Visiting Fort Laramie: An Outpost on the Prairie

Fort Laramie/Fort John was an extremely important site along the Overland Trails.  In the early years of emigrant travel, the 1840s, it was probably the first man-made landmark the emigrants had seen since leaving Ft. Kearny.  Journals or scavenger hunts will allow the students to collect information and share their ideas as they explore the fort.

Here are some questions to raise during the bus ride:

  • Depending upon which direction you’re taking to the site, you will most likely be traveling the trail backwards. 
  • How many miles from the jumping off spots like St. Joseph and Independence, Missouri is Ft. Laramie?  How far is it from Ft. Kearny in Nebraska?
  • In the early years on the trails, the 1840s, what will be the next man-made landmark the emigrants see?  How far away is it?
  • There are numerous roadside guides for Wyoming – picking one of them up, and sharing what you see as you travel Wyoming’s highways adds interest to the bus ride.
  • Make a list of the animals seen along the way, both domestic and wild.  Which ones would benefit the emigrants, and which ones would be a hindrance?
  • Choose a trail diary (or two or three or four) that mentions Fort Laramie.  Read them several days prior to visiting the fort to give the students an idea of what the country was like, and what the level of anticipation at arriving at the fort was for the travelers. The Oregon/California Trails Association’s website has many letters and diaries to choose from. This letter, written from the trail near Fort Laramie back to relatives in Iowa in 1852, tells of seven deaths from cholera in a single family group—and offers good advice to future travelers on how to avoid a similar disaster. This letter, from forty-niner William Swain back home to his wife, reports good health and high hopes on the trail, and a fourth of July celebration near Fort Laramie.
  • As you arrive at the fort, read diary entries describing that moment for the emigrants. 

Arriving at Ft. Laramie:

  • When was Ft. Laramie built?  Who built it and why did they put it there?  How did it change over the years?  Why was it an important site?  What are some important historic moments that happened at the fort? 
  • Describe the layout of the fort – notice how it is organized.  What is the big space in the middle of all the buildings?  Why did they have that? 
  • Describe the various buildings.  What are most of them used for? Do you have a favorite building?  Which is it, and why do you like it?  Would you want to live in it now?  How is it the same as modern buildings?  How is it different?
  • Not just soldiers lived around the fort.  Find out who all the different people were at the fort.  Why were they there?
  • Men, women, and children on the wagon train wanted to do different things at the fort – describe what they all wanted to do.  What would you want to do if you were an emigrant visiting the fort?
  • Soldiers at the fort had many jobs to do.  List some of those jobs and describe them.  Which jobs were the most important?  Which ones were the least important?  Which job would you like to have?  Which one would you try to avoid if you could?
  • What could people buy at the fort?  How are the goods at the fort the same as what we can buy in our stores?  How are they different?  What were the prices? 
  • Where did the emigrants camp in the area of Ft. Laramie?  Was there anyone else camping or living near the fort?  Who were they?  Why were they there? 
  • Did all the people living in and near the fort get along?  Why or why not?  Find out about some famous examples. 
  • What are some weird or interesting facts or stories you learned about the fort? 

Back in the classroom, after the visit:

  • Pretend you’re an emigrant on the trail.  Describe how you would feel arriving at the fort after seeing nothing but prairie since Ft. Kearny.  How would you feel as you drive away?  Tell about all the people you met and what you thought of them. 
  • Pretend you’re a soldier at the fort.  Explain what it would be like to have thousands of people traveling past your home each summer.  How do you feel about the emigrants? 
  • Make a shopping list for the fort store.  What can you afford, and what will you have to pass up?  Why are the prices so high?
  • Write a letter that you would mail home.  Describe what you’ve seen on the trail so far.  Tell what you think you’ll be seeing next.  How are you feeling at this point in the journey?