hh20k.htm =c@8" =c BDGt &H &Ȥ %~ ($h =c@ 'JTEXTR*ch__V渾d NPS Historical Handbook: Fort Laramie

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Handcart to Pony Express, 1856-61

In 1856, in an effort to reduce the cost of emigration to Utah, the Mormons introduced the handcart plan. Two-wheeled handcarts, similar to those once used by street sweepers, were constructed of Iowa hickory and oak. One cart was assigned to each four or five converts who walked and pushed or pulled their carts over the long trek from the railhead at Iowa City to the Salt Lake Valley. Livestock was driven with the parties and at times 1 ox-drawn wagon to each 100 emigrants was provided to carry additional baggage and supplies.

The first handcart parties were very successful, but the last two, in 1856, started too late in the summer and were snowed in near Devil's Gate. There, more than 200 of the 1,000 or more in the two parties perished from cold and hunger before the survivors could be rescued by wagon trains sent out from Utah. From 1856 to 1860 some 3,000 Mormons made the journey to Utah in 10 handcart companies, and to these footsore travelers Fort Laramie was indeed a haven in the wilderness.

Early in 1857, the War Department decided to abandon Fort Laramie, but events forced the cancellation of the order before it could be carried out, and the fort again demonstrated its strategic importance. First, it served as a supply base for a punitive expedition led by Col. E. V. Sumner against the Cheyennes between the Platte and Arkansas Rivers. Then, as that campaign drew to an inconclusive end, the fort became a vital base for the Army which marched toward Utah that fall to subdue the reportedly rebellious Mormons.

By the next year, the Utah Campaign involved some 6,000 troops, half of whom were in or near Utah, with Fort Laramie their nearest sure source of supply.

In spite of this warlike activity, thousands of emigrants continued to roll westward by covered wagon, the great travel medium of the plains. To these the fort was a vital way station, as it was to the great firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell, freighting contractors who carried supplies to the Army in Utah. In 1858, this enterprise alone involved 3,500 wagons, 40,000 oxen, 1,000 mules, and 4,000 men.

Beginning in 1850, mail service of varying frequency and reliability linked Fort Laramie with the States to the east and Salt Lake City to the west. Interrupted in the summer of 1857 by the Utah Campaign, a new and improved weekly mail service was organized in 1858 bringing news only 12 days old from the Missouri River to the fort.

In 1858, the discovery of gold at Cherry Creek, 200 miles south of Fort Laramie, precipitated the Colorado gold rush. That winter Fort Laramie was the nearest link between the gold miners clustered about the site of Denver, Colo., and the outside world. An informal mail express to the fort was organized and carried by old trappers.

These developments were soon overshadowed by the spectacular pony express. The first westbound rider galloped into Fort Laramie on April 6, 1860, just 3 days out from St. Joseph, Mo. This remarkable system of relays of riders and ponies carried up to 10 pounds of mail from St. Joseph to San Francisco in 13 days, at the rate of $5 in gold for a half-ounce letter. Later, a Government subsidy, begun on July 1, 1861, reduced the rate to $1 for one-half ounce. On that same date daily overland mail coaches began operating from St. Joseph to San Francisco, via Fort Laramie, on an 18-day schedule.

Meanwhile, the poles and wires of the first transcontinental telegraph were stretching out across the plains and mountains. Reaching Fort Laramie in September, the telegraph was completed to Salt Lake City and connected with the line from the west coast on October 24, 1861. That date also marked the end of the pony express which, although a financial failure that cost W. H. Russell his fortune, had proved the practicability of the central route to California for year-round travel.

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Last Modified: Sat, Dec 9 2000 10:00:00 am PDT

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