Sunday, July 9, 2017

Fort Laramie To Casper

"History is geography set into motion."  Johann Gottfried Herder, 18th century philosopher of history

Soldiers' barracks at Fort Laramie

On the overland highway of the Platte River, Fort Laramie was like a modern-day travel plaza, bustling with fur traders, trappers, Plains Indians, soldiers and emigrants.  There, emigrants could post their mail, repair wagons, shoe livestock and shop for necessities at the post sutler's store.  Concerned about the mountains to come, many tried to lighten their wagons by selling unnecessary items but there were few buyers.  Most simply left their goods by the side of the trail.

As I mentioned in yesterday's post about Scottsbluff, Tim and I had a full itinerary planned for Saturday, July 8th.  We wanted to travel from Scottsbluff, Nebraska to Casper, Wyoming with several stops along the way.  Chief among those was a visit to Fort Laramie, a place that perhaps more than any other fostered the white settlement of the West.

The barracks veranda of the enlisted soldiers

After six to eight weeks of travel, the enthusiasm of Oregon-bound settlers was dampened by the weary routine of the road: up before dawn, cook, clean up, repack, gather and yoke the oxen and then plod through the dust all day to set up another camp about 12 to 15 miles up the road.  Fort Laramie, 50 miles west of Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, provided a welcome break from the tedium. (NPS National Historic Trails, Auto Tour Interpretative Guide)

Inside the barracks

Robert Campbell and William Sublette, two fur trappers, built the trading post that later became Fort Laramie at the confluence of the Laramie and Platte rivers in 1834.  Sublette must have won the coin toss because they named it Fort William.  Trade between the fur trappers and the area Indians flourished until the availability of buffalo dwindled, but by then, the U.S. Army purchased the establishment for a military post to protect and re-supply the ever-increasing overland traffic.  They renamed it Fort Laramie.

Fort Laramie by William Henry Jackson
"Our camp is stationary today; part of the emigrants are shoeing their horses and oxen; others are trading at Fort Laramie and with the Indians.  Flour, sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco, powder and lead, sell readily at high prices.  In the afternoon we gave the Indians a feast, and held a long talk with them.  Each family contributed a portion of bread, meat, coffee or sugar, which being cooked, a table was set by spreading buffalo skins upon the ground, and arranging the provisions upon them.  Having filed themselves, the Indians retired, taking with them all that they were unable to eat."  Joel Palmer, 1845

Palmer's description speaks of the settlers' desire for good relations with the Indians, but as thousands of wagons passed over the trail, game was killed and driven off, depriving the Indians of subsistence. Emigrants' livestock destroyed the grass for several miles in all directions.  The trail corridor scarred the land, and remains visible over 150 years after its carving.  (NPS placard at For Laramie National Historic Site)

Upper right: Officers' Row
Lower right: Commanding Officer's Quarters

In 1851, 10,000 Northern Plains Indians gathered at the fort to meet with U.S. government representatives in the largest peace council in history.  The result was the Indian Treaty of 1851, a treaty that lasted only a few short years.  Relations between the tribes and the army deteriorated as the number of settlers swelled.  As the conflicts grew, the army launched major campaigns from Fort Laramie against the Northern Plains Indians.

Our own conflict escalated between Tim and I before we even left Fort Laramie.  I wanted to stop at Register Cliff and Guernsey Ruts, but since both are a couple miles off Highway 26, Tim was concerned that there would not be a place to park or even to turn the Dawntreader around.  Finally, he called Wyoming State Parks and learned that parking at both sites would not be a problem.  Whew!  Conflict resolved.

Register Cliffs is one of the three best-known "registers of the desert," places where Oregon Trail travelers paused to carve their names into soft limestone formations.  The other two are Independence Rock in central Wyoming and Names Hill in western Wyoming.
"This rock is covered with names.  With great difficulty I found a place to cut mine."  Sallie Hester, aged 14 in 1849

Signatures by three generations of  the Unthank family

One unusual group of names is evidence of three generations' passage, that of T. H. Unthank, dated 1850; O. N. Unthank, 1869; and O. A. Unthank, 1931.

Just a few miles beyond Register Cliff, the wagons fell into single file for a hard pull up a rock ridge. 

Thousands of iron-shod animals and wagon wheels cut deep ruts into the stone there, a place now known as the Guernsey Ruts.  I've seen wagon train ruts before, mostly those of the Santa Fe Trail as it passed through Kansas, but I've never seen such deeply defined ones.  I estimated that the ruts were three feet deep and wondered once again how the pioneers were able to navigate such terrain.

But daylight was waning for Tim and I.  We needed to press on to Casper and so we did.

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