Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Winter on the Laramie River—great food, wrong trees

Would you camp here for five months?

On September 4, 1831, twenty-one fur trappers packed their mules, saddled their horses, and rode up the Laramie River from the North Platte. They would travel until they found beaver, then trap until snow and cold sent them back downstream. But things did not go as planned. It would be May before they finally returned, and they would have to walk back.

Among the trappers was 22-year-old Zenas Leonard, one of the many young men who joined the fur trade for economic gain and adventure. He left the family farm in Pennsylvania the year before after announcing, “I can make my living without picking stones.” Zenas was a literate man, and kept notes during his travels. In 1839, he published a book about his five-year journey through the Rocky Mountains: Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard (available free here). The following account of a winter on the Laramie River is based on Leonard’s Narrative.
NOT Zenas Leonard; added in error by GoogleBooks. See note at end of post.
Traveling was easy at first. “… found the prairies or plains very extensive—unobstructed with timber or brush—handsomely situated, with here and there a small creek passing through them, and in some places literally covered with game, such as Buffaloe, White and Black tailed deer, Grizzley, Red and White Bear, Elk, Prairie Dog, wild Goat, Big horned mountain Sheep, Antelope, &c.”

But when they arrived at “the foot of a great mountains through which the Laramies passes” they found it impossible to continue, as “huge rocks projecting several hundred feet high closed it to the very current.” Instead, they traveled along the base of the Laramie Range to a buffalo trail leading to the crest, where they made camp. At midnight it began snowing hard, and they were forced to stay put for three days.

Not bothered by the early-October blizzard, the party continued on to the Laramie Valley. Leonard described it as long and broad “with the river Laramies passing through the centre of it, the banks of which are covered with timber, from 1/4 to 1/2 a mile wide … on a clear morning, by taking a view with a spyglass, you can see the different kinds of game that inhabit these plains, such as Buffaloe, Bear, Deer, Elk, Antelope, Bighorn, Wolves, &c.”

Beaver were abundant; they trapped twenty the first night. Then they continued upstream, periodically stopping for a few days to trap. Clearly the Laramie Valley was worth the trouble of getting there.
Base map by John C. Fremont (drawn by Charles Preuss), 1848; from David Rumsey Historical Map Collection. Insert below; click on images for larger views.
Trappers' route from the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte Rivers to the Laramie River campsite (X). Precise locations of their route across the Laramie Mountains and campsite are unknown. At that time, the Laramie Mountains were often called the Black Hills.
By October 22, the days were consistently cold and snowy. All agreed it was time to return to winter quarters on the North Platte. They followed the Laramie River back downstream to the buffalo trail across the mountains. But … surprise! It was no longer passable—there was too much snow. Several men searched for an alternative route but found none. In the discussion that followed, “a majority of the company decided in favor of encamping in the valley for the winter.”

The river was the obvious place to stay. Game was abundant. Cottonwood trees would provide wood for shelters, fuel for heat, and nutritious inner bark for horses and mules when grass was buried in snow. Camp was established on November 4.
“… we arrived at a large grove of Cottonwood timber, which we deemed suitable for encamping in. Several weeks were spent in building houses, stables, &c. necessary for ourselves, and horses during the winter season. They [the best hunters] killed buffalo and dried meat in case the herds left the valley. They killed deer, elk, antelope and other game & dressed the hides to make moccasins.”
By early December, the horses were struggling to find grass. The men collected armloads of cottonwood bark, but “to our utter surprise and discomfiture, on presenting it to them they would not eat it, and upon examining it by tasting, we found it to be the bitter, instead of the sweet Cottonwood.” By the end of December, most of the horses had died (apparently the two mules were less picky). They celebrated the New Year anyway.
“On new-years day, notwithstanding our horses were nearly all dead, as being fully satisfied that the few that were yet living must die soon, we concluded to have a feast in our best style; for which purpose we made preparation by sending out four of our best hunters, to get a choice piece of meat for the occasion. These men killed ten Buffaloe, from which they selected one of the fattest humps they could find and brought in, and after roasting it handsomely before the fire, we all seated ourselves upon the ground, encircling, what we there called a splendid repast to dine upon. Feasting sumptuously, cracking a few jokes, taking a few rounds with our rifles, and wishing heartily for some liquor, having none at that place we spent the day.”
Food and fuel remained abundant, but the men grew restless. Someone had heard they could buy horses in Santa Fe, so all but four men headed south on foot with beaver skins to trade. Two weeks later, they were turned back by snow and dwindling supplies of food. By the time they returned to the Laramie River camp they were gaunt and hungry, but quickly fattened up on game.

Finally, on April 20, they loaded what they could on the two weakened mules, cached everything else, and headed east across the Laramie Mountains through deep snow. Back on the plains, they stopped at the first sweet cottonwoods they came to and let the mules feast on inner bark for several days. They reached the North Platte on May 20, 1832.

Why no one in the group recognized the Laramie River cottonwoods as the bitter type is puzzling. Travelers as far back as Lewis and Clark could distinguish between the sweet and bitter types, even without leaves, and knew that horses would not eat the bark of the latter.

Were they an ignorant bunch? After all, they crossed the snowy Laramie Range in October, trapped beaver in the Laramie Valley into early November, and rang in the New Year with gusto in spite of losing all their horses, intending to walk to Santa Fe to get more.

Or were these trappers skilled adventurous men not averse to hardship? Maybe for them it was no big deal to spend five wintry months camped on the Laramie River before walking back to the North Platte!
Bitter cottonwoods (left; now called narrowleaf cottonwoods) grow at higher elevations, including the Laramie Valley (7000 feet). Sweet cottonwoods (Plains cottonwoods) are trees of lower elevations.

ADDED NOTE (May 21, 2016): In digitizing Leonard's narrative, GoogleBooks added a portrait to the cover as an enhancement—but it was the wrong one! Thanks to Scott Stine for tracking down the source of the error, and notifying Google:
[the] "digitized version of the 1904 edition displays a portrait, labeled 'Zenas Leonard,' on the first (digitized) page. But that portrait is not of Zenas Leonard; rather, it is of Michel Sylvestre Cerré. The portrait comes from (opposite) page 146 of the 1904 book (which appears on page 143 of your digitized version), where it is correctly labeled 'Michel Sylvestre Cerré.'"
• • •

This is an expanded version of an article I wrote for Laramie's Living Historya series produced by the Laramie Boomerang and the Albany County Museum Coalition.
Hollis Marriott
Contributing History Columnist


  1. To answer your first question: No, I would not camp there for one day. I dislike winter camping. Early October blizzard ... brrrrrr!

  2. Still playing blog catch-up here...!
    I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of ZL's book at a library sale years ago; and certainly it's a fascinating account! Ignorant? Undoubtedly, there were many important bits of knowledge they began without, and the author was perturbed about that too. But to their credit they learned quickly and were among the first to bring back valuable new information on largely or entirely unexplored lands (as I recall there is reason to think they were among the first white men to enter Yosemite Valley). Perhaps we should cut them some slack and say, intrepid...? Love seeing the pictures you added ;-)

    1. thanks, Amy. I cut those guys a LOT of slack. I'm very much of the second opinion--skilled adventurous men not averse to hardship." Their willingness to go forth boldly into unknown difficult territory is what impresses me most -- "intrepid" is perfect!