In the mid nineteenth century while the British ton were traveling along well-marked roads in comfortable coaches pulled by fine horseflesh they might have purchased at Tattersall’s, hundreds of thousands of Americans walked – yes, walked – thousands of miles in search of a better future.
There were no well-sprung vehicles with velvet cushions to help absorb the roads’ bumps and few inns to offer them beds and hot meals. Instead, these pioneers loaded their belongings into Conestoga wagons, yoked sturdy oxen together to pull their canvas-covered temporary homes, and headed west. So many of them traveled the same route that the wagon wheels carved ruts as deep as five feet into the limestone hills.
Some went to California, hoping to find a fortune in gold. Others were attracted by the promise of fertile land in Oregon. Still others fled religious persecution as they pulled handcarts toward the Great Salt Lake. Though their routes diverged soon after they reached what is now Wyoming, virtually every wagon train stopped at Fort Laramie. It was here that the pioneers rested their oxen, made necessary repairs to their wagons, and replenished their supplies at the post trader’s store. For, while crossing the plains had been arduous, the worst was yet to come. Mountainous terrain, the fear of Indian attacks, the threat of early snow, and the knowledge that there were few other places to purchase supplies made Fort Laramie seem like an oasis on the journey west.
The fort that greeted travelers in the mid nineteenth century bore little resemblance to Hollywood’s idea of a western Army post. It lacked the wooden stockade and dilapidated wooden buildings that film makers have immortalized. In their place was a collection of buildings that might have reminded the pioneers of a New England town, but it wasn’t always so.
The first fort on the location, a trading post named Fort William, was relatively small and had a wooden palisade. While Hollywood might have liked it, it was destined for a very short life. When another fort was built nearby and threatened its status as a major fur trading post, Fort William was replaced by a new fort constructed on the same location. Fort John, as the new post was named, was made of adobe, was considerably larger than Fort William, and was able to compete with the nearby fort.
When the fur trade declined, Fort William’s existence might have been in jeopardy, but it gained a new lease on life as the first of the emigrant trains came through. Now, instead of serving as a center for trading buffalo hides, it became a major supply point for the wagon trains.
One of the most prominent landmarks was Old Bedlam, the two-story frame building that’s still in existence and that has the distinction of being the oldest military structure in Wyoming. Though its use changed several times, including serving as the post headquarters for a few years, it retained the nickname it gained during the early years of its existence when it served as bachelor officers’ housing. One can only guess what those officers did to warrant that name.
Close by Old Bedlam was the post trader’s store, more commonly referred to as the sutler’s store. It was here that travelers could find everything from teakettles to blankets to foodstuffs to basic medical supplies. The sutler’s store also housed the post office, an important stop for travelers starved for news from home.
It’s no wonder that those hardy pioneers looked forward to reaching Fort Laramie.