Discovering the Oregon Trail
American and French-Canadian beaver hunters were the first men of European origin to explore the headwaters of the North Platte. The first party to visit the mouth of Laramie Fork was led by Robert Stuart of the American Fur Company in 1812. His diary entries describing the bountiful landscape soon drew others to the region.
The South Pass was rediscovered in 1823 by William Ashley of St. Louis, whose 1824 expedition laid the foundation for the annual event known as the rendezvous; a gathering of trappers and traders largely responsible for the rapid decline of the North American Beaver. By 1830 supply pack trains were replaced by wagon caravans run by the entities like the American Fur Company.
Early Forts “at the Laramie”
As the Fur Trade market began to depend more on buffalo herds and less on beaver pelts, trappers needed a place to store the Buffalo robes that they traded with the Native Americans. Laramie offered an advantageous placement between the steamboat landings on the Missouri River and Upper Green River. In May of 1834, Sublette and Company began construction of Fort William. In 1841, just a mile away, the American Fur Company established Fort John to compete with the newly built Fort Platte in the fur trade.
Purchase by the U.S. Army
Fort Laramie, once the capital of the fur trade empire, began to trade less with the Native Americans and took on a military stance coinciding with notions of Manifest Destiny. The particular placement of Fort William and Fort John was of great interest to the federal government, and in 1849 the U.S. army purchased the Fort from the American Fur Company for $4,000. It was converted into a military post to protect and supply settlers migrating West along Oregon, Mormon and California Trails and during the Gold Rushes in the 1850s. Within six months, the Fort boasted a two-story block of officer quarters, a block of soldier quarters, a bakery, and two stables.
After the continental railroad was completed, the fort’s role in trade and military became obsolete and it was decommissioned in 1890. At this time, the army auctioned off its abandoned buildings and the fort transformed into a landscape occupied by homesteaders. During this era, the site was intensively farmed and ranched and homesteaders dismantled many of the army buildings for their own use. However, by 1927, the State of Wyoming purchased 214 acres of the original fort, including the parade ground, from private owners to preserve the original fort site.
National Park Service Era Restoration Efforts: The Early Years
In 1913, citizens erected a monument commemorating the Oregon Trail and Fort Laramie. In 1936, the National Park Service representatives visited the site hoping to restore it to its former glory. In 1938, Franklin Roosevelt declared Fort Laramie a National Monument and placed it under the protective stewardship of the National park Service. As part of the effort to restore the site, the National Park Service documented the existing conditions of the extant buildings under the Historic American Building Survey Program, or HABS.
National Park Service Era Restoration Efforts: Before and After
In 1960, Fort Laramie was designated as a National Historic Site and 513 acres were purchased. Fort Laramie has undergone much restoration. Today there are eleven restored and refurbished structures mostly revived from the Army Period dating from 1873 to 1890. Currently, efforts are continuing and are being adapted to new documentation technologies to further preserve one of America’s most important historic sites.
Fort Laramie Digital Preservation
In 2009, the National Park Service, CyArk, and the Center of Preservation Research collaborated to document Fort Laramie with state of the art technology. The project produced highly accurate 3D data for aiding ongoing conservation and restoration work. This project produced many beneficial materials to assist in the preservation efforts of the fort including photo-textured 3D data and 3D reconstruction models, and interpretive materials such as panoramas and 3D holograms