History Notes is on the road this month, looking at the Fort Laramie National Historic site in Wyoming. Like all war memorials and regional markers of shared and contested history, the physical site itself means profoundly different things to different people today.
Listen to visitors who wander the grounds and you will hear one family mourning the impact of Fort Laramie on their own tribal history, while another family celebrates Fort Laramie’s role in “settling the west.”
If you go to the Lunch Box café in nearby Guernsey, Wyoming, just west of Fort Laramie on Highway 26, you will find a gathering place for the community, including military staff stationed at nearby Camp Guernsey. You will also find a plaque on the wall thanking the café owners for their support of a recent Iraq deployment tagged “Operation Lethal Cowboy.”
In contrast, if you go to another community gathering place, the website of the Standing Rock Nation, you will find a page presenting the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 in the context of tribal history: http://www.standingrock.org/history. The phrase “Operation Lethal Cowboy,” will carry quite different connotations here.
Back at the Fort Laramie site, there is a plaque commemorating the Mormon handcart migrations of the 1850s, during which several thousand immigrant Mormons, mostly poor and having only recently arrived in the United States, pulled their heavy handcarts along hundreds of miles seeking cultural, economic and religious refuge in Utah. They paused at Fort Laramie for rest and – as their diaries indicate – a sense of safety and security.
“Security” was, and is, another concept with many meanings: take a look at Fort Laramie’s crumbled jail ruins preserved from the 1850s, cells so small that one person could barely turn around. Every era compels us to ask who ends up imprisoned in jails like these, and why.
As a war memorial, Fort Laramie stands as a monument to occupation and resistance, to treaties signed and treaties betrayed. Walk across the porch boardwalk and into the reconstructed cavalry barracks from the 1870s, and you will be reminded that soldiers in all wars are preoccupied with surviving day-to-day. Stand in the grass outside the barracks, where the stark and quiet architecture of a sweat lodge marks another kind of survival.
The bookstore in the Fort Laramie visitor center features a range of books, films and posters illuminating the complex and difficult history of the northern plains: diverse views on expansionist western settlement, American Indian history, military history, immigrant experience. There are also books on the remarkable natural world that has long shaped human experience: weather, animals, birds, plants, rocks. Clearly, there has been serious effort made to offer a range of historical perspectives and interpretations.
But the official website for Fort Laramie (http://www.nps.gov/fola/index.htm) includes a “history and culture” link with only one seriously outdated and inflammatorily biased historical account of Fort Laramie’s role in regional history. These days, the website for any historical site is often the first place that visitors “arrive,” providing key interpretation and orientation, especially for visitors from other regions of the United States and from other countries.
And in fact, people from all around the country and the world have signed the big Fort Laramie guest book, adding their commentary and thoughts, offering mostly praise for the exhibits. One summer visitor scribbled: “The South will rise again!” These days, this may reflect the actual hope of a recalcitrant American white supremacist, but it also might reflect a visitor’s ironic irritation with the romanticized “Reconstruction vibe” from some of the costumed re-enactors who wander the grounds in July. Nostalgic theater runs its own political risks.
Like all historical sites, Fort Laramie offers us an evolving physical stage for political theater, with several dramatic plotlines telling sometimes conflicting stories of our regional history. As spring weather thaws the roads, it’s a good time to visit such historical sites across our region and to look closely at how each site “stages” its stories of our shared history. There is much more collaborative work to be done in order to ensure that these monuments speak with fuller justice about the past and to the present.