In light of the wisdom that led the U.S. Board of Geographic Names to rename Yellowstone National Park’s Mount Doane as First Peoples Mountain, Laramie should look at the namesakes of our downtown east-west avenues.
Gustavus Doane — a U.S. Army Officer who led, and later bragged about, the Marias Massacre of 1870 in which an estimated 173 Native Americans were killed — looks no worse than the names on streets around the Gem City.
Search up a map of Laramie, and scan the names that run perpendicular to the numbered streets. Many of those streets carry the names of people who committed atrocities. So why not name them after someone or something else?
Laramie’s street names aren’t set in stone, they’ve changed before. Back in 1868, when Laramie was organizing, the streets were called “A,” “B,” and “C,” and Front, Second, and Third, etc. As the town’s founding fathers consolidated their power, they renamed the east-west streets after their current heroes.
An examination of those heroes provides insight into their beliefs, some of which no longer align with Laramie’s community values.
Canby Street: General Edward Canby was an accomplished Union General. He defeated the Confederate army in the only Western engagement at the Battle of Glorietta Pass in New Mexico. General Grant considered him non-aggressive but admired his administrative and legal skills, so he posted him to the Pacific Northwest. During tense peace negotiations with the Modoc, Canby became the only Civil War-era general killed during the Indian Wars, shot during a peace council meeting.
By my measure, Canby was a good enough guy. Let’s keep him.
Harney Street: “Harney, the Butcher” was an accomplished general like Canby. Enrolled at West Point, William Harney graduated with honors after a kangaroo court acquitted him of murdering an enslaved woman with his bare hands. During the Mexican-American War, he was court-martialed for disobeying orders and mistreating captured prisoners. Recalled from vacation in Paris after the 1854 Grattan Massacre near Fort Laramie, Harney retaliated by massacring hundreds of innocent Lakota Sioux, some by firing cannons into a cave sheltering elders, women and children. Harney Street is now Laramie’s secondary east-west thoroughfare with its beautiful new bridge over the Union Pacific rail yards.
Harney’s reputation was unsavory even by the standards of his day. Viewed from roughly 175 years on, the man’s conduct looks downright appalling. His eponymous street already becomes Snowy Range Road at the edge of town. How about extending the latter moniker into East Laramie, relegating Harney the Butcher to the trash heap of history?
Gibbon Street: A decorated Union general who participated in many of the Civil War’s critical battles, John Gibbon, rode to Major Marcus Renos’s rescue after the disastrous Battle of the Little Big Horn. He arrived in time to help bury the bodies. Later, Gibbon pursued the fleeing Nez Perce tribe after General Canby was killed and engaged them in the Battle of the Big Hole in far-western Montana. Pinned down by opposition sniper fire, he was forced to withdraw; both sides sustained heavy casualties. But Gibbon’s pursuit of Chief Joseph continued up into Canada. Dead Indian Pass, near present-day Cody, is named for a gravely wounded warrior left behind by the retreating Nez Perce. Discovered by the advancing troopers, he was shot dead on the spot.
General Gibbon isn’t exactly my idea of a hero, but he was following orders.
Bradley Street: Colonel L. P. Bradley served as the commander of Fort Sanders from October 1870 to December 1871, just a few miles south of Laramie. A decorated Union volunteer Civil War officer, he accepted a post-war army commission and campaigned for the next ten years against the indigenous tribes. Bradley somehow avoided controversial engagements and was in charge at Fort Robinson when Crazy Horse was accidentally stabbed and killed. His official version of Crazy Horse’s death altered the facts significantly to keep the peace. Ruling? One of the better ones.
Lewis Street and Clark Street: These streets were named for the famous explorers Merriwether Lewis and William Clark. Even though Clark abused his power as Governor of Missouri Territory and Lewis was driven to suicide by political foes, they remain, hands down, heroes of Western development.
Consensus? Two thumbs up.
Frémont Street: Colonel John Frémont, “The Pathfinder,” led several well-publicized “exploratory” expeditions across Wyoming guided by Kit Carson. He was a terrible leader and, more than once, unnecessarily endangered the men under his command. Motivated by his quest for gold and power, Frémont suffered a career setback when he was court-martialed for refusing a direct order to surrender the self-appointed governorship of California. The son-in-law of an influential Democratic senator, he nevertheless ran for president as a Republican in 1850 and lost. He died in obscurity in 1890 and is buried in New York City.
Should his name remain in Laramie? Why not. His brilliant personal marketing campaign concealed his incompetence.
Garfield Street: James A. Garfield was assassinated six months after being inaugurated as the 20th President of the United States by a disgruntled man seeking a civil service appointment. A storied representative from Ohio, he was involved but never convicted in several corruption schemes, from the Union Pacific Railroad Credit Mobilier bribery scandal to the fraudulent election of Rutherford B. Hayes. Consensus? We can do better than this guy.
Custer Street: Colonel George Armstrong Custer graduated at the bottom of his 1861 West Point class but distinguished himself during the Civil War. He infamously led five companies of cavalrymen to their deaths at the Battle of Little Big Horn, troops that included two of his brothers, his brother-in-law and a nephew. Young and reckless, he famously underestimated the size of the Sioux encampment.
Ruling? Thumbs down.
Kearney Street: General Phil Kearney was a Mexican-American War veteran who later fought as a one-armed mercenary for Napoleon. Upon his return, he regained his commission and served in the Civil War, where he refused General Robert McClelland’s direct order to retreat after the Battle of Malvern Hill. Confederate troops shot and killed him after the Battle of Chantilly while he was scouting out enemy lines at night. A short-lived fort along the illegal Bozeman Trail was named for him, but it was abandoned after Red Cloud won his war.
Laramie worthy? Meh.
Sheridan Street: General Phillip “Fightin’ Phil” Sheridan was another Civil War hero. As commander of the Army of the Missouri, he was quoted as saying, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” He was instrumental in establishing and protecting Yellowstone National Park and died of a heart attack at age 57.
Is Sheridan our guy? Double meh.
So Laramie’s early leaders honored one president, three explorers, eight military men and a businessman by naming streets after them. There are no MLK or JFK avenues; none are named for women, even though today’s Wyoming is known as the “Equality State.” All names have remained the same since 1872, although many have been added in the past hundred years. Block by block, the new street names are all descriptively banal, numbered or male.
What does this say about Laramie? That it is mired in the past and turns a deaf ear to current events? Look at the downtown redevelopment that is happening in Laradise now. Look at the diverse student body and the adventure sports industries that dominate the Second Street shopping district. Look at the public art, listen to the music. These patrons are young, energetic and educated. They might know about Harney the Butcher or the stupidity of Custer. And then what would they conclude?
That Laramie needs to go with the flow and realize that it is the 21st Century, and we all need to grow.
Correction: This column has been updated to remove information about University Avenue and Ivinson Avenue because some of it was inaccurate. —Ed.