A Day in My Life at Fort Laramie

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April 1878, Fort Laramie, Wyoming

Life at Fort Laramie has not been quite the same since last October, when Aunt Sophie died. For a couple of months, Mama helped Uncle Joseph with Baby Sarah. There were no recent new mothers in town, at least none who willing to take on another baby to nurse, so somehow, somewhere, Mama got herself a nanny goat so the baby could have a bottle.

MAMA’S NANNY GOAT

The fall and winter were cold. I’m sure the thermometer plunged to 30 below at times. Our house was warm, and the baby stayed with us for longer and longer periods of time while Uncle Joseph worked in town.

SARAH SOPHIE BENSON

But then spring came, and Uncle Joseph took Sarah and went back east to his sister’s place. He just couldn’t stay here any longer in this wind-blown prairie with Sophie gone. Mama cried all day when Sarah left. I admit, I was getting kind of used to her. She smiled at me a lot and I rocked her some too. But then she was gone. All was not lost, however. Uncle Joseph graciously gave Mama a small photograph of Baby Sarah so we wouldn’t forget her. I bet it cost a lot. But of course, Mama wonders if she will ever see her little niece again. She was just five months old when she and Uncle Joseph left Laramie. I think they went back to someplace in Ohio, like Cincinnati.

Spring at Fort Laramie is a burst of sun and fresh air. I decided to write out a day in the life of an army soldier. The days all seem alike. I tramped outside at the end of the day and caught the bugler, Private William Drown, walking his horse, Spice, on the common green. He was happy to tell me his entire day (not that I couldn’t guess it, but it was fun to hear it from his own mouth).

PRIVATE DROWN AND “SPICE.” THE FORT LARAMIE HOTEL IS BEHIND HIM.

“Well, Riley, I commenced the day this morning by being the orderly bugler for the commanding officer. Then at half past eight in the morning, I attended guard mounting. Immediately afterward, I saddled up and rode two miles and assisted in digging a grave. Returned to the fort at half past twelve. Started again at one with the funeral procession, after which we marched home. I dressed myself for evening parade, marched back again to the corral, assisted in flogging a deserter, came home, ate supper, and here I am, watching you scratch it all down in an old journal.” Then he handed me Spice’s reins and grinned. “Now, I expect I’ve earned a rest. Rub him down good and give him a measure of oats.” He took off to the barracks, and I took off toward the stables.

Right now, there are 350 men stationed at Fort Laramie, but that doesn’t include people like me and Randy and our mothers. Just the officers and soldiers. The men are up from dawn to 8pm. Mostly they have morning and afternoon parade drills, policing the area to keep rough outlaws and busybodies away, cleaning their barracks, standing guard, and tending their horses. (Of course, I am in charge of all the horses, but it takes more than one boy to tend their horses.)

ONE OF THE BARRACKS AT FORT LARAMIE

It’s not hard to figure out the worst duties at this fort. I hear the troopers complain all the time (they talk to their horses and each other, and I listen). Cutting wood and cutting ice is brutal for the men. Since Fort Laramie sits on the Great Plains, there isn’t much wood around. Any trees once there are long gone, so the troopers have to travel 40 or more miles to Laramie Peak to cut wood! With the constant, freezing temperatures, I did the arithmetic and calculated that the fort uses probably 5,000 cords of wood each winter, just to keep the barracks and officers’ quarters (and the families’ homes too) warm.

The soldiers don’t much like sawing river ice, either. Randy and I bundled up and watched them work. They looked like big, furry buffalos in their overcoats. They even wrapped their boots with burlap to try and keep their feet warm. Randy and I didn’t stay out there very long. We nearly froze to death watching for fifteen minutes, then hurried back to Randy’s place for steaming chocolate. But I remember ice last summer when we first arrived, and it tasted mighty good when your throat was dry and hot. I wonder if the soldiers think about that while they are cutting those big blocks to store in sod houses.

I got the surprise of my life when I started school last September. Twenty children were enrolled at the fort’s school–fourteen girls and six boys, which included Randy and me. I looked around that first day and discovered I was the only officer’s kid in class. The others studied school with a private tutor. I didn’t mind so much being in this school, since Randy was there, but I soon changed my tune and wanted out.

I was shocked to my toes when I found out that the fort did not hire a schoolmaster. No, sirree. Instead, the soldiers had to take turns teaching a room full of undisciplined bullies and snippy girls, none of whom liked being indoors any more than the soldier did. Plus, I overhead plenty of them having to put up with teasing and kidding from the other soldiers.

And one day, the “teacher-soldier” showed up drunk. I am not funnin’ about that. That was a terrible day. When the commandant found out, Private Warner was fined $12 for “dereliction of duty.” Seeing as he earns $13 a month, that was quite a fine. But it doesn’t stop the next instructor from coming to school drunk.

FORT LARAMIE SCHOOL IN THE WINTER

I felt truly blessed when Major Bradford pulled me out of school with the offer to tend and train the horses. Even in the bitter cold, I am out there every day. I sure don’t want to be found derelict in my duties. Five dollars a month is the first real money I’ve ever had. I never got paid working for Uncle Sid and Cook on the Circle C. So far, I’ve earned twenty-five whole dollars in the five months I’ve been training and tending the horses. The mustangs are as gentle as lambs now and even grouchy Sergeant Tully admits I’ve “got the touch.”

The single troopers eat at the mess hall, and it’s truly a “mess.” Their meals consist of pork, beans, rice, potatoes, and onions, plus a loaf of bread a day. Just yesterday, I saw about a dozen men outside the fort digging into the soil, hoping to grow something to supplement their boring rations.

Mama, like many of the wives at the fort, keeps a cow, and we still have the goat. I milk the cow for her, like a good son, but I wouldn’t be caught dead milking that nanny! If Randy saw me, my reputation would not be worth a plugged nickel. So, Mama milks the goat (the milk tastes good), and she has the cow for butter and for selling to all those poor troopers who aren’t as lucky as Pa and me. She also trades the milk and the eggs from our little flock of chickens at the sutler’s store. She can get almost anything there, even furniture and draperies, so long as we pay the shipping from the States back east.

SUTLER’S STORE IS NOT MUCH TO LOOK AT

And that’s what life is for me, Riley Jared Prescott, in April 1878, on a fine spring day.

Published by Andi Carter

I'm the main character in the Circle C Adventures series. I live on a huge cattle ranch in 1880s California. These are my adventures.

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