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Military Bastion Of The High Plains
By Douglas C. McChristian
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2009 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
"THE CHAIN OF POSTS TO OREGON"
When United States soldiers first raised the stars and stripes over a decaying Fort John on June 26, 1849, no one could have imagined that four decades of army occupation would follow. Four years earlier, Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny made his epic trek up the Oregon route as far as South Pass. Along the way he took every opportunity to awe the Indians with the might of the federal government by showing off two bronze mountain howitzers, as well as his soldiers' sabers and carbines. Arriving at Fort John in mid-June 1845, Kearny camped on grassy bottomland along the Laramie River a short distance above the trading post. There, during an unseasonable snowstorm, he met with Sioux leaders in an effort to induce them to avoid the evils of liquor offered by the traders and, more importantly, to stage no opposition to the white man's road that had gradually been opened through their country.
Convinced that seasonal patrols over the emigrant route to Oregon would suffice to control the peacefully inclined Indians, Kearny argued to his superiors that permanent posts would be expensive and largely unnecessary for most of the year, considering the short migration season. His opinion stemmed not only from his own observations, but also relied on Colonel Henry Dodge's earlier expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1835 and a subsequent one led by Major Clifton Wharton to visit the Pawnee villages on the Platte. Kearny later boasted that mounted expeditions "would serve to keep the Indians perfectly quiet, reminding them of (as this one proved) the facility and rapidity with which our dragoons can march through any part of their country, and that there is no place where they can go but the dragoons can follow and, as we are better mounted than they are, overtake them."
Kearny's views contradicted those expressed some years earlier by Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett, as well as his successor, John C. Spencer, both of whom advocated the establishment of a chain of permanent garrisons along the Oregon Route, the army's official term for the route often today still called a "trail." To oversee the safety of emigrants, Poinsett suggested three military stations: one where the various tributary trails converged with the trunk line on the Platte, in what is today central Nebraska; another at or near Fort Hall, a Hudson's Bay post on the Snake River; and a third, considered by Poinsett as particularly important, between them, "on the north fork of the river Platte, near the confluence of the Laramie's fork." No less a figure than Thomas Fitzpatrick, a former partner in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and co-owner of "Fort" Laramie, also weighed in on the strategic significance of the place in his assessment of the changing tribal dynamics in the region. "A post at or in the vicinity of Laramie is much needed," Fitzpatrick wrote in an uncannily accurate prophecy. "It would be in the vicinity of the buffalo range, where all the most formidable Indian tribes are fast approaching, and near where there will eventually (as game decreases) be a great struggle for the ascendancy." Presidents John Tyler and James K. Polk concurred with Fitzpatrick's views and petitioned Congress in subsequent annual messages to provide funds to build the forts, and to provide for an "adequate force of mounted riflemen ... to guard and protect them [emigrants] on their journey." The statement was particularly far-reaching in its effect as a formal commitment by the government to facilitate emigration to the Pacific Northwest territories.
After years of debate, Congress eventually adopted the concept of fixed stations on the Oregon Route, and in May 1846 allocated funds to acquire Fort Laramie. Even though the secretary of war directed the army to proceed with establishing the two easternmost forts along on the emigrant road, the onset of war with Mexico precluded the military from carrying out the order at that time. Two years later, however, a battalion of Missouri Volunteers was dispatched to establish the first station, subsequently named Fort Kearny. Prior to that time, Fort Leavenworth, situated on the Missouri near the origin of the Santa Fe Trail, had been the only military garrison in proximity to the more recently established Oregon Route.
Also included in the appropriation was the sum of $76,500 for organizing a special unit, designated as the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen, to garrison the posts and patrol the Oregon Route. The regiment was recruited and organized during summer and fall 1846, and by November was ready to take the field. The enabling legislation notwithstanding, the demands of war took precedence over the unit's intended frontier mission. The regiment was soon en route to Mexico where it participated in numerous engagements during the next two years. When the war ended, the regiment performed several months of provost duty in Mexico City before being sent back to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, to reorganize and prepare to carry out its original mission along the emigrant road.
Spring 1849 found five companies of Mounted Riflemen at Fort Leavenworth, ready to make what would be recorded as an epic two-thousand-mile march all the way to Vancouver, Washington. The cavalcade, including a supply train numbering 436 wagons and carrying over a half-million pounds of supplies, would be the first military body to travel over the full length of the trail to the Pacific Northwest. In recognition of the momentous occasion, department commander Brigadier General David E. Twiggs traveled from his headquarters at St. Louis to review the riflemen on their departure. On May 10, with the companies formed on the parade ground, highly polished arms and buttons glinting in the morning sunlight, Twiggs himself bellowed the order setting the battalion in motion for its long trek across the continent.
Rather than tracing the usual emigrant route, the column marched almost directly north into Nebraska Territory, arriving nine days later at Fort Kearny, described by Major Osborn Cross as "not very pleasing ... having nothing to recommend it in the way of beauty." Along the way, the troops passed numerous trains of emigrants stricken with cholera that had been contracted through exposure to contaminated water prior to the journey. Nevertheless, even those who recognized the symptoms were eager to be on their way west, mistakenly concluding that the healthy climate of the prairie would prove to be a panacea for the disease. Cross regretted that "the number who had died with it was sufficient evidence that the emigrants were suffering greatly from its effects. They are truly to be pitied, as no aid in any way could be afforded them." While the troops fared better than the civilians, probably because the officers exercised great care in selecting clean campsites and good water, they failed to escape the scourge completely. Eleven enlisted men died from the disease during the first three weeks of the march.
The first contingent of Mounted Riflemen, led by Major Winslow F. Sanderson, sighted Fort Laramie on the morning of June 16, having traveled some 639 miles during the six weeks since leaving Fort Leavenworth. An emigrant camped nearby witnessed the moment the troops rode into view: "then came the sound of the cannon that was fired to greet the arrival of Major Sanderson came booming from the fort. The hills around echoed the report one from another and it dwelt long among them before it died away. It was soul stirring their successive reports in this expansive wild."
The other battalions, retarded by the slower-moving supply trains, arrived during the next few days and bivouacked a short distance above the post. Sanderson was accompanied by First Lieutenant Daniel P. Woodbury, Corps of Engineers, who was charged with finding a suitable location for the military post and was vested with the authority to purchase the fur-company post should it prove to be situated on the best site. The two officers lost no time conducting a reconnaissance for approximately sixty miles farther up the Oregon road, following the "ridge" or "mountain" branch as far as Boise (Big Timber) Creek, and returning via the so-called river road.
Sanderson and Woodbury concluded that the mountaineers had chosen well; there was no better site than the one already occupied by Fort Laramie. They found abundant grass suitable for making hay within six miles, as well as limestone and pine timber for building purposes within fifteen miles. Sanderson described the Laramie River as "a beautiful and rapid stream, and will furnish an abundance of good water for the command." Of more immediate importance, the fur traders' adobe trading post afforded ready-made shelter for the supplies that were already arriving, even though Adjutant General Don Carlos Buell had previously cautioned Sanderson not to be unduly swayed by that "momentary advantage." All things considered, however, the site was a good one, and Woodbury acted quickly in opening negotiations with Bruce Husband, the resident factor (or manager) for the American Fur Company. Although Congress had authorized only three thousand dollars for the purchase, Husband insisted that the owners had instructed him to accept no less than four thousand. Woodbury considered the price too high, but signed the contract nevertheless, justifying his decision on the savings that would be realized by not losing supplies through exposure to the elements. The deal concluded, the traders immediately relinquished the property and Fort Laramie officially became a United States Army post.
On the morning of June 25, the battalion of riflemen destined for Oregon broke camp and forded the Laramie River to begin the remainder of the journey. Following behind were the wagon trains, now considerably lighter after the freighters deposited several months of supplies at the post.
Meantime, the men of Company E, the unit assigned to garrison the post, were busy settling into their new home. Within days after their arrival, Sanderson had the men preparing hay, cutting and hauling timber, and burning lime to produce mortar and plaster for repairing the old fort, as well as constructing new buildings. Some of the soldiers were detailed to assemble a saw mill that had been transported up the trail by wagon, while others dug sawpits for laborious hand sawing to augment lumber production. Sanderson announced to his superiors at St. Louis that "everything is being pushed forward as rapidly as circumstances will admit."
The little garrison had taken possession of the fort just in time to play host to a party of Topographical Engineers, commanded by Captain Howard Stansbury, en route to survey a site for the new Fort Hall, after which they were to proceed to Utah to map the Great Salt Lake Valley. Arriving on the Laramie in early July, the little expedition laid over for six days to rest the animals and repair wagons before continuing the trek. First Lieutenant John W. Gunnison, Stansbury's assistant, described their visit in a letter to his wife:
There are two army ladies here — one made a present to her husband of an infant the day we arrived and the other we understand is about to do equal service to his family & the country ... We are better situated here being close at the Fort and open doors at the Mess table have been offered to all of us. It is a Rifle company here and pretty green on military etiquette, at which Capt S. had taken offense & won't come to the Fort — the commander not having been over to his camp. But it is understood among us that we are at home, and technical courtesies not required or even practical on the plains, particularly as those who are journeying to the posts are acquaintances & meet & stay at quarters when & as long as they choose.
Shortly after Stansbury's party left on July 18, the garrison was augmented by the timely arrival of Captain Benjamin S. Roberts and his Company C of the Mounted Riflemen. Those sixty-two men provided Sanderson the additional manpower needed to prepare for the coming winter. Accompanying Roberts were Department Quartermaster Aeneas Mackay and First Lieutenant Stewart Van Vliet, an assistant quartermaster assigned to oversee construction of the new post. Quartermaster General Thomas S. Jesup had directed Mackay to supervise operations along both the New Mexico and Oregon routes, with special attention to making arrangements for the establishment of the new posts on the latter.
In his report, Mackay described the government's recent purchase: "Enclosed in a square of about 40 yards of Adobe wall of 12 ft. height. On the east side are quarters of two stories with a piazza. On the opposite side, the Main Gate, Lookout, Flag Staff, &c with shops, storehouses &c to the height of the wall on their right & left, and each of the other two sides ranges of Quarters on one story — all opening on a small Parade in the Centre. It is in a good deal of decay & needs repairs."
Although the old fort was adequate for storing supplies and corralling animals, it was only marginally fit for human habitation. With two companies of the Mounted Riflemen already present, and another of the Sixth Infantry due to arrive in August, the construction of additional quarters became a high priority. Confirming that the army had no intention of occupying the old trading post over the long term, Van Vliet wrote upon his arrival, "The new post is to be erected in the immediate vicinity." Mackay also noted that the troops even then were engaged in constructing new quarters on the low plateau outside the walls, and with some crowding, the garrison could be sheltered by winter.
When Lieutenant Woodbury rendered his annual report in September, he could boast that the construction program was proceeding smoothly. Several civilian carpenters, probably hired in the vicinity of Leavenworth, Kansas, had almost completed framing a large, two-story frame officers' quarters, later dubbed Old Bedlam for the reputation it gained as the raucous home of bachelor officers. The interior of the plantation-style house was temporarily partitioned into sixteen rooms to accommodate all the officers and a few dependents through the winter. Nearing completion at the north end of the parade ground stood a new frame barracks, which was also a two-story edifice. Although the building was designed to house only one company, circumstances dictated that double the number of men be crowded into it that first winter. Near the river, along the east perimeter of the parade ground, were two frame stables for sheltering the riflemen's horses. Of particular necessity to the garrison was a bakery, which Woodbury constructed a short distance north of the parade ground. Woodbury added that he had a remaining balance of only ten thousand dollars for construction, an amount that would provide for another block of officers' quarters and a hospital, but would be insufficient to build quarters for the recently arrived Sixth Infantrymen. The lieutenant predicted that most of the work on the first group of buildings would be finished before winter, even though detachments had to travel to the Black Hills (north of present-day Guernsey, Wyoming) to find suitable timber. Bolstering his justification for additional funds to complete the post, Woodbury recorded that nearly eight thousand wagons and approximately thirty thousand people, most of them bound for California, had passed by the fort that summer.
Meanwhile, St. Louis businessman John S. Tutt was preparing to profit from that traffic, in addition to having a monopoly on trade with the Fort Laramie garrison. Tutt maintained a shadowy financial arrangement with Robert Campbell, one of the original owners of the fort, and John Daugherty, with whom Campbell was partnered in a freighting business. Another man, identified only as Wilson, also joined in the venture. While Campbell and Daugherty were manipulating influential contacts with the government to secure the contract for hauling army freight, Tutt and Wilson cornered the lucrative post sutler position at Fort Laramie. Tutt erected an adobe store, situated approximately a hundred yards north of the officers' quarters, and was conducting business by late summer.
Despite rapid progress toward establishing the three military forts on the heavily traveled overland road to the Pacific Coast, some officers unfamiliar with the region continued to argue that maintaining the garrisons year-round would be both expensive and unnecessary. Brigadier General David E. Twiggs, for example, pointed to the difficulty of providing enough grain and hay for the animals as one of the most critical and costly logistical problems, forewarning it would cost at least $45,000 a year to supply forage, much less purchase supplies for the troops. Others went so far as to propose that the livestock be returned to Fort Leavenworth during the winter months to avoid the expense of maintaining it during a season when the animals would seldom be used. Mackay, however, saw things in a more positive light. "At Laramie, in the Valleys," he reported to Jesup, "the grass grows very high and in the latter part of the season, dries and becomes hay upon which they subsist."
Excerpted from Fort Laramie by Douglas C. McChristian. Copyright © 2009 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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