Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Fort William (Later Known as Fort Laramie)
In late 1832, William Sublette and Robert Campbell formed their own fur company, the St. Louis Fur Company with the goal of challenging the American Fur Company along the Upper Missouri River.  During the summer and autumn of 1833 they established a dozen or so trading posts located in proximity to American Fur Company Posts.  One of Sublette and Campbell's posts was the original Fort William (not the predecessor to Fort Laramie).
This original Fort William was established near the mouth of the Yellowstone River, about three miles below the American Fur Company’s Fort Union. Larpenteur (in Forty Years a Fur Trader) described the original fort as follows: "I will here describe the construction of Fort William, which was after the usual formation of trading posts. It was first erected precisely on the spot where the Fort Buford sawmill now [about 1871] stands; but then it was about 200 yards farther from the river, the bank having caved in to that distance. It was 150 feet front and 130 deep. The stockade was of cottonwood logs, called pickets, 18 feet in length, hewn on three sides and planted three feet in the ground. The boss' house stood back, opposite the front door; it consisted of a double cabin, having two rooms of 18x20 feet, with a passage between them 12 feet wide. There was a store and warehouse 40 feet in length and 18 feet in width; two rooms for the men's quarters 16x18 feet, a carpenter's shop, blacksmith's shop, ice house, meat house, and two splendid bastions. The whole was completed by Christmas of 1833. The bastions were built more for amusement than for protection against hostile Indians; for, at that time, although they were constantly at war with other tribes, there was not the least danger for any white men except the free trappers, and we could go hunting in all directions with perfect safety. Large war parties frequently came to the fort, but behaved very well, taking their leave after getting a few loads of ammunition and some tobacco."   However, the St. Louis Fur Company was unable to compete with the powerful American Fur Company which did everything possible to destroy the St. Louis Fur Company, including paying 2-3 times the market price of beaver (as high as $12 per pound), to prevent any furs at all from being obtained by its competitor.  In the spring of 1834 the St Louis Fur Company sold out all of its assets to the American Fur Company.  The competing forts and posts were abandoned.  
However, the partnership of Sublette and Campbell would remain in effect, and they would continue packing goods and supplies to the mountains to the annual rendezvous for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.  As part of the takeover agreement between the St. Louis Fur Company and the American Fur Company, Sublette had indicated that the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, who they were supplying, was on the brink of failure.  Due to debts owed by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to Sublette and Campbell, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company would be forced out of business at 1834 rendezvous.  The successor company, Fontenelle, Fitzpatrick and Company would also include the partners Lucien Fontenelle, Jim Bridger, Milton Sublette, and Andrew Drips.  
Also in 1834, while en route to the Rocky Mountains with the annual supply train for rendezvous, William Sublette would assign a party of men to establish a new post, again to be named Fort William (later to be known as Fort Laramie).  Located at the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte Rivers, the advantages of the site were readily apparent to William Sublette and Robert Campbell.  The earliest Fort William on this site was constructed of cottonwood logs.  
In 1835, in a three way deal, between Sublette and Campbell, the American Fur Company and Fontenelle, Fitzpatrick and Company, Sublette and Campbell sold Fort William to Fontenelle, Fitzpatrick and Company. Although never highly successful, Fort William would cause injury to the trade of other American Fur Company Posts, a fact which would cause the latter company to attempt to purchase the fort.  A year later Fontenelle, Fitzpatrick and Company would sell their interest in the fort to the American Fur Company (The American Fur Company was purchased by Pratte, Choteau and Company in the year after John Jacob Astor retired from the fur business. The successor company continued to be generally known as the American Fur Company.)
Rev. Samuel Parker and Dr. Marcus Whitman, early missionaries to Oregon, traveling with a supply caravan bound for the annual mountain rendezvous, paused at "the fort of the Black Hills" in July 1835.  Reverend Parker has left a vivid description of activities at the fort, including near-fatal fights between drunken trappers, a council with the chiefs of 2,000 Oglala Sioux which had gathered at the fort to trade, and a buffalo dance,
Marcus Whitman again traveled westward in 1836 with a fur traders' caravan, this time accompanied by his new bride Narcissa and Rev. and Mrs. Henry H. Spalding. The ladies, the first civilized women to travel the Oregon Trail (for more information see Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding), were extended all possible hospitality at Fort William.  Especially remembered by the women were chairs with buffalo skin bottoms, no doubt a most welcome change from the ordeal of saddle or wagon box.
To an artist, Alfred J. Miller, who traveled with Sir William Drummond Stewart, we are indebted for the only known pictures of Fort William.  Made during his visit to the fort in 1837, these paintings depict a typical log stockade which Miller's notes describe further as “being of a quadrangular form, with block houses at diagonal corners to sweep the fronts in case of attack. Over the front entrance is a large blockhouse in which is placed a cannon. The interior of the fort is about 150 feet square, surrounded by small cabins whose roofs reach within 3 feet of the top of the palisades against which they abut. The Indians encamp in great numbers here 3 or 4 times a year, bringing peltries to be exchanged for dry goods, tobacco, beads and alcohol. The Indians have a mortal horror of the "big gun" which rests in the blockhouse, as they have had experience of its prowess and witnessed the havoc produced by its loud "talk". They conceive it to be only asleep and have a wholesome dread of its being waked up”.
In 1838 the fort continued to be generally known as Fort William, however, references to Fort Laramie are beginning to appear.  By 1839, the fort was widely described in journals and letters of travelers as Fort Laramie.
The fur trappers came to be more and more dependent upon Fort Laramie as a base of supplies and a refuge in time of trouble.  Similarly, early travelers and missionaries found it a most welcome haven in the wilderness.  Supply trains and the travelers who accompanied the caravans would often stop here for several days to rest, repair equipment, and trade for fresh horses or other needed supplies.   
Abandonment of the rendezvous system after 1840 increased the importance of fixed trading posts.  The deterioration of Fort William as well as competition from a rival post (Fort Platte) constructed on the North Platte River caused the American Fur Co. to replace Fort Laramie in 1841 with a more pretentious adobe-walled post which cost some $10,000.  Christened Fort John, presumably after John Sarpy, a stockholder, the new fort, like its predecessor, continued to be popularly known as "Fort Laramie."  The rival post, known as Fort Platte was constructed in late in 1840 or early in 1841 by Lancaster P. Lupton, a veteran of the fur trade in what is now Colorado, but later operated by at least two other independent trading companies.
Competition in the declining fur trade led to open trafficking in alcohol and the debauchery of the Indians around Fort Platte and Fort Laramie and was noted by many travelers of the early 1840's.  Rufus B. Sage (Reference) vividly describes the carousals of one band of Indians which ended with the death and burial of a Brule chief.  In a state of drunkenness, this unfortunate merrymaker fell from his horse and broke his neck while racing from Fort Laramie to Fort Platte.
Trade goods for both of the rival posts came out in wagons over the Platte Valley road from St. Joseph or over the trail from Fort Pierre on the Upper Missouri River.  On the return trip, packs of buffalo robes and furs were sent down to St. Louis.  In addition to wagon transportation, cargoes were sent by boat down the fickle Platte, which often dried up and left the boatmen stranded on sandbars in the middle of what would become Nebraska.
Up to 1840, trappers and traders, dominated the scene however adventurers, travelers, missionaries and even tourists passed through the fort, while accompanying the annual supply trains to rendezvous.  The first party of true covered-wagon emigrants, whose experiences were recorded by John Bidwell and Joseph Williams, paused at Fort Laramie in 1841 and after that year increasing numbers of immigrants would pass the fort.  In 1841, Lt. John C. Fremont visited the fort on his first expedition to the Rocky Mountains. Recognizing its strategic location along what would become the Oregon Trail and foreseeing the covered-wagon migrations, Fremont added his voice to those recommending the establishment of a military post at the site.
While Fort Platte was abandoned in 1845 due to declining profits in the fur trade, trade continued to be brisk at Fort Laramie during the winter of 1845-46, and it is recorded that during the following spring a small fleet of Mackinaw boats, under the leadership of the veteran factor P. D. Papin, successfully navigated the Platte with 1,100 packs of buffalo robes, 110 packs of beaver, and 3 packs of bear and wolf skins.  However, despite a moderately brisk business with the emigrants, trading at Fort Laramie continued to suffer from the general decline of the fur markets and in competition with independent dealers in Mexican whiskey.   
For some years the Government had considered establishing military posts along the Oregon Trail for the protection of emigrants, and this site at confluence of the Laramie and North Platte Rivers had often been recommended.  In December 1845, such action was proposed by President Polk and in May 1846 the Congress approved "An Act to provide for raising a regiment of Mounted Riflemen, and for establishing military stations on the route to Oregon."  Funds were provided to mount and equip the troops, to defray the expenses of each station, and to compensate the Indian tribes on whose lands these stations might be erected.  The Mexican War delayed the projected building of forts on the Oregon Trail.
As news of the discovery of gold in California in 1849 was published throughout the nation, and the resulting fevered preparations to trek westward the next spring increased the urgency of completing the chain of forts.  In March, United States Adj. Gen. Roger Jones directed Gen. D. E. Triggs at St. Louis to carry out establishment of the second post "at or near Fort Laramie, a trading station belonging to the American Fur Company."  Lt. Daniel P. Woodbury, of the Corps of Engineers, was authorized to purchase the buildings of Fort Laramie "should he deem it necessary to do so."
On August 31, 1889 the usefulness of the installation for military purposes had ended and an order to abandon Fort Laramie would be issued.  On March 2nd the last garrison of the post would leave.  A public auction was held on April 9th to sell the remaining property and buildings.