The US Military on (and off) the Oregon Trail

I was excited to begin this digital tools assignment because of the StoryMaps format, and I was happy to start delving into the 19th century American West. I decided that for this project I wanted to explore some of the broader pieces of American Manifest Destiny. Since I knew that I wanted my topic to be connected to the journal that I plan to use in my final project, I began by scanning and reading the 1853 journal of Thomas Adams from the beginning, jotting down locations he mentioned as I read (if you want to learn more about this source, you can read my previous post here). The best part of this stage was frantically searching the names of rivers and lakes, since those were the most frequently referenced landmarks. It got a little tricky for the pages when he was in Minnesota, though– they don’t call it the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” for no reason!

As I read through the journal, I began to notice that there were several military titles that kept popping up as I read. It started to become clear to me that Thomas Adams was probably traveling with the US Army; for what purpose, I’m not yet sure. However, this gave me a great starting point for this StoryMaps assignment: I could explore the presence of the US Military & forts along the Oregon Trail, one of the most iconic pieces of 19th century American history, with a video game based on it to boot!

In order to find information about various forts and military installations along the Oregon Trail, I did a few searches and came across this excellent PDF from Scotts Bluff National Monument in Nebraska. After cross-referencing the list with some maps from National Geographic and the Letters from Forgotten Ancestors Project, I made the selections of the forts that appear on the StoryMap, which is embedded below.

Most of the forts listed on my StoryMap are not actually locations that Thomas Adams visited (at least in the parts of the journal that I read for this assignment). However, I thought it was important to examine the broader historical narrative rather than only sticking to the places he visited– otherwise we’d be staying in Minnesota for quite a long time! Instead, I decided to begin with Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, which was a significant crossroads because it was where the Oregon Trail and the Santa Fe Trail diverged. It’s also incredibly close to Independence, Missouri, a town famous for its prevalence as the last big town on the journey westward.

Although I don’t want to downplay the importance of any of the locations, I would have to admit that Fort Laramie, Wyoming, became my favorite location because I got a bit wrapped up in its lore. As I briefly explain in the StoryMap, Fort Laramie was originally constructed as Fort William in the early 1830s and was later abandoned and rebuilt as Fort John before being acquired by the US Military and finally named Fort Laramie. But what I didn’t touch on in the StoryMap, because it’s just a bit much for that short of a caption, is that the location of the original Fort William is unknown to this day. I found this pretty strange when I read about it here, so I filled out a contact form and got in touch with the Wyoming Historical Society and the National Park Service at Fort Laramie National Historic Site to learn more. It turns out that there’s been a pretty healthy amount of scholarly discourse on the topic. I could probably do an entire digital tool on it. But that’s not the topic of this whole assignment, so although it may be something I pursue in the future, that’s the last I’ll say on the topic here in this post. I hope you find that fun fact as interesting as I did!

Fort Bridger, Wyoming also had an incredibly fascinating history, but this post is already running pretty long, so I encourage you to read about it on the StoryMap, and to check out the website I linked above, as well as this page on the Utah War.

The last location that I’ll mention specifically is Big Hole National Battlefield in Montana, because it’s the only location that is not a fort, so I’d like to talk about why I chose to include it. This will also give afford me the opportunity to segue into why I chose this larger narrative, and what we learn from viewing the information in this way. The story of Big Hole National Battlefield is, I think, a good and tragic example of the US Military’s involvement in Manifest Destiny. I describe it in detail on the StoryMap, so be sure to read about it there first. The Battlefield is, in a way, the reason why I chose to do this assignment about forts– because the Battlefield is the endgame of the very existence of the forts in the first place. (It’s worth noting that Fort Bridger is a direct example of the use of military force during the Utah War.) The forts were established to service the material needs of emigrants and to ‘protect’ them– which was really just a covert way of saying that the forts were largely a show of force towards Indigenous peoples. The Battlefield in Big Hole is just one of many such outcomes of the presence and use of military force in the American West in the 19th century.

Big Hole, Montana, is also a location that Thomas Adams mentions in his journal, except he was there in the early 1850s, more than 20 years before it would become a battlefield. I chose to include it for this reason as well; a lot changes took place in the Western US during those 20+ years, largely as a result of the Civil War, increased emigration, and heightened violence between the US Military and Indigenous peoples as the US Government felt an increased need to protect its interests in the region, at the cost of many Indigenous lives.

I think that viewing the information on a map like this is important because it allows us to see the way that Western expansion unfolded. You may have noticed, that for the most part the farther West each fort is, the later its founding date. I think that the map is also a good way to view the information because it is a literal trail, so it makes sense to see it on a map, just as you would see any other trail.

I hope you learned something, and I look forward to sharing more from my research in the future.

Works Cited

Bagley, Will. “Fort Bridger - WyoHistory.Org.” Accessed March 7, 2021. Image from here, via the Wyoming State Museum.

CRITFC. “Nez Perce Tribe - Nez Perce Indian Reservation.” Accessed March 7, 2021.

Drew, Marilyn. “A Brief History of the Bozeman Trail - WyoHistory.Org.” Accessed March 7, 2021.

Encyclopedia Britannica. “American Fur Company - American Company.” Accessed March 7, 2021.

Encyclopedia Britannica. “Oregon Trail - The Journey.” Accessed March 7, 2021.

“Oregon Trail - Definition, History, Map, & Facts.” Accessed March 7, 2021. (Title page image of map)

“The Flight of 1877 - Nez Perce National Historical Park (U.S. National Park Service).” Accessed March 7, 2021.

“Fort Dalles – Historic The Dalles.” Accessed March 7, 2021.

“Fort Hall.” Accessed March 7, 2021. Image of Fort Hall from this site via the Idaho State Historical Society, so I am noting that here.

“Fort Laramie - WyoHistory.Org.” Accessed March 7, 2021. Image via this site, which sites it as from “Tales and Trails.”

“Fort Leavenworth - Kansapedia - Kansas Historical Society.” Accessed March 7, 2021. Image here, from the Kansas State Historical Society.

“Fort Owen State Park - Montana FWP.” Accessed March 7, 2021. Image directly from this site.

Hein, Rebecca. “The Utah War in Wyoming - WyoHistory.Org.” Accessed March 7, 2021.

“Military & Supply Forts on the Oregon Trail.” Scotts Bluff National Monument, National Park Service, n.d.

Sanchez, Zachary A., and University of Idaho. “Fort Boise’s Historic Transitions.” Intermountain Histories. Accessed March 7, 2021. Image of Fort Boise from here via the Idaho State Historical Society; I could not find it there, so I am noting that here.

Shine, Gregory. “Fort Dalles.” Accessed March 7, 2021. Image of the company quarters taken from this site, which lists it as via the Oregon Historical Society Research Library; I could not find it there online, so I am just noting that here.

Smoots, Frederick. “Trails West, a Map of Early Western Migration Trails. TNGenNet Inc. TNGenWeb, Letters From Forgotten Ancestors.” Accessed March 7, 2021.

Smoots, Frederick. “Trails West.” 2000.

“Things to Do: Big Hole National Battlefield.” Accessed March 7, 2021.

“Trails West.” National Geographic, 2002.

Warre, Henry James. Drawing of Fort Vancouver. Accessed March 7, 2021.

This work was completed in compliance with course and University regulations. /s/ HP