Table of Content



Robert L. Munkres

[The National Tombstone Epitaph, November, 1981]

On the plains of eastern Wyoming, just above the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte Rivers, stands a cluster of some fifteen restored and semi-restored buildings, as well as a number of additional stabilized ruins. Far removed from today's principal routes of cross-country travel, these structures once stood athwart perhaps the most famous of all transcontinental routes--the Oregon Trail. And, for half a century, they formed part of the most important military post on the northern plains--Fort Laramie.

While its beginnings were not particularly auspicious, Fort Laramie from the start was associated with the legendary names of the mountain trade and the frontier. Originally constructed in 1834 as a small timber stockade, it was designed to serve the purposes of the mountain trade carried on by its founders-Robert Campbell and William Sublette. The following year "title" was transferred to the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, among whose owners were Milton Sublette, Jim Bridger and Thomas Fitzpatrick. Unable to compete successfully with the American Fur Company of John Jacob Astor, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company sold "Fort William" (named after Sublette) to the "Company". A new adobe stockade and a new name--Fort John--was supplied. This is the post that figures so prominently in James Michener's novel Centennial, although the structure called "Fort John" in the television production of the same name is, in fact, a National Park Service reconstruction of a perhaps equally famous trading post on the southern plains -- Bent's Fort on the Arkansas.

With the massive increase in emigrant travel, caused first by fertile land in Oregon and then by the discovery of gold in California, pressure increased upon the government to provide some degree of protection for those traveling the road west. In 1849, Fort John-on-the-Laramie was purchased by the government and turned into a military post bearing the name which became synonymous with the frontier itself--Fort Laramie. For most of the rest of the century this near-legendary establishment, which had already served as a crossroad for the mountain trade, was a staging area for the Indian Wars and the settling of the northern plains. In 1890, the post was abandoned and its buildings sold at public auction. Some buildings were stripped for their wood, while others were used for business and residential purposes. It is, therefore, not surprising that long-time residents of the area still designate various building by the names of the families who occupied them after the military period.

Some three and one-half decades after the turn of the century, success attended the efforts of those who wished to preserve the remaining structures as a historic site. In 1937, the State of Wyoming acquired the site and turned it over to the Federal Government, to be stabilized, restored and administered as a National Monument by the National Park Service. Today, its designation changed to National Historic Site, Fort Laramie serves as an outstanding example of historic preservation, restoration and interpretation.

Thousands of mountain men, missionaries and soldiers--and tens of thousands of emigrants-- passed by or through this area between 1834 and 1890. Most of them had a story to tell, and some of them did so in diaries, letters, reports and records. This writer has heard or read a lot of them since his three-summer stint as a Ranger-Historian at the fort in the late 1950's. So, if you're interested and have a moment, let me share with you a few of the "Tales of Old Fort Laramie".

The ruins of the post hospital stand on a hill behind the cavalry barracks. The state of frontier medicine was not highly developed and, as a result, infection and contagious disease were very difficult to combat. Cholera was the scourge of the trail for emigrants and Indians alike, particularly since the latter had none of the natural immunity built up by the white population over generations. Contrary to the robust image of movie and TV portrayals, the health of the native population was, after contact with the whites, substantially diminished. A case in point--the following reports by Dr. J.C.R. Clark, Vaccinating Agent for the United States Government. In a letter to Charles Mix, Acting Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Dr. Clark made the following comments on October 25, 1859: "The diseases most prevalent among the Indians of the Upper Platte, so far as I have been able to observe, are of a cutaneous and pulmonary character. Bangs seems to be one of the peculiar pathological institutions of the country. Chronic Catarrhal & Gonorrheal Opthalmitis is found prevailing to a great extent. Syphilitic afections (sic.) among the prairie tribes are seldom met with which may readily (be) accounted for as their intercourse with the Whites is so much more limited than those of other tribes residing contiguous to our people."

Four months earlier, writing from the Upper Platte Agency at Deer Creek, Dr. Clark had noted another destructive agent introduced to the territory by whites. "The cause of nearly every difficulty among the Indians & whites is whiskey, whiskey. The poor deluded Indian will give his horse, blanket, & even his wife, for a pint of whiskey. I mention this as a matter of news not that it comes, at all, under my official duty."

The low levels or absence of anesthetics to control shock, as well as the problem of infection already noted, made amputation as a treatment only modestly preferable to outright execution! One of the reasons Indians preferred to battle in a state of semi-nakedness reflected their grasp of the dangers which attended the introduction of foreign materials such as clothing into a wound. Amputation-induced fatalities struck civilians as well as the military. Edwin Bryant, subsequently to become the Alcalde of San Francisco, recorded one such instance in his book What I Saw In California. He was called for such help as he could give in the case of a boy whose leg had been fractured.

The men who had been sent for me had given no description of the case of fracture. . . I supposed, as a matter of course, that the accident had occurred the preceding day. . . .I soon learned, from the mother, that the accident occasioning the fracture had occurred nine days previously. That a person professing to be a "doctor", had wrapped some linen loosely about the leg, and made a sort of trough, or plank box, in which it had been confined. In this condition the child had remained, without any dressing of his wounded limb, until last night, when he called to his mother, and told her that he could feel worms crawling in his leg! This, at first, she supposed to be absurd; but the boy insisting, an examination of the wound for the first time was made, and it was discovered that gangrene had taken place, and the limb of the child was swarming with maggots! . . . He was so much enfeebled by his sufferings that death was stamped upon his countenance, and I was satisfied that he could not live twenty-four hours, much less survive an operation. I so informed the mother, stating to her that to amputate the limb would only hasten the boy's death, and add to his pains while living. . .

But this could not satisfy a mother's affection. . . A Canadian Frenchman, who belonged to this emigrating party, was present, and stated that he had formerly been an assistant to a surgeon in some hospital, and. . . that he would amputate the child's limb, if I declined doing it, and the mother desired it. . . The instruments to be used were a common butcher-knife, a carpenter's handsaw, and a shoemaker's awl to take up the arteries. The man commenced by gashing the flesh to the bone around the calf of the leg, which was in a state of putrescence. He then made an incision just below the knee and commenced sawing; but before he had completed the amputation of the bone, he concluded that the operation should be performed above the knee.

During these demonstrations the boy never uttered a groan or a complaint, but I saw from the change in his countenance, that he was dying. The operator, without noticing this, proceeded to sever the leg above the knee. A cord was drawn round the limb, above the spot where it was intended to sever it, so tight that it cut through the skin into the flesh. The knife and saw were then applied and the limb amputated. A few drops of blood only oozed from the stump; the child was dead--his miseries were over!

Of course, a number survived frontier surgery or amputation, primitive though it may have been. After all, Marcus Whitman successfully removed a Blackfoot arrowhead from Jim Bridger's back at the Rendezvous of 1835 and, although his diseased leg eventually caused his death, Milton Sublette underwent amputations of his leg on several occasions. In the process of stabilizing the ruins of the post hospital, the accompanying excavation resulted in the discovery of an older post cemetary on the same site. Among the remains uncovered were those of a man who had had one leg cut off--Milton Sublette. Not surprisingly, the juxtaposition of the cemetary and the hospital led, in the ensuing years, to numerous comments about the relative effectiveness of frontier medicine!

Not only white's are buried at Fort Laramie. In 1864, a cross-cultural funeral service of a type most unusual for the time was held. The Brulé band of the Teton Dakota frequented the area around Fort Laramie, and the teen-aged daughter of their chief, Spotted Tail, was reportedly entranced with the pageantry and pomp of the military. She was a familiar sight as she watched the soldiers drill on the parade ground; some have subsequently suggested that she became anamored of a soldier. Be that as it may, when she went with her father and her people to their traditional wintering ground in the Powder River Country, the extremes of climate proved too much for her frail constitution. Her dying wish, expressed to her father, was that she be buried at the soldier place on the banks of the Laramie. Spotted Tail sent such a request to the post commander, Colonel Henry Maynadier; the Colonel not only responded affirmatively, he also arranged for a Christian burial presided over by the post chaplain. At sunset, the girl's body was borne to its final resting place--a scaffold constructed perhaps half a mile north of the parade ground. A lengthy prayer by the chaplain had a pronounced effect on the many officers and soldiers present; its impact was noted again, this time upon the large gathering from Spotted Tail's band, as the prayer was translated into Lakota. And so it came about that white and red warriors alike paid their formal tribute to a young girl who had loved the ways of both.

The Sutler's Store, first constructed in 1849, is one of the two oldest buildings still standing in the State of Wyoming. The Post Sutler, a civilian licensed by the government to operate his facility on military posts, ran an establishment which was a 19th century combination of PX, post office and supply house for emigrants. In addition, an Officer's Club was located in the rear of the building. Although he did business with emigrants largely on a cash or barter basis, the Sutler frequently extended credit to enlisted men and non-coms. As a result, many were more or less perpetually in debt in order to finance their purchases. The relationship thus established was at least passingly similar to that which had previously existed between mountain men and those who brought supplies to the annual rendezvous from St. Louis. In both cases, the creditors (suppliers and sutlers) reaped whatever profit was to be made, and the borrowers (mountain men and enlisted men) remained indebted for the purpose of satisfying a temporary desire to pursue pleasure.

Emigrants, of course, encountered what can only be denominated as a "mountain monopoly". Supplies simply had to be obtained if the remaining two-thirds of the trip was to be negotiated--and the Post Sutler was the only supplier available. As a result, while complaints about "mountain prices" appear in numerous diaries, most emigrants made the best bargain possible before moving west once again. The blacksmith and wheelwright, whose shops were located on the banks of the Laramie River, also provided services which were in great demand. In addition to the normal wear-and-tear imposed upon wagons during 500 to 600 miles of travel, atmospheric changes resulted in problems not usually encountered further east. As wagon trains crossed the 100th meridian (roughly, the forks of the Platte), annual rainfall diminished and humidity levels lowered, resulting in the shrinkage of wood as it dried out. With frustrating frequency, wheels became misshapen and lost their rims, and, as with the purchase of at least minimal supplies, emigrants literally had no choice but to undertake the necessary repairs.

Had a "guest register" been kept at the Sutler's Store, it would have read like a "Who's Who" of the frontier. Jim Bridger spent at least one winter at the fort, apparently bunking in a corner of the store. Thomas Fitzpatrick, one of the early owners of the fur-trading post, spent additional time in the area subsequent to his appointment as Indian Agent for the Upper Platte and Arkansas, and Kit Carson undoubtedly dropped in after driving a herd of sheep north from Bent's Fort. One of the lesser known frontiersmen who frequented the Sutler's establishment was William Guerrier, of the firm of Ward and Guerrier. If for no other reason, Mr. Guerrier deserves mention because of the unlikely manner in which he allegedly left this world. As the story goes, Mr. Guerrier, on an otherwise uneventful day, seated himself on a small barrel, then absentmindedly tapped out the live embers from his pipe against it. Unfortunately, the "small barrel" was a keg of gun powder which, in combination with the aforementioned live embers, fatally distributed Mr. Guerrier over quite a substantial area!

At least one more story connected with the Sutler's Store must be told-the legend of the Fort Laramie Ghost. The tale has perhaps as many different versions as there have been tellers of it, but the general outline remains the same.

In the early years of Fort Laramie's military existence, a new sutler arrived at the post accompanied by his teen-age daughter. An accomplished equestrian, the young lady took a daily ride, first on or very near the post, then at increasing distances from it. In spite of warnings from her father, she frequently rode alone. One afternoon, dressed in a splendid new green riding habit, the sutler's daughter departed the post for her usual ride--and never returned!! Search parties and patrols proved fruitless; no trace of the girl or her mount were ever found. Heartbroken, the sutler sold his store, took his few possessions and rode off the area and out of our story. The tragic disappearance of the sutler's daughter became a standard topic of reminiscent conversation, particularly whenever newly posted officers were entertained at dinner.

Seven years to the day after the girl vanished, three troopers, just back from patrol, told a strange story in the enlisted man's bar. The trio had pulled guard duty the night before, and each had seen the same thing--a young woman in a green riding habit quirting her already galloping horse as she raced close by the bivouacked patrol! Thus was born the "Fort Laramie Ghost", for the old timers agreed that the troopers' descriptions could only fit the long-disappeared sutler's daughter!

So the legend grew. During the Civil War, a lonely private from Ohio, wandering near the fort, insisted that a young woman on horseback wearing a green riding habit nearly ran him down, and in the early 70's, the night hawk for a herd passing near the fort on the Texas Trail started to shout a stampede alarm when he saw a rider galloping full-tilt toward the sleeping herd. He stifled his cry when the rider veered off, but later he reported a curious fact--while he could clearly hear the hoofbeats of the horse, apparently the herd could not! Also, he couldn't understand what a young girl in a green riding habit was doing out by herself that late at night riding as if, in his words, "she was hunting with the hounds of hell"!

Now, two years after Custer's defeat on the Little Big Horn, the final character enters our story. A young lieutenant, posted to Fort Laramie, partially patterned himself after the "Boy General", whose image in defeat still shown brightly among cavalrymen. In particular, the lieutenant adopted Custer's love of fine horses and hunting with stag hounds.

One fine spring afternoon, two companions accompanied the lieutenant off the post for a go at a sporting hunt. Several miles from the fort the hounds picked up a scent--and were off like a shot, with all three riders in close pursuit. His companions' mounts were, however, no match for the lieutenant's stallion--nor for his stag hounds. Within moments, his companions somewhere in the distance behind him, the lieutenant was alone with his hunt-induced exhilaration running at flood tide--when his horse stumbled, then pulled up lame. Quickly dismounting to determine the extent of injury, the lieutenant was so relieved to find only a stone in his favorite horse's left front foot he was only dimly aware of hoofbeats in the distance. They drew closer as he carefully examined his mount's leg to be certain no real injury had been inflicted; he half-consciously assumed that it was only his companions finally catching up with him. At the last moment, he looked up, and was startled to see a galloping horse bearing down on him--with a female rider wearing a green riding habit and carrying a quirt! Thinking her to be someone from the fort who had lost control of her mount, the lieutenant jumped into the horse's path and grabbed for its bridle. As he did so, the horse slowed a bit and swerved--then something happened that would remain bright in the lieutenant's memory long after the rest of his Fort Laramie tour of duty had been forgotten. The young woman quirted him across the fact with a full stroke of her arm!! Seeking to protect himself, the lieutenant instinctively threw up his arm to deflect the blow, feeling her arm brush against his hand as she struck. Had he not done so, his face and eyes would have received the full force of the quirt!! As it was, he was momentarily staggered, recovering in time to see the green-clad rider disappear over a rise, her horse once again at a full gallop.

A few moments later his two companins rode up, then hurried him back to the fort after observing his injury. After the Post Surgeon had treated him, the lieutenant told his story-to a very sceptical listener. "Young man, that's as pretty a quirt cut as I've seen in a long time, and I've heard of that green-clad girl ghost ever since I rode into this post--but no one's ever seen a ghost before that bloodied them!!" The surgeon went on to suggest that perhaps a sharp rock might have caused the cut, or, more likely, the friends had had a falling out and one of this companions had resorted to a quirt--and the ghost story was simply a cover-up.

Slowly shaking his head, the lieutenant offered his final, and conclusive, rebuttal. "Doc, I don't blame you for not believing me, but this cut's not all I got out there!" "I got this when her arm and hand sort of bounced off mine." The lieutenant reached inside his tunic, then opened his hand to show the doctor what had come off in his hand as a result of that split-second instinctive reaction. As the lieutenant opened his hand, the doctor saw a small golden button of the type women were prone to wear on stylish riding habits!!

Does the Fort Laramie Ghost still ride? In 1976, the Cheyenne Westerners sponsored a midnight outing at Fort Laramie. The ghost was scheduled to appear in that bicentennial year, but the hosts, leaving nothing to chance, arranged for a young man to drape a blanket over himself and ride across the parade ground at midnight. He did so, and his "ghostly" appearance occasioned the expected comments. Afterwards, however, the young man told a friend that he'd never take that ride again because, spooky though it might sound, he had heard hoofbeats behind him all the way!! So, does the Fort Laramie Ghost still ride? I don't know. But if ever you're in the vicinity of Fort Laramie, and you happen to see a young woman in a green riding habit riding toward you at a rapid pace--if I were you, I'd get the hell out of her way!!

Across the parade ground from the Sutler's Store stand two Guard Houses, constructed in different years. In fact, when excavation associated with the restoration of the newest (1876) of the two was undertaken, the remains of a still older military jail were uncovered. One reaction common to almost everyone who views the excavation is astonishment at the dimensions of the "accommodations" for incarceration. Even allowing for the fact that the average physical size of individuals has measurably increased over the past 100 to 130 years, the cells still seem to have been designed with discomfort in mind! This impression is further strengthened if one then visits the older (1866) Guard House, in the basement of which are two solitary confinement cells. Most of the soldiers of the 19th century could probably have stood erect and have turned around, just barely, in the cells, unless they stood more than 5 foot 9 inches in height!!

Guard House facilities clearly were not intended to invite repeated visits on the part of the troops--but repeaters there always were. Boredom was endemic at a frontier post, discipline harsh, food not very exciting to poor, and drunkeness, as a result, almost inevitable on payday. One Irishman "visited" a solitary cell in the 1866 Guard House with a frequency sufficient to permit him to carve his name three times on the inside of the door!

As already noted, discipline in the frontier army was harsh, even bordering on being cruel. In addition to incarceration, corporal punishment in the form of whipping was sometimes administered. On other occasions, an enlisted man's punishment might consist of being required to stand at attention in the hot summer sun for a specified period of time with a knapsack loaded with 40 or 50 pounds of rock strapped to his back! If such punishment caused a soldier to pass out, he was simply revived, then required to finish the punishment imposed.

Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that desertion was a not infrequent ocurrence. Some deserters made it, other did not and were punished. The story of one of the latter merits retelling not so much because of what it tells us about the frontier army, but because of what it tells about some of those whom the army was ordered to control--the Plains Indians.

In the days of the California gold rush, an enlisted man at Fort Laramie deserted. To expedite his journey to the gold fields, he took not only his military uniform and weapons and food, he also "borrowed" the commanding officer's prize stallion. An emigrant, stopping by the fort several days after the theft, expressed surprise that no one had been sent in pursuit of the deserter. He was told that no such pursuit was necessary, the deserter would be back. Three or four days after the wagon train to which the emigrant belonged left Fort Laramie, it encountered the would-be deserter--slowly making his way back to the fort! He was riding a sway-backed nag, was unarmed and was completely naked except for a very well-worn buffalo robe! It seems (as the colonel had obviously anticipated) that such fine horse flesh as that appropriated by the trooper at the time of his desertion was bound to attract the attention of the Indians of the region. And it did!! In this case, those attracted were People of the Raven, whom white men called Crows--a hardy band of brigands who had long since raised the practice of horse stealing to a level of artistic purity awesome to behold. Fortunately for the trooper, the Crows' reputation also had another accurately descriptive facet--they rarely, if ever, killed a white man. What they did do was to conduct a "bartering" sesion, the result of which the emigrants could readily observe. The Crows "gave" the soldier the worn buffalo robe in exchange for his clothes and weapons, then exchanged the sway-backed nag for the colonel's stolen mount. They then solicitously suggested to the enlisted man that he return to the fort since, in all liklihood, he would be unable to make it to the gold fields in his present condition! The emigrant diarist who recorded this incident noted that such "bargaining sessions" with the Crows had taken place before and that the Crows always "got the best of the bargain" when, as it were, they "cornered the market". The diarist went on to suggest the existence of a distinct similarity between Crow "bargaining sessions" and modern Wall Street operations, with one critical difference: "in the latter instance, the winning party rarely contributes even a blanket to cover the nakedness of the party fleeced!"

This, of course, was not the usual method by which Plains Indians acquired horses--either from white men or from other tribes. The sophisticated stealth with which raiding parties operated was near legendary among whites, and deservedly so! No less an authority that Jim Bridger had once avowed that the time to worry about Indians was when you couldn't see them! Colonel Thomas Moonlight, later to become Governor of Wyoming, would have agreed with that assessment, once he got over he angry embarrasment. It seems a patrol, commanded by the Colonel, camped some miles from Fort Laramie. During the night, Indian raiders managed to make off with the horses of the entire command! The Colonel and his cavalrymen were left with nothing but the unpalatable alternative of walking back to the fort. One can imagine the kind of mocking jokes the horse soldiers subsequently had to endure from the infantry stationed at the post.

One further example of horse stealing should be mentioned. On another occasion, a patrol was sent out from the fort to ascertain the location and size of any groups of Indians in the vicinity. After completing their appointed task, the patrol returned with the report that there were no Indians within two or three days' ride from the fort. The troopers unsaddled their mounts, then briefly turned them loose on the parade ground to roll in the dirt. At that very moment a small party of Indians rode onto the parade ground, shouting and waving blankets--and drove the horses on a line for the North Platte River. Before the dismounted troopers could recover, obtain other horses and give pursuit, the raiding party, and their prizes, were on the north bank of the river headed deep into "Indian Country". Where had the Indians come from? There appear to be two possibilities. The first is that the Indians simply "picked up" the patrol at some point and followed them back to the fort. The other possibility is that the Indians were hidden within sight of the fort! Either way, the ability of the raiding party to avoid discovery was phenomenal. The cavalrymen either were followed, without their knowledge, by Indians, or they rode by or through hidden Indians without seeing them!

Indians, of course, had figured in the history of Fort Laramie from the beginning. The Government's purchase of Fort John from the American Fur Company in 1849 had resulted from the need not only to provide a supply station for gold rush emigrants, but also to provide them with protection against Indian "troubles". To further the latter purpose, a great treaty council with the Plains tribes was called in 1851, at least partially as a result of "lobbying" by the Indian Agent for the Upper Platte and Arkansas, Thomas Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick, it might be noted, had earlier been prominent among those who strongly recommended that the Government establish a military post near or on the site of Fort John.

The Fort Laramie Treaty Council of 1851 was attended by the largest gathering of Plains Indians ever acomplished on the high plains of North America. By the time the supply wagons, carrying the "presents" so necessary to the negotiating process, had arrived (late!) at the fort, something on the order of 10,000 Indians were present! Entire villages had traveled to the fort; not only warriors, but women, children, old ones, and dogs and horses in startling numbers. The dog population diminished noticeably during the several weeks of the council; Father DeSmet, in fact, judged that the number of dog feasts held by the tribes represented the greatest attack on a canine population in recorded history! The Indians' horse herds were so large that forage for the animals had disappeared long before actual negotiations were undertaken. The proceedings were, therefore, moved downriver some 15 to 20 miles to Horse Creek.

How may one account for such a tremendous "turnout"? The Government had sent runners to the tribes, and the prospect of several weeks of government food, coupled with the expectation of presents was undoubtedly partially responsible. But the term "Government" had no substantive meaning to the tribes; they responded, if at all, on the basis of the reputations of the specific individuals who spoke for the government or who counseled cooperation. The Fort Laramie Treaty Council benefited from the involvement of several men whose reputations among the Indians were as broad and sturdy as the high plains themselves!. Jim Bridger brought the Shoshoni's in from the Wind River country; "Old Gabe" had traded and lived with the Shoshonis as well as taking a Shoshoni wife. The Shoshoni's trust in Bridger was not misplaced; he saw to it that the warriors were armed with spanking new rifles before they set out to a parlay in the territory of traditional enemies --the Lakotas and the Cheyennes.

The Shoshonis, or Snakes, were among the last to arrive at the treaty grounds, and warriors of the Lakota and the Cheyennes were sufficiently restive at the appearance of their enemies that only an "incident" was needed to spark a bloody explosion--and that incident almost happened! As the mountain tribe drew near, a young Dakota brave, who only weeks earliers had lost a relative to these same people, broke ranks. With a war whoop, he galloped toward the Shoshoni, determined to count coup and avenge the earlier scalp loss; had he reached his enemies, a general mélee would probably have broken out. The Shoshonis, though outnumbered, were better armed. Their new weapons, and Lakota/Cheyenne numbers, would each have exacted terrible casualties in what might well have approximated a "high plains Armageddon"! Fortunately for all, cooler heads prevailed, and the young Lakota was unhorsed before he was close enough to land a blow.

Thomas Fitzpatrick had been Indian Agent for the Upper Platte and Arkansas since 1846. For more than 20 years before that he had been one of the premier figures in the mountain trade. While his expressed opinion of Indians was no higher than that of most white men, his record of dealing with them was completely dissimilar. As agent, Fitzpatrick treated the Indians under his jurisdiction with a fairness, impartiality and degree of integrity that set him permanently apart in the minds and memories of the indigenous inhabitants. Decades after his death in 1854, Fitzpatrick--he of the broken hand and the white hair-- was remembered with respect by the people of the high plains. His call to council had a potent effect on tribal leaders in 1851.

One final participant ranks equally high on the roster of the influential--Father Pierre Jean DeSmet. In many ways, Father DeSmet's influence is the most difficult of all to account for. He spent most of his life in Belgium, making only a few visits to the North American Indian tribes; and the length of the visits can be better measured in months, not years. Between 1841, when he and Father Nicholas Point undertook a mission to the Flatheads (with a near-legendary mountain man as their guide--Thomas Fitzpatrick!) and the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty Council, Father DeSmet acquired a reputation among the Indians of the northern plains unique in frontier history. He was probably the only white man alive who could have wandered at will among the tribes and have received from them not only safe conduct, but respect and friendship as well! His association with the Treaty Council may well have been a prerequisite to its success.

How successful was the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie? Under its terms, the principal tribes agreed to: (1) accept a governmentally-described division of territory; (2) permit whites to pass through their territory without harassment; and (3) permit the government to construct military posts along the line of white travel. The Government, in turn, promised to distribute annually $50 million of annuity goods to the tribes for a period of 50 years; the Senate subsequently shortened the time period to 15 years. Correspondence between government agencies in 1928 indicates, in fact, that the President of the United States never formally ratified the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. Once again, how successfully was this treaty implemented? Three years after its negotiation, in 1854, the first major "flare-up" occurred along the Oregon Trail; perhaps it is ironical that Thomas Fitzpatrick died in February of that year!

The "flare-up" came to be known as the "Grattan Massacre". In many ways, this confrontation, which in a sense provided the spark that ignited more than 30 years of intermittant warfare on the high plains, reflected most of the factors that made conflict between Indians and whites highly likely if not quite inevitable. Both groups party to the violence believed completely in the superiority of their own cultural values, and neither appreciated, understood or accepted the value system of the other. In particular, individual Indians and whites all possessed a full measure of ethnocentric egoism!

The story itself is tragically simple. A cow wandered from a wagon train or fell behind because of lameness; accounts vary on this point. All agree that the animal was "appropriated" by Indians whose village was at the time located perhaps 15 miles east of the fort. The emigrant who owned the cow registered a complaint with the commanding officer at Fort Laramie, demanding satisfaction. The leader of the Brulé, called "The Bear" or "Conquering Bear", offered to make restitution under the terms of the still quite new, and untested, Treaty of Fort Laramie. Apparently presents, including horses, were offered (though not cattle because Indians, considering them superfluous as long as buffalo were available, owned none!); the offer was refused by the Post Commander, who demanded the surrender of the guilty party.

In retrospect, several unfortunate complications are already apparent: (1) Lieutenant Fleming, the Post Commander, had, from his perspective, been humiliated by these Indians the year before, and thus was in no mood to look favorably on any disposition of the matter not coupled with complete Indian submission to military, i.e. his, authority; (2) Lieutenant Grattan was, himself, a headstrong package of inexperience; (3) Conquering Bear, though having made an offer of restitution, sprang from a warrior culture that accepted suggestions from few and dictation from no one; and (4) the party specifically responsible for having "acquired" the cow was not a member of Conquering Bear's band, but rather a visiting Minniconjou. Indian concepts of hospitality would have made it difficult under the best of circumstances to ask the visitor to give himself up; under no circumstances could he be surrendered on demand!

A small force, commanded by Lieutenant John Grattan, was dispatched with orders to arrest the guilty Indian. Contrary to a few rumours that circulated at the time, Grattan was not drunk nor had he been drinking. Unfortunately, the interpretor assigned to him was militantly inebriated!! As the command approached the village, the interpreter not only shouted obscene insults at the Indians, he also rode his horse to and fro at a full gallop. The Indians, in all liklihood, interpreted the latter activity on the basis of their own experience; since a horse was galloped so it would have its second wind when ridden into battle, the Indians assumed that the whites (or at least the interpreter) were preparing for combat. In any event, the soldiers rode practically into the Indian village and demanded the surrender of the guilty party. In the confusion of the next few moments, the exact sequence of events has been lost to history. A shot or shots were fired, the mountain howitzer was fired by the soldiers, Conquering Bear was fatally wounded--and Grattan's entire command was annihilated! Actually, friendly Indians rescued several badly wounded survivors, but they succumbed to their wounds before they could be returned to the fort.

There you have it in a nutshell-the effective beginning of the Indian Wars on the Northern Plains. The next year General Harney's troops retaliated by over-running Little Thunder's village of Brulés on Blue Water Creek, northwest of Ash Hollow. Into the last decade of the century, Indians and whites periodically watered the buffalo grass with each other's blood--from Blue Water Creek to Sand Creek, from Beecher's Island to the Little Big Horn, and finally to the little stream called Wounded Knee.

The discovery of gold in Montana lured a steady stream of new fortune seekers across Indian lands. North from the Platte River Bridge, along the eastern slope of the Big Horn Mountains ran the new white line of travel which came to be called the Bozeman Trail. In 1866, negotiations between the Government and Indian leaders were undertaken at Fort Laramie with the purpose of securing Indian acquiescence to increased white travel. Unfortunately, before any agreement was reached, Colonel Henry Carrington and his infantry command passed through the fort on their way to establish one of a series of new forts on the Bozeman Trail. Red Cloud and other leaders stormed out of the conference, alleging that the Government was only pretending to negotiate while they sent the army to seize Indian land.

Colonel Carrington did construct a new fort at the base of the Big Horns--Fort Phil Kearney. But his troops were under the threat of attack from the dropping of the first timber for its stockade. Although the fort itself was never subjected to a frontal attack, wood parties and other small groups were regularly harassed. In fact, for the better part of two years, Red Cloud's Lakota warriors and their Cheyenne allies effectively closed the Bozeman Trail to any significant white travel. And one reason for the Indians' success was white fear, engendered by the events of late December, 1866.

On December 21, 1866, a wood train left Fort Phil Kearney as usual, and, as had virtually come to be expected, was attacked by a small party of Indians. A relief column was immediately ordered into the field by Colonel Carrington, who issued very careful and quite explicit orders to the field commander-"Relieve the wood train; do not undertake a general pursuit of the Indians. Do not go beyond the Lodge Trail Ridge". The Colonel's orders were well grounded in experience; Indian raiders had, on a number of occasions, attempted to lead pursuing soldiers into ambushes. This day, however, the field commander was Captain, Brevet Colonel, William Fetterman, a combat veteran of the Civil War who held a near-contemptuous view of the fighting ability of Indians. In fact, at an officer's dinner, he had been heard to remark that with 80 men he could ride through the entire Sioux nation; that December day, the relief column numbered exactly 80 troopers and foot soldiers!!

After relieving the wood train, Captain Fetterman purely and simply--and fatally--disobeyed orders. With his cavalry at a gallop and his infantry doing double time, Fetterman's strung-out command disappeared from the view of the fort as they crossed the Lodge Trail Ridge. Upon hearing the first shots, Colonel Carrington dispatched a second relief party under the command of Captain Tenadore Ten Eyck; upon reaching the Lodge Trail Ridge, Ten Eyck halted his column, because the valley on the other side was literally swarming with Indians! Captain Fetterman and his 80 men had ridden and run into the midst of perhaps 1500 to 2000 warriors, who destroyed them in a 20-minute explosion!

The incredible loss left the garrison in fear that the fort itself might be attacked and over-run, but a major winter storm, blowing in off the Big Horns, allayed that fear. For the next several days, soldiers spent their time shoveling snow away from the stockade because wind-blown drifts were as high as the walls! Even so, relief had to be sought and the outside world told of the disaster. Several civilians familiar with the country were induced to volunteer to make the ride to Fort Laramie, more than 200 miles away. One of them, John "Portugee" Phillips, thereby became a legend. The story is magnificent. Phillips (now alone according to the story) took the Colonel's prize stallion and rode through blizzard, cold and Indians for four days, reaching Fort Laramie on Christmas Eve. Half frozen, Phillips staggered into a fancy Christmas Ball, being held in "Old Bedlam", to deliver his report of tragedy and pleas for help as his gallant horse collapsed and died on the edge of the parade ground just outside!!

In fact, Phillips had more than one horse, he stopped at the Deer Creek telegraph station and sent a mesage to Fort Laramie, and no one really knows whether any of the horses died as a result of the trip, but certainly none collapsed so dramatically on the parade ground. The late Robert Murray, one-time Park Service Historian at Fort Laramie and subsequently a professional consultant on historic site interpretation and development, has done the best study of this ride in his article "The John 'Portugee' Phillips Legends: A Study in Wyoming Folklore" published in the Annals of Wyoming in April, 1968. As Murray makes quite clear, the embellishments of the legend have, unfortunately, served to obscure the very real accomplishment of Phillips. He did, after all, continue on to Fort Laramie from Deer Creek Station because of his uncertainty that the message got through. And a ride through blizzard conditions from Fort Phil Kearney (between present day Buffalo and Sheridan, Wyoming) to Fort Laramie, regardless of the number and breeding of horses used, was by any standard one hell of a ride! Lest you think the reports of blizzards were part of the embellishment, the weather was so bad that a relief column did not leave Fort Laramie for a week after Phillips' arrival!

Indian resistance to the Bozeman Trail forts met with at least temporary success. In 1868, the Government concluded the second Treaty of Fort Laramie with the northern plains tribes. The Government agreed to abandon the forts and to guarantee Indian possession of designated lands. As the troops withdrew from Fort Phil Kearney, Lakota and Cheyenne warriors took over the post and put it to the torch while the soldiers were still close enough to view to conflagration.

The remaining military history of the northern plains is, in broad outline, very familiar and can be quickly told. Among the lands guaranteed to the Indians, and particularly to the Lakotas, were the Black Hills of South Dakota. In 1874, a survey expedition sent into the Hills confirmed the presence of gold. The army was unable to control the flood of gold-seekers, so efforts were made to purchase the territory. They were unsuccessful. Hostilities mounted, until early in the year 1876 word was sent to the Indians ordering them back to their assigned reservations. In the spring of that year, a three-pronged military maneuver was executed for the purpose of locating, subduing and forcing the "hostiles" back to reservation lands. While troops involved in the southern portion of the operation passed through Fort Laramie on their way to Fort Fetterman before moving into the Powder River Country, the entire operation is best remembered because of the disaster that struck the Seventh Cavalry Regiment, commanded by Colonel George Armstrong Custer--the same regiment and commander which had served as the military escort for the Government survey party two years earlier. In 1874, one of Custer's scouts, "Lonesome" Charley Reynolds, had delivered the news about the discovery of gold to the telegraph at Fort Laramie; two years later, along with more than five companies of the 7th, he died in Montana's Valley of the Little Big Horn.

One other irony attended the affair. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs who originally issued the order that all Indians must return to their reservations subsequently resigned and became a missionary to Africa. Somewhere off the coast of West Africa, on June 13, 1876, he took sick, died and was buried ashore. Twelve days later, and half a world away in Montana, the Seventh Cavalry rode into the valley of the shadow.

White response to "Custer's Last Stand" was rapid and massive. Within a few years, Indian military strength was broken and reservation life imposed. In 1877, the Great Sioux reservation was substantially reduced in size by Act of Congress. More than 100 years later, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld a Court of Claims award in excess of $100 million to the United Sioux Tribes of South Dakota for this constitutionally impermissable action. But the land was gone, and so, too, were the free days--though the final agony of their demise did not come until 1890 at Wounded Knee.

According to historian Frederick Jackson Turner, the frontier came to an end in 1890. The end of the frontier era is most appropriately symbolized by the sale of the buildings at Fort Laramie at public auction in that year. The frontier is gone, but it is not dead so long as memory lingers. The flag still flys over Fort Laramie, a soft spring breeze still whispers across the parade ground, the chinook still brings unexpected warmth in the depth of winter. The buildings and ruins of Fort Laramie National Historic Site still stand, ready to be revived and repopulated by the events and the people of yesterday--if only we of today have the imagination to remember.


Those who would like to read more about Fort Laramie and the high plains might be interested in the following five books.


Leroy R. Hafen and Francis M. Young, Fort Laramie and the Pageant of the West. Arthur H. Clark: Glendale. 1938.


Merrill J. Mattes, The Great Platte River Road: The Covered Wagon Mainline via Fort Kearny to Fort Laramie. Nebraska State Historical Society: Lincoln, Nebraska. 1969.


Robert L. Munkres, Saleratus and Sagebrush: The Oregon Trail Through Wyoming. Wyoming State Archives, Museums and Historical Department: Cheyenne, Wyoming. 1974. Second printing, 1980.


Robert A. Murray, Fort Laramie: Visions of a Grand Old Post. Old Army Presss: Fort Collins, Colorado. 1974.


Don Rickey, Jr. Forty Miles A Day on Beans and Hay: The Enlisted Soldier Fighting the Indian Wars. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, Oklahoma. 1963.

Copyright Robert Munkres 1981-2009 All Rights Reserved