As a kid, I always enjoyed playing the old Oregon Trail computer game. It was a fun but educational way to learn about settlers and hardships in the West. I remember getting to Fort Laramie was one of the milestones in the game. I had no idea where the fort was located or didn’t know much about it other than it was part of the Oregon Trail. When the opportunity came up to visit the fort, I jumped on it.
History of Fort Laramie
Fort Laramie was the biggest and most well known fort in the West. It was originally built in 1834 as a private trading post called Fort William, owned by explorer and mountain man William Sublette. The fort was purchased by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company in 1841 and renamed Fort John. Finally, in 1849, the US Army purchased the fort in 1849 in order to protect settlers moving west. The current name of Fort Laramie gradually came into use.
Fort Laramie was never under serious threat of attack by Native Americans, and actually played an integral part in relations with the Sioux. Two major treaties were signed at or near the fort and it was also used to deploy soldiers to fight them. However, with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the importance of the fort decreased. The last soldiers left on April 20, 1890. The buildings were auctioned off to private citizens and the grounds were opened to homesteaders on October 5, 1891. It was later taken over by the National Park Service to create Fort Laramie National Historic Site.
Visiting Fort Laramie
Because many of the buildings were lived in by private citizens, the fort is very nicely intact. 11 have been restored while the rest lay in ruins. Admission to the park is free and it’s open year-round. Tours are self-guided, and the trail has interpretive panels along it to explain many fine details about the site. At least two hours is needed if you want to see everything the site has to offer. The site is also near Oregon Trail Ruts State Historic Site, and both can be visited on the same trip.
The best place to start a visit to Fort Laramie is the visitor center. It’s housed in the old commissary storehouse, which was built in 1884. It was used for food storage. Inside is a shop and a museum telling the history of the fort. There are several artifacts on display from the fort’s excavation as well as a replica tepee. I recommend taking the time to watch the short film about the fort, which is 18 minutes long. It can be played on request.
Also, next to the door, check out the original wall preserved behind glass. Private W.B. Mooney of Company F, 7th US Infantry, signed his name on the wall in the late 1880s.
Bakery and Laramie River
Behind the commissary storehouse is the bakery, built in 1876. It produced up to 700 loaves of bread per day. Nearby is a pen for horses and some tepees in a field across the river, giving the area a Wild West feel. You can also walk by the Laramie River.
Continuing along the path are the ruins of the infantry barracks, built in 1867. It was a one-story building that also had mess halls and kitchens. It housed three companies and opened onto the parade grounds.
Across the path is the new guardhouse, built in 1876. It was built to replace the old guardhouse after many complaints of overcrowding. It held offenders of all types, but now displays a few cannons and wagons. Down the hill from the guardhouse are the ruins of the latrine, which was built in 1886 and drained sewage into the Laramie River.
Walking past the ruins of infantry barracks (1866) and a bit off the path is the old guardhouse. It was built in 1866 and was supposed to house 40 prisoners, but often held many more. The upper floor had guard’s quarters while the lower floor was the prison and two solitary confinement cells. Prisoners lived in abysmal conditions without furniture, heat, or light.
Next are the ruins of the administration building. The fort headquarters and the post school were located here. All entertainment and social activities, religious services, and lectures were held in the building. It was built in 1885.
Around the corner are the captain’s quarters, built in 1870. The building is made up of two duplexes and is set up to show visitors how officers may have lived during the fort’s time. Behind it was the site of old Fort John, which was built of adobe brick in 1841, abandoned in 1858, and demolished in 1862.
Continuing around the next corner is Officer’s Row. It goes past the ruins of a few officers’ quarters buildings (1881) until it comes to a two-story white building affectionately known as “Old Bedlam”. It was built in 1849 and is Wyoming’s oldest documented building. Old Bedlam was used to house bachelor officers and is restored to show an officer’s life in the 1850s.
The post surgeon’s quarters, built in 1875, was where most patients were treated before being moved to the hospital. Next to it is the lieutenant colonel’s quarters, built in 1884.
Post Trader’s Store
The last building on the loop is the post trader’s store. It was built in 1849 and the store was run by a civilian. It was a profitable business, dealing with soldiers, locals, Native Americans, and pioneers who passed through. The building also served as a post office for a short time.
A short walk north, there are the ruins of the post trader’s house (1863) and the cavalry barracks (1874). The barracks were the largest building at the fort and were built to accommodate more soldiers during the Indian Wars. Soldiers slept upstairs while the mess hall and kitchen was downstairs.
The ruins of the hospital are outside of the main complex. It was built in 1873 and had a capacity of 12 beds. There was a kitchen, dining room, isolation room, and surgeon’s office.
North Platte River Bridge
Finally, outside of the fort is an important bridge, the North Platte River Bridge. The North Platte River was a dangerous obstacle to overcome for travelers heading west. The water level was high for many months of the year making it impossible to cross. In 1850, a ferry service was established, but there were many accidents and crossings were too slow to accommodate growing demand. The bridge was finally built in 1868 to improve the supply route to Cheyenne.
After gold was discovered in the Black Hills, part of the Great Sioux Reservation, miners began to enter the reservation, thus violating the Treaty of 1868. This led to war with the Lakota people. The military constantly used the bridge to move troops and supplies into the reservation during conflicts. The Lakota eventually had most of their land taken away.