Outposts on the California Trail
The intrepid individuals who traveled 2,000 miles overland from the Missouri frontier to California in the 1840s had very few waystations along their route at which to replace provisions or failing draft animals for their covered wagons. The outposts they did get to were trading posts built to accommodate the prosperous fur trade, not military installations. Nevertheless, they were called “forts” because the facilities were always fortified—that is, constructed with high outside walls, heavily guarded entrance gates, and canon-filled towers that afforded defenders a 360-degree view.
Fort Laramie, in today’s eastern Wyoming—some 635 miles west of the Missouri River— was not only the first outpost they reached; to arrive there was regarded as having completed the first “leg” of the journey. Over time, it had been known by other names. Built at the confluence of the Platte and Laramie Rivers, the post originally named Fort William was established in 1834 by fur trappers William Sublette and Robert Campbell. It was a rectangle approximately 80 x 100 feet composed of 15-foot cottonwood logs. The following year, mountain men Jim Bridger, Tom Fitzpatrick, and Milton Sublette bought it, then sold it to the American Fur Company in 1836. Deteriorated by 1841, the AFC replaced it with a new adobe structure it named Fort John, but soon everyone in the mountain trade was just calling it Fort Laramie, the name that stuck.
After leaving Fort Laramie and crossing South Pass, the trail forked at Little Sandy Creek. To the left, the road went to Fort Bridger, in the southwestern corner of Wyoming. To the right, a cutoff led directly west to the Bear River, then swung sharply northward to Fort Hall. Construction of Fort Bridger began in 1841, but it wasn’t open for business until 1842. Established by mountain man Jim Bridger and his partner Louis Vasquez, this outpost was the first one built specifically to cater to the steadily increasing migration to the Pacific Coast; also, Lansford Hastings’ famous cutoff on the California route launched out from there in 1846. Fort Bridger was a crude log structure principally geared to supplying the needs of wagon trains, containing a small store and a blacksmith shop. It was abandoned in 1857.
Fort Hall, the last station for the California-bound, was established in 1834 near the junction of the Snake and Portnuef Rivers, in present-day Idaho, by Nathaniel Wyeth, a Boston ice merchant who had once hoped to enter the fur trade. However, by 1837 it belonged to the Hudson’s Bay Company, the British-owned, fur trading powerhouse in the West. Originally an 80-foot-square log structure, it was encased by adobe and expanded to about 80 x 120 square feet in 1838. For the emigrants, arrival there represented completion of 1,200 hundred miles, a little more than halfway to California.
From Fort Hall, the trail went westward to the Raft River, the point of a major split in the road. Ahead, lay the way to Oregon; to the left, California. From that point on, in the 1840s, there were no more outposts for those going to California until the wagons crossed the Sierra Nevada and worked their way down to John Sutter’s trading post in the Sacramento Valley. Sutter’s Fort was the last place of rest and recoupment before the immigrants either put down roots near there, or continued on to create settlements elsewhere, including taking up residence in the fledgling village that became San Francisco.
Image: Fort Laramie, 1840s