low", Lucena Parsons (1850) noted in her diary some six weeks later that "there have been 5 men drowned here this spring in crossing their teams. They were carried down by the current which is very swift even now."

In the first years of the gold rush to California, a number of emigrants noted the presence of a ferry at Fort Laramie. Amelia Hadley (1851), for instance reported on Saturday, June 7 that "They have a good ferry at or opposite the fort, (but) we are not obliged to cross we still go up on the north side." The following year Mariett Foster (1852) Cummings recorded a similar observation on June 12: "Came opposite Fort Laramie about ten o'clock. There is a ferry across the north branch here. The north and south branches (the North Platte and Laramie Rivers) unite just below, in sight." The owners/proprietors of the ferry naturally charged emigrants availing themselves of the service. According to Sarah Sutton (1854) who crossed on June 3, "we paid 25 cents apiece for each wagon crossing on Larama fork of plat." Of course, those herding cattle accompanying the wagon train had to get there animals across the river-and it was always both difficult and dangerous? Martha Missouri Moore (1860) who, with her husband was herding a flock of hundreds of sheep, spoke for them: "Friday, 5th (July) . . . Had an awful time crossing the sheep. . . .The stream is very swift and when up very dangerous. Camped one mile above the fort in short grass plenty of wood and water."

The dangers of trail travel, river fording among them, imposed a price upon wagon train pioneers that was reflected in a commonly encountered and reported sight. In 1850, Lucena Parsons reported on August 2 that her train "Passt 6 graves." Susan Amelia Cranston (1851) "came in sight of Larimaii peak the highest point in the black hills" on Sunday, June 8; she also noted without comment "5 graves". A final example comes from Abigail Jane Scott (1852) whose train "started early" on the morning of June 18th, "passed Fort Laramie about 10 o'clock. . .We passed three new made graves this morning." These numbers may seem small, but they represent almost daily sightings. Between central Nebraska and Ash Hollow in western Nebraska, for example, Mrs. Cecelia Adams (1852) counted 145 graves. One should also remember that the simple burial sites emigrants could prepare disappeared quite rapidly because of the weather and because coyotes, wolves and other animals frequently disturbed them.

One potential difficulty which emigrants randomly but almost certainly experienced was changeable weather. Even today the weather in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming can "flare up" with startling suddenness. Over the past couple of decades, this writer has observed the results of wind-driven hail--every window on the west side of buildings broken, siding dented and bark stripped clean off every tree on the side of the storm's approach. Emigrants headed west in pursuit of fortune had to contend with similar experiences. ". . .within 6 miles of Fort Larimi" wrote Amelia Hadley on June 5, 1851, "we had a hard hail storm hailed about an hour as hard as I ever saw it so that the ground was perfectly white hailled also last night not so much but considerably larger." Two years later, Amelia Knight (1853) had a similar experience: "Just passed fort Laramie. . .we had a thunder storm of rain and hail, and a hard blow this afternoon." Even if hail did not accompany thunder storms, some degree of discomfort usually did. As Mary Ringo (1864) noted laconically in her diary on July 20, "We camp late, had quite a shower and ate our supper in the rain."

If too much water in the form of rain and hail posed a frequent hazard, its opposite number had to be dealt with just as frequently--dust! Lucena Parson (1850) speaks to this point. On August 2, she reported that the "Roads very sandy, one bad hill to come down. Campt on river with rest of the company. Wether dry & very dusty." Of course, on occasion, the two elements combined, temporarily generating a more favorable result. Eliza Ann McAuley (1852), writing in mid-June, happily noted that "The rain laid the dust and improved the road very much."

Whether the train actually stopped at Fort Laramie or not, members of the party very frequently left mail at the post to be sent back east to family and friends. In fact, in the 1850's something of a "Postal Service" was in existence, as reflected in diary entry recorded by Margaret A. Frink (1850). On Saturday, June 8, she noted that "The mail-carriers passed us on a trot this morning, going to the summit of the Rocky Mountains, where a post-office for the accommodation of the emigrants was established." Two members of the party with which Abigail Jane Scott (1852) traveled "crossed the river (and carried some) letters which the company had written." In like manner the previous year, Amelia Hadley (1851) reported "They have a good ferry at or opposite the fort, we are not obliged to cross we still go up on the north side. some of our boys went over to put some letters in the office." Of course, mail also traveled the "other" way, that is, some of the wagon train emigrants found mail waiting for them at Fort Laramie. Among them was Celinda Hines (1853), who "received 3 letters from Marie Wightman one from R E Prescott & one from R E Robinson."

If trains did stop at the fort the principal reason was either to have necessary repairs to equipment made or to purchase the supplies that would be required to traverse the trail across present day Wyoming. Since draft animals and operational wagons were absolute necessities for travel, many emigrants sought the services of a blacksmith and/or a farrier. According to Sallie Hester (1840), "Men were engaged in all kinds of business . . .(including) blacksmith", while Amelia Hadley (1852) observed that "here is a good blacksmith shop". Lucena Parsons' party had a not unusual experience when some members "This morn went to the Fort to get some blacksmithing done but could not they have so much work." Francis Sawyer (1852) and Mary Burrell (1854) both referred to work done by a farrier as the train laid by. The latter noted briefly that her party "Got some cows shoes", while the former's party "will lay over here tomorrow as Mr. Sawyer wishes to get a mule shoe"; the following day, "Mr. Sawyer got one shoe put on his mule and the others tightened. Cost him five dollars." Mrs. Sawyer also recorded the fact that the day, June 13, was also her twenty-first birthday which she "celebrated" by being "in bed most all day, taking a good rest and trying to sleep."

Demand for services, particularly during the gold rush years, was high. Thus while Lucena Parsons (1850) described the presence of "a saw mill, one publick house, one store", she also noted what we today would describe as a shortage of skilled labor, reflected in the fact that "They offer for carpenter work 60 a month & find them, & a woman to cook 20 a month." With demand for supplies high during the months of trail travel and supply limited by the time and expense of transporting goods from the Missouri River, it is not surprising that many emigrants were distinctly unhappy about the prices they had to pay! According to Lucena Parsons (1850), "They hold goods high & work is also high. . .Flour is 18 per hundred & whiskey 8 per gallon in the emigrants store", while Francis Sawyer (1852) simply observed that "They keep supplies here, but sell at high prices." The reaction of Sarah Sutton's husband was considerably more emphatic. With "flour for sale for 10 dollars per sack, not a 100 weight in them and bread for 29 cents per pound. Mr. Sutton said before he would give that he would live on duplins, and bread was 25 cents per pound."

No matter where they were on the trail, the daily task of cooking and the periodic necessity of doing laundry were so common as to merit little note in female diaries. Mary Burrell (1854), for instance, simply wrote "washed &c" on May 29, while five years earlier sixteen-year old Sallie Hester's (1849) "camped one mile from the fort, where we remained a few days to wash and lighten us". The latter phrase likely refers to the necessity of disposing of unnecessary items to lighten the load on draft animals before proceeding deeper into Wyoming and points west. On the same day she did the washing, Mary Burrell (1854) also "Made fruit cakes", perhaps for the purpose of celebrating her 19th birthday two days later on May 31. Here as at "home", wherever that might be, culinary efforts were not always successful. For example, Martha Missouri Moore (1860) "Tried to bake some light bread," on Saturday, July 7, "but did not succeed very well. (Even so) The day was spent quite pleasantly."

In addition to the activities described above, occasionally other business was also conducted. Mariett Foster Cummings' (1852) father camped the family "opposite the ferry nearly all day" as he "was busy selecting a span of mules from a drove across the river." Similarly, the uncles of Celinda Hines (1853), "sold the carriage & harness", while Martha Missouri Moore's (1860) husband consummated a major sale. The couple "Laid over today (July 7) while Mr. Moore disposed of a thousand head of sheep at five dollars a head."

Wagon train emigrants, of course, populated "The Great Platte River Road" only temporarily as they headed for their ultimate destinations west of the mountains. During that temporary residence, however, they sometimes encountered representatives of the area's permanent indigenous population--the Plains Indians. In spite of the many stories to which they had previously been exposed, most emigrants experienced no particular difficulties vis-a-vis the tribesmen through whose territory they were passing. During the height of the gold rush years Indian hostility towards whites was largely absent in the vicinity of Fort Laramie--at least until 1854 when the Grattan "Massacre" occurred. A study published by this writer more than three decades ago concluded, in fact, that a very substantial proportion of those traveling the road west through Nebraska and Wyoming encountered no Indians at all except at trading posts and military establishments.

Not surprisingly, therefore, emigrants commented on the presence of traders and trading posts with some frequency. In mid-June, Mariett Foster Cummings (1852) "Saw an Indian village on the opposite side of the river. Came opposite Fort Laramie about ten o'clock. . . There were several Indian lodges and a Frenchman, a trader, living in one of them with a squaw and lots of halfbreed children." Similarly, less than a week later, Abigail Jane Scott (1852) "passed several indian trading posts this morning. We can see some trading posts on the opposite side of the river." Both Susan Amelia Cranston (1851) and Sarah Sutton (1854) also reported seeing Indians at or near the fort itself, with the former observing simply "saw many soldiers and plenty of indians" while the latter noted "here was 7 or 8 log huts and a bakery and store, and whites and indians all together." With great frequency, Indians living in the vicinity of Fort Laramie viewed passing emigrants as possible trading partners, as prime targets for begging or (at least according to many emigrant accounts) attempted theft. Susan Amelia Cranston (1851) reported that of the many Indians seen, "some came to our camp to trade", and Mary Burrell (1854) saw "Wigwams in abundance" at Fort Laramie some of whose occupants approached the wagon train: "5 Indian squaws came & begged for meat & bread, two men also, and in the afternoon 5 men came." A year earlier, Amelia Knight (1853) rendered a much more complete descriptive account of such an encounter.

This afternoon we passed a large village of Siou indians, numbers of them came round our wagons, some of the women had moccasins, and beads, which they wanted to trade for bread. I gave the women and children all the cakes I had baked. husband traded a big indian a lot of hard crackers for a pair of moccasins, and after we had started on, he came up with us again, making a great fuss, and wanting them back (they had eat part of the crackers) he did not seem to be satisfied or else he wished to cause us some trouble, or perhaps get into a fight, however we handed the moccasins to him in a hurry, and drove away from them as soon as possible, several lingered along watching our horses that we tied behind the wagons, no doubt with the view of stealing the, but our folks kept a sharp lookout, till they left. . .

The fear of thievery expressed by Mrs. Knight was not uniformly held however. A year earlier Abigail Jane Scott (1852) had noted that "The tribe of indians that occupy this territory are called Sioux. They are represented as being thievish but it is thought if emigrants use proper precaution they need fear nothing from them."

Though different groups of emigrants had varied experiences with different groups of Indians, during the years of greatest gold rush travel emigrant attitudes/descriptions of the Lakota residing in the vicinity of Fort Laramie were largely positive. In mid-June of 1852, Eliza Ann McAuley "met some Indians, the first in four hundred and fifty miles. They are of the Sioux tribe and are much better looking than any we have seen." Three days earlier, on June 12, Mariett Foster Cummings expressed a similar opinion. "A Sioux visited our camp this evening", she wrote, "and he was a fine specimen of an Indian. The Sioux are a tall, athletic, symmetrical tribe. The squaws are quite pretty, some of them, ad the babies really so. They seem too proud to beg as their brother redskins the Pawnees, do."

It is perhaps a minor tragedy that events of the next several decades nullified the positive attitudes held by emigrants as they passed Fort Laramie on their way to the gold fields of California or to the rich land of Oregon.

Copyright Robert Munkres 1981-2009 All Rights Reserved