Chapter 3: Trails Across Wyoming
From the early 1840s to the present, Wyoming has been crossed by "trails to somewhere else." The travelers, even from the very beginning, rarely considered Wyoming as a primary destination. This was particularly true with the various emigrant trails that crossed the area in the mid-19th century.
"Manifest destiny" pressed Americans toward settlement of the western frontiers. This sense that America was ordained by God to expand across the continent inspired Oregon Trail travelers. Even before the Lewis and Clark expedition, America contested with Britain over ownership of what is now the Pacific Northwest. By the early 1840s, Americans were settling in Oregon and by sheer numbers, establishing American hegemony over the region. For many of the travelers, the route from the East crossed the "wilderness" of Wyoming.
The Joel Walker party in 1840, the first to emigrate to Oregon specifically for settlement, crossed Wyoming. When the "Pathfinder," John Charles Fremont, led expeditions West in 1842 and 1843, wagon trains already were using the trail, first "blazed" by Robert Stuart’s "Reverse Astorians" in 1812. Fremont was the son-in-law of prominent U. S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a leading proponent of "Manifest Destiny" in the U. S. Congress.
In 1842, the explorer followed a wagon train bound for Oregon as he made his way to Independence Rock and west to South Pass. There, Fremont led his party north into the Wind Rivers. Not only did his party map the previously little-known Wind River Mountains in west central Wyoming, but he and his African American servant, Janisse, climbed what they believed was the highest peak in the range. (Actually, the mountain was 11th highest among Wyoming mountains. Nearby Gannett Peak, the state’s highest mountain, was 300 feet higher).
Fremont’s reports to Congress included the first written mention of the presence of coal in Wyoming, apparently observed a bit south of present Kemmerer in western Wyoming. While his weren’t the first maps of the Oregon Trail, they did provide significant information to aspiring Oregon travelers, inspiring numerous guidebooks published in the following two decades.
Following his western expeditions in the early 1840s, Fremont’s reports to Congress included proposals for dealing with Native Americans in the West. His Army-exploring rival, Stephan Watts Kearney, advocated leaving all but the roads to the Indians, using cavalry to subdue the Native people and continue control by sending major military expeditions every two or three years to "show the flag." He did not want to build permanent forts in the West. Fremont viewed his expeditions of 1842 and 1843 as useful for locating good places for forts. He favored construction of chains of forts that would provide locations where civilization could grow up around them. Fremont’s view eventually prevailed.
Both Fremont and Kearny later became involved in acquisition of California from Mexico after the Mexican War. Still later, in 1856, Fremont became the first Presidential candidate of the newly formed Republican Party. He never lived in Wyoming, but by the time of his death in 1890 (three days after Wyoming statehood), his name had been applied to numerous places. They include Fremont Lake and Fremont Peak as well as Fremont County.
During the period, Americans held contradictory views of migration. The perceived ease or difficulty of travel often depended on one’s point of view. Oregonians, anxious to promote settlement, told others that Oregon was "a garden" and the destination was worth the trail hardships. Many promoted greater settlement by implying that while the trip west was not easy, with sufficient Army protection, it would be at least "safe" from "hostile" attacks. On the other hand, Midwesterners wishing to keep farmers there told of horrible atrocities and hardships on trail. During the 1840s, the constant requests for government help undermined "garden" claims as did reports of such incidents as the Donner party disaster in the California Sierras.
Initially, former fur trappers such as Jim Bridger served as guides as travelers crossed west through the center of what is now Wyoming. They guided wagon trains consisting of 15-20 percent women, part of the mostly Midwest farm families who made up most of the emigrants. The travelers aspired to farms and permanent settlement in Oregon. It was not a journey for a poor person or a newly arrived European immigrant. Most were middle-class families—those who could afford the costs of a wagon, oxen and gear ($400), trail food ($200); powder and shot ($60); and cash to pay guides and ferry tolls. At a time when wages rarely amounted to $1 a day for European emigrant laborers in the cities of the East, it was no trip for a "poor man."
As historian John Philip Reid has demonstrated, Oregon Trail wagon trains were normally well-organized and orderly. They were a "civilization on wheels," the company organization serving as a substitute for "society." There was no expectation of fast fortune at the far end of the journey. They planned to form or join communities, modeled after those from where they had come. This is symbolically illustrated in the names of towns such as Portland, Salem, and Springfield, all named for familiar hometowns in the East.
Safety of travel was important to Oregon Trail travelers. It came from better guidebooks and maps, from more dependable sources of supplies and, eventually, from ferries and bridges built across raging rivers. By the 1850s, river ferries were being established. A Green River ferry was started by Mormons sent back from Salt Lake by Brigham Young. Jim Bridger started a North Platte River ferry near present Orin Junction. Over time, many ferries were being replaced with sturdy toll bridges. The Gruinard and Reshaw bridges near present Casper are examples.
For all travelers, scheduling the trip was critical. In order to avoid dangerous early fall snowstorms and other adverse weather, guide and guidebooks urged travelers to cross what is now Wyoming in June or July. In fact, some guides asserted that they should be at Independence Rock in central Wyoming by the Fourth of July to ensure safe passage over the Blue Mountains of Oregon before snowfall.
A few former fur trappers had stayed in Wyoming after the heyday of the fur business. Two of them, Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez, established Fort Bridger in southwestern Wyoming about 1842. Initially designed as a trading post for the few trappers (the last rendezvous for such supplies was held in 1840), the posts became popular stopping and provisioning posts for Oregon Trail travelers. Fort Laramie, established as a fur post in 1834, provided supplies for travelers as they were crossing through "Indian country" and approaching the most difficult part of the journey over the Rockies.
Oregonians advocated for U. S. Army protection for travelers along the route. In 1849, the federal government complied with the purchase of Fort Laramie from the privately-owned fur company operating the post. The government paid $4,000, relocated troops to the site and began construction fort buildings, dispensing with the stockade that had once surrounded the fur post on the site. "Old Bedlam," as the bachelor officers’ quarters was nicknamed, was built that first year. Renovated when the site became a national historic site, the structure is the oldest standing building in Wyoming.
Even though safety was a primary concern for them, Oregon Trail travelers suffered from accidents and disease. Some people drowned while attempting to cross Wyoming rivers. Others died of injuries from animals or accidentally discharge of firearms. Some fell victim to sudden weather changes.
Many travelers believed safety came from army strategies against Indians. During the early period in the 1840s, few of the emigrants encountered difficulties with the Native people. In fact, during the two decades when the trails across Wyoming were the most active, fewer trail travelers died at the hands of Indians than Native people being killed by the travelers. According to John Unruh in The Plains Across, 362 travelers were killed by Indians, 90 percent of them west of South Pass, making the first half of the trail the safer portion. During the same 20 year period (1840-1860), Indian deaths as a result of encounters with emigrants numbered 426. Only 34 emigrant deaths occurred in the years before 1849. As Unruh noted, "the callous attitude of cultural and racial superiority so many overlanders exemplified was of considerable significance in producing the volatile milieu in which more and more tragedies occurred."
The types of travelers across Wyoming changed dramatically after James Marshall found gold in January 1848 at Sutter’s Mill in California. As word spread east, the gold rush gained momentum. In 1849 more than 25,000 people—the so-called "49’s" flocked to California in that single year.
While safety in travel had been a stronger consideration for Oregon Trail travelers, speed was paramount to those scurrying off to the California gold rush. Across most of Wyoming, the two trails—Oregon and California—were identical. Only at "parting of the ways" in western Wyoming did the Oregon travelers, far fewer in number, take the right fork northwest to Oregon while the more numerous California-bound gold seekers took the left fork to the southwest.
The post-1849 migration differed substantially from its 1840s counterpart. California-bound travelers were overwhelmingly male (up to 85 percent), young, and single. Unlike the Oregon-bound trail wagons, heavily laden with supplies and often pulled by slow-moving oxen, the wagons and coaches carrying California travelers were in a hurry. Men heading to California did not want someone else to beat them to the gold nuggets awaiting in the gold fields. Many traveled by ship either around South America or to Panama, crossing by land and boarding Pacific ships bound for San Francisco. Others took more southerly trails. Just a third of all gold seekers used the trail through Wyoming.
The trails across Wyoming were not one-way. While the majority of travelers were westbound, coaches carrying mail and passengers traveled in each direction. Supply points catered mostly to westbound travelers, but were also used by mail and coach traffic returning east. Some of the eastbound travelers were individuals who had "seen the elephant"—had met with difficulties either on the trail or at the destination point and had decided to return home.
Simultaneous with the gold rush migrations, substantial numbers of Mormons used the same trail en route to the Salt Lake valley. Many of the Mormons made the trip with handcarts, pulling them the hundreds of miles from Omaha to Utah. While many successfully completed the trip, two companies that had started too late in the season were caught by snowstorms in Wyoming. In October 1856, 67 of the 404 members of the party died in the snows before the rescue parties from Salt Lake City arrived on the scene to bring them to the valley.
In all, nearly 350,000 people crossed what is now Wyoming from 1841-1860, the majority bound for California. They hired fast stagecoaches, traveled without the burden of supplies (that sometimes lead to disaster), and sought the quickest shortcuts, regardless of the risks involved. Likewise, they had little regard for the culture of Native people and the wild game they depended on to survive on the Plains.
With the increasing numbers using the trails, knowledgeable guides made substantial money and sales of guidebooks flourished. The federal government sent army explorers west to locate better routes. One of these was an expedition of 18 men to the Salt Lake Valley via the Oregon Trail and then back across southern Wyoming led by Capt. Howard Stansbury in 1849. His expedition mapped southern Wyoming. The route contained vast stretches of "desert," but it was nonetheless largely unobstructed by mountain ranges except at the eastern edge. Stansbury’s party camped near present-day Laramie, saw no obvious passage over the Laramie Range to the east, so left the Laramie Plains roughly following the present route of U. S. Highway 287 into present Colorado. Stansbury’s maps became important when a transcontinental railroad route was being chosen some 15 years later.
As incidents between travelers and Native people increased in frequency and severity, the U. S. Government sought to placate Native people by negotiating treaties. In the summer of 1851, almost 10,000 Indians camped downriver from Fort Laramie while their leaders met with U. S. government treaty commissioners. The result was the first Fort Laramie treaty, known as the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851.
In it, the federal government agreed to restrict travel across Native lands to the existing trails, only constructing forts along them for the convenience of travelers. In return, Native people agreed not to harm the travelers. Further, the government treaty-makers insisted that Native people select chiefs with whom the government could deal, even though some tribes had no traditions for such authority in a single leader. The government also expected the tribes to honor tribal boundary lines—the Shoshones, to stay in what is now western Wyoming, the Lakota to restrict their hunting to north of the North Platte River and east of the Powder River; the Crow, to stay west of the Powder River; and the Arapahoes and Cheyenne to stay south and east of the North Platte River. Such land borders were not part of Native understanding.. In exchange for honoring the terms of the treaty, the Federal government offered to pay the tribes annuities in the form of goods valued at $50,000 annually for 50 years. (Later, the Senate unilaterally changed the term to $50,000 per year for just 10 years).
Travelers, particularly those bound for California, had little regard for terms of government agreements with the Native people. Minor incidents continued, but the peace from Fort Laramie treaty of 1851 came to an end with Grattan fight on August 19, 1854. The incident began through a typical example of cultural misunderstanding. A small group of Minicoungous, hunting in the area near present-day Lingle, noticed a wayward cow wandering beyond a hill near the trail. Apparently assuming that the cow, like a buffalo, was there for the taking, the group killed and skinned the animal. They were preparing to dine on the remains. Meanwhile, the cow’s owner, a member of a Mormon company traveling along the trail, went looking for the lost animal. The cow previously been following the caravan, but apparently was tempted by better grass away from the trail and got separated from the owner. When the Mormon owner saw what had occurred, he reported the theft to the commander at Fort Laramie, about five miles west of the incident site.
The commander sent out a detachment of 28 soldiers under the command of a newly-arrived lieutenant, fresh from West Point graduation, Lt. John Grattan. Grattan’s lack of experience, combined with relying on an interpreter who had been drinking led to disaster. Details of who started the fight are a mystery, but soon after Grattan’s troops confronted the Indians, shooting began. One soldier staggered back to the fort to report that Grattan, the interpreter and the entire command had been killed while Minnicougou losses numbered considerably less.
The army, alarmed at what was its greatest loss of men in one incident to that time in the West, ordered Gen. William S. Harney west to "punish" the Indians for the act. Harney treated the assignment not as an effort to hunt down the perpetrators but as collective punishment against all Indians. On Sept. 3, 1855, in the battle of Blue Water, Harney’s 600 troops overran Little Thunder’s camp of Brulé in retaliation for the Grattan "massacre.". Eighty-six Indians were killed, seventy women and children were captured, and their tipis were looted and burned. The site is located about six miles to the northwest of Ash Hollow in Nebraska.
Despite increasing threats from Indians, travelers continued to seek quicker, shorter routes across the plains and Rockies. The federal government assisted by assigning U. S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers to duty exploring the West. In 1857, after considerable pressure from Western constituents for military roads, Congress passed a law authorizing three Pacific Wagon Roads.
One was the Fort Kearney, South Pass and Honey Lake wagon road to be laid out in three sections. Frederick V. Lander, a native of Salem, Mass., who had worked on a Puget Sound to Council Bluffs route in 1854, was hired to lay out a section of the new road and later the entire road. The goal was to provide a cut-off from South Pass westward so that traffic did not need to detour as far south as Salt Lake City. His surveys convinced him that seven travel days and 500 miles could be saved through a shortcut.
The so-called Lander cut-off accomplished the goal, but substantial traffic never used the route, hampered by dangerous river crossings and long stretches across barren plains where water was scarce. In 1858 Lander offered to build a railroad along the trail if sufficiently subsidies were provided. His plans for bridges (and a railroad) never came about because the Civil War intervened. Given a colonel’s appointment in the Union Army, he was wounded in the first year of the war and died five months later from the effects. He was 40 years old. The town of Lander is named for him.
By the middle 1850s, other entrepreneurs offered a variety of transportation methods to the West. Some were novel and entirely impractical such as Scientific American publisher Rufus Porter’s proposal for a hot-air balloon, powered by a steam engine and designed to carry 100 people across country at the unheard of speed of 100 mph. In 1849, he asked a down payment of $50 on the proposed $200 one-way fare. The balloon was built but never flown due to technical troubles.
The federal government helped by requesting bids to carry the U. S. Mail to the West Coast. Previously, mail went twice a month from New York by water route to San Francisco. The Wells-Fargo company joined with other firms to create the Overland Mail Company, offering twice-per-week mail service from St. Louis to San Francisco. Nicknamed the "Butterfield route" after the company president, it did not pass through Wyoming, but south through New Mexico Territory. In June 1858, regular stagecoach service began through Fort Laramie. The firm was organized by William Russell who soon brought in Alexander Majors and William Waddell as partners. The company ran stagecoaches built by the Concord, N. H., firm of J. Stephens Abbot and Lewis Downing. The so-called Concord coaches became a mainstay in Western transportation.
The Russell, Majors and Waddell company ran up huge debts, much coming from setting up 94 stations, one every 10-15 miles along the route, hiring station-tenders and more than 75 drivers for the 110 coaches (each coach costing $1,500 and weighing one ton). Each coach carried up to nine passengers and 25 pounds of mail, carried for $1 per pound. The firm struggled along for three years, borrowing money at crucial times to keep the coaches running. In October 1859, the primary creditor, Ben Holladay, foreclosed on the firm and took possession of the stage-line. For the first years under Holladay’s ownership, the line continued to run roughly along the route of the Oregon-California trail.
In 1861, a great experiment in speedy communication was launched with the first run by the Pony Express. Riders stopped and changed horses every 10-15 miles at one of the 190 stations the company established along the California Trail. It took 10-13 days to deliver a letter from St. Joseph, Mo., to San Francisco. The cost was prohibitive to all but the most important messages—$5 per ounce. The Pony Express lasted only 18 months even though the achievements of its riders became part of the enduring Western legend. William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody gained his first fame as a youthful rider with the Pony Express, going on to use the experience as part of his theatrical productions with his Wild West Show that he formed in 1883 and operated into the early 20th century.
The Pony Express was made obsolete by a stunning engineering achievement that is nearly forgotten today—construction of the first transcontinental telegraph line. Like the Pony Express and the overland stage-line, the telegraph was heavily subsidized by the federal government. In fact, the government offered to pay $40,000 per year for ten years to the company successfully completing the task. Edward Creighton met with executives of the Western Union company and a California-based firm. He agreed to take on the task as the contracting agent for the eastern 1,100 miles of line, leaving the western portion to the California firm’s contractor. He was assisted by his brother John, 11 years his junior, who took charge of construction details. Creighton’s company arranged for poles to be taken to treeless stretches of the plains, brought in the wires and set the stations up along the route. The entire task took six months. On Oct. 24, 1861, the two coasts were connected for the first time with almost instant communication. In later years, the two men invested in Wyoming cattle ranching. Following Edward Creighton’s death in 1874, much of his fortune endowed Creighton University in Omaha.
The Civil War in the East caused problems with overland trail travel. Many soldiers, previously assigned to guard stage station property (in essence, a federal government subsidy to the company) had to be reassigned to duty in the East. With increasing incidents of stock theft and harassment of coaches and fewer soldiers to guard against it, Holladay asked the federal government for permission to move the route of the stage-line further south. Some historians say his primary motivation was to capitalize on passenger and freight service to Denver and the rich Colorado gold fields. The precedent was set when Creighton asked Denver for a $40,000 payment in exchange for connecting the telegraph line through that city. Denver refused the offer so Creighton built to the north.
Holladay’s company built a new series of 31 stage stations along what is now southern Wyoming. (One is the oldest standing structure in Albany County—Big Laramie Stage Station, now part of a private ranch home). The army assisted in moving the company equipment and personnel to the new route. Even though one of Holladay’s reasons for moving involved the risks of the more northern route, he still expected (and received) U. S. Army protection for the stations and coaches along the new route.
The army was pressed thin by having to provide protection for the Oregon-California trail (and the transcontinental telegraph along that route) and the newly established Overland Trail for Holladay’s coaches. Army commander of the region Col. William A. Collins had few regular or volunteer troops to spare. Consequently, when the newly established Fort Halleck (near present Elk Mountain) was garrisoned, the troops included a number of "galvanized Yankees"—former Confederate soldiers who had volunteered to serve on the frontier as an alternative to incarceration in a prisoner-of-war camp in Illinois.
Collins commanded the troops from the fort named for him—Fort Collins, in Colorado. During his first tour in the West, his young son Caspar accompanied him, drawing floor plans and sketches of many military facilities. Later, young Caspar joined the army and, with the rank of lieutenant, was assigned duty along the Oregon-California trail route. Tensions between the army and Native people increased substantially after Col. Chivington and a Colorado militia company in 1864 attacked a Cheyenne-Arapaho camp along Sand Creek in Colorado, killing indiscriminately. Plains tribes reciprocated with a series of raids against stage stations and ranches the following spring.
In July 1865, Lt. Collins led a small detachment from Sweetwater Station to Platte Bridge Station near where two toll bridges had been built to ferry overlanders across the North Platte. Shortly after his arrival, a group of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho gathered to attack the station. In the ensuing skirmish, Collins and four other soldiers were killed. (That same day, about five miles west of the fort, Sgt. Amos Custard and 24 men accompanying supply wagons were attacked. Three soldiers survived the Battle of Red Buttes.)
The army, to honor young Collins, renamed the post for him. They could not call it "Fort Collins." Such a post already existed, having been named for Caspar’s father, Col. William Collins. Consequently, they called the fort "Fort Caspar." Three years later, the post was abandoned, but in the late 1880s when a railroad was built into the area and a town was established on the site, it was named "Casper"—the "e" replacing the "a" as a result of a post office spelling error. Thus, Wyoming’s second largest city shared a family connection with Fort Collins, Colorado.
Gold was the motivating factor for the dramatic increase in traffic on the Oregon-California trail in 1849. A dozen years later, gold in Montana prompted a new trail across north central Wyoming. Georgia-born John Bozeman, disregarding treaties that had set aside the Powder River country for the Lakota, blazed a short-cut from the Oregon Trail route to Montana in 1863. (He was killed along the trail in 1867).
The federal government initially condemned the trespassing, but in the summer of 1866, Col. Henry Carrington and 700 soldiers were ordered to the area to build forts for protecting trespassing miners. While a hastily-arranged treaty conference was held at Fort Laramie, supposedly gaining Indian approval for the action—even though the Native signers had no stake in the Powder River country—Carrington’s troops left Fort Laramie to set up forts along the Bozeman Trail. The Carrington command built Fort Reno and Fort C. F. Smith. The primary post, however, was to be Fort Phil Kearny (located halfway between present Buffalo and Sheridan). While Carrington’s group continued construction of a wood stockade around the post, Indians harassed groups sent out to cut timber or graze post animals. The incidents intensified in the fall of 1866. (Photographer Ridgway Glover was one victim while setting up his bulky equipment to shoot photographs of the fort from a nearby hill).
Civil War veteran Capt. William Fetterman was assigned to the newly constructed post in November 1866. The following month, on December 21, 1866, despite his lack of knowledge of frontier Indian fighting, he volunteered to lead a guard detachment of 80 men to escort a wood-gathering party back to the fort. A half dozen Lakota warriors appeared on a nearby hill, yelling obscenities in an attempt to lure the unit over the ridge. One of the taunters, it is said, was Crazy Horse. In later testimony, Col. Carrington, Fetterman’s commander, contended he had told the young inexperienced officer not to go over Lodge Trail Ridge. Whether he had been warned is an open question, but Fetterman ordered his troops to chase the harassers over the ridge. Awaiting was a substantial force of Lakota warriors who ambushed the column. Within 20 minutes, Fetterman and his entire command were dead.
When Col Carrington learned of the incident, he feared that the 120 or so soldiers at the post were in danger. He sought volunteers to ride to the nearest telegraph station, Horseshoe Station, 190 miles to the south, to alert army officials. Two men offered to make the journey, despite deep snows and cold temperatures. One was John "Portugee" Phillips (born Manual Felipe Cardoso in the Azores in 1832), who was a civilian wintering at the fort in preparation for returning to the Montana gold fields the following spring. Another volunteer to make the hazardous ride was Daniel Dixon.
As they proceeded under what was a full moon by day and bright sun on heavy snow, other riders rode with them from time to time en route to the telegraph station. At Fort Reno, Phillips was given an additional message from Lt.Col. Henry Wessels to deliver to the commander at Fort Laramie. Three men, Phillips, Dixon, and Robert Bailey, rode into Horseshoe Station on Christmas morning where the telegraph messages were sent to army commanders. Phillips continued southward to Fort Laramie alone. A Christmas night party was in full swing at "Old Bedlam," the bachelor officers’ quarters, when Phillips rode into the post. The post commander, alerted to the troubles, sent reinforcements to Fort Phil Kearny, but the unit didn’t leave until January 6. As it turned out, the delay was irrelevant because the Indians opted not to further attack the soldiers or the post.
While Phillips’ ride was not made alone for much of the way, nonetheless, it was a formidable achievement—riding 238 miles in winter snows, avoiding contact with Indians, and making the distance in only four days. It remains celebrated as the "greatest ride in Wyoming history." The federal government paid Phillips and Dixon $300 each for making the ride. Phillips stayed in Wyoming, ranched near Chugwater and died in Cheyenne in 1883.
The army’s efforts to keep the trail open seemed futile, however. In 1868, the U. S. Government sent representatives to another treaty conference at Fort Laramie. Under the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, the army abandoned the forts along the Bozeman Trail and the government agreed to bar miners from using the shortcut across Native lands. At least some of the impetus for the agreement was from government officials’ concern for construction of the transcontinental railroad, then building across what is now southern Wyoming.
The Bozeman Trail, like the Oregon-California-Mormon route and the overland stagecoach line, were being made obsolete. A transcontinental railroad was about to transform transportation west and, with it, make it necessary to establish Wyoming as a territory.