Aspiring to take advantage of the lucrative fur trade in the region, William Sublette and Robert Campbell, two experienced traders, established Fort Laramie in 1834. The fort is located on the left bank of the Laramie River about a mile above its junction with the North Platte River. At the time of its establishment, Fort Laramie was the first permanent settlement of white men in the heart of the buffalo country. The name of the fort changed over time. In 1834, it was named Fort William; and in 1841, when the second fort was built, its name was changed to Fort John. All along, Fort Laramie was the most popular name for the place. After the military took over in 1849, this popular name was retained and made official. The name comes from the nearby river, which was named after French trapper Jacques Laramie.
On June 26, 1849, the U.S. Army purchased the post for $4,000 from the American Fur Company, which had acquired it in 1836. The site was ideal for a military post. It was located on the Platte River line of overland march and was widely influential in the fur trade of the region. In addition, the fort was outside the buffalo ranges of the Plains tribes and therefore did not interfere with their major commissary. As overland travel increased rapidly, the U.S. Army recognized the growing importance of the region. The need to protect travelers from Native Americans was a major concern for the military. Following the purchase, the army embarked on a major transformation of the post. At first, old buildings were occupied by the military units, but gradually they were torn down; by 1862 they had been replaced completely with new structures.
The U.S. Army used the fort mainly to aid overland travelers and to control Natives. For travelers, the fort provided supplies, medical care, communication facilities, and other services. The army also improved the trails. Fort Laramie was in many ways an isolated community in the middle of the plains, but for many travelers it functioned as an important landmark of civilization amid wilderness.
The fort had a significant role in the Indian wars. Many small skirmishes were fought in the vicinity, but Fort Laramie's main function was as a supply station for the soldiers during the northern Plains Indian campaigns. In 1851 and 1868, two major treaties with the northern Plains tribes were signed at the fort. With these treaties, the Natives surrendered most of their claims to the region. The Sioux and Cheyenne campaigns of 1876 and 1877 saw the last major military confrontations with Native Americans in the region.
With the coming of the railroads and increasing settlement, the role of the fort changed. The Union Pacific railway ran 70 miles to the south, and the Chicago Northwestern ran 50 miles to the north; no longer on the main routes of travel, the fort began to decline in importance. In the late 1870s, ranchers and homesteaders moved into the region. At first, the fort served as a supply center and offered protection for many of these settlers; but in 1890, four years after recommendations were made for its abandonment and one year after the decision was reached, the troops marched away from Fort Laramie for the last time.
For nearly 50 years, the fort was allowed to decay. In 1937, Wyoming appropriated funds for the purchase of the former military site and its donation to the federal government. In 1938, the Fort Laramie Historic Site became a unit in the National Park System. The fort has been restored to its 1876 appearance.
Hafen, Le Roy R., and Francis Marion Young. Fort Laramie and the Pageant of the West, 1834-1890. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984; Hedren, Paul L. Fort Laramie and the Great Sioux War. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988; Nadeau, Remi. Fort Laramie and the Sioux. Santa Barbara, CA: Crest, 1997.