Wyoming is an expansive, arid land of high sweeping plains punctuated by series of mountain ranges.
Wyoming is an expansive, arid land of high sweeping plains punctuated by series of mountain ranges. Its average elevation is some 6,700 feet above sea level. Travelers have frequently remarked on the state’s austere beauty: “Nature has collected all of her beauties together,” explorer John C. Frémont wrote of the region in 1842, “in one chosen place.” Passing through the state’s southern tier at night, travelers are mesmerized by multiple, simultaneous lightning storms illuminating vast plains, jagged mountains silhouetted in the background.
For all its magnificence, however, for much of its history Wyoming has been only the path to somewhere else. Today, Wyoming’s immense emptiness supports fewer than half a million people, a diminishing portion of whom are destined to lead rugged lives employed in mining, livestock grazing, and agriculture. Memory of the state’s colorful past is kept alive by frequent rodeos, roundups, and frontier celebrations. Each summer tourists flock to its spectacular scenery–to Jackson Hole, the Grand Tetons, and incomparable Yellowstone, the world’s first national park.
According to archaeological evidence, the earliest immigrants to Wyoming arrived about eleven thousand years ago, leaving various traces. In 1965 two dwellings testifying to the habitation of the earliest peoples were discovered near Guernsey, on the North Platte River, southeast of Casper. For many years immense herds of buffalo roamed the midwestern plains. They attracted many migrating peoples from Asia who traversed the Bering Straits, many of them inhabiting the Wyoming region–tribes such as the Arapaho, Bannock, Crow, Cheyenne, Sioux, and Shoshone.
Earliest contact between these peoples and whites may have occurred in the mid-eighteenth century, when French trappers entered the area. Extensive exploration did not begin until the following century, however, after the United States concluded the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to chart what the nation had bought. By then, parts of Wyoming had been claimed by Spain, France, and Great Britain. It required several more acquisitions for Wyoming’s modern territory to be completed. The 1819 Treaty with Spain, the partition of Texas after the Lone Star Republic joined the Union in 1845, the agreement with Britain over the Columbia River country in 1846, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 all included land within the state’s modern borders.
Fur trading was the initial stimulus to exploring Wyoming. The first American to do so was a former member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, John Colter. In 1807, Colter traveled across the Yellowstone area, where he sighted its geothermal activity. Other fur traders crossed Wyoming going to and from Astoria, Oregon. In the 1820’s more fur trappers and traders made their way west, many of them to Wyoming. In 1825, an annual gathering of these men, who included Indians, was inaugurated that lasted for fifteen years. In 1834 traders founded Fort Williams, later renamed Fort Laramie, which became the area’s first permanent trading post. In 1843 famous scout Jim Bridger founded a second trading post near the western end of the state, east of Evanston.
At about the same time, John C. Frémont led a party through the region guided by scout Kit Carson. Frémont’s reports to Congress on his explorations spurred provision for protection of migrants on the Oregon Trail, and in 1849, the government purchased Fort Williams. Wyoming had become a pathway for tens of thousands of migrants and adventurers using several trails leading west, including the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails. These trails traversed the South Pass through the Rocky Mountains, continued to Fort Bridger, then divided. The first Mormon party passed through in 1847. A Mormon colony established near the Utah border perished in a blizzard in 1856. A succession of outposts was established in the 1860’s, including telegraph stations and state coach and freight line stops. In 1860-1861, Pony Express riders crossed Wyoming in their epic journey from Missouri to California.
From the late 1840’s onward, Native Americans viewed these developments with suspicion. The opening of the Bozeman Trail in 1864 after gold was discovered in Montana particularly alarmed them, as settlers streamed in. Native Americans and settlers made and broke treaties, and fighting continued throughout the decade. Settlers began to arrive in greater numbers when gold was discovered in the South Pass area in 1867 and later when coal was found. To keep the Bozeman Trail operating, the U.S. Army opened Fort Phil Kearny in 1866. The Sioux, led by Chief Red Cloud, detested the fort and determined to raze it. More than 150 white men were killed in its defense, including 81, led by Captain W. J. Fetterman, killed in a single battle. The army closed the fort in 1868 after concluding a treaty with the Sioux, who agreed not to oppose the building of a railroad in the south.
The greatest influx of settlers occurred with railroads, beginning with the Union Pacific, which crossed Wyoming in 1868. Construction camps that sprang up became towns, such as Rawlins, Green River, and Rock Springs; more towns arose along the great trails. By 1870 Wyoming had more than nine thousand white inhabitants. Discovery of gold in the Black Hills of the Dakotas led to fierce Indian resistance, when thousands of settlers ignored treaty provisions and moved into territory the Sioux considered sacred. Bloody battles were fought with the U.S. Army. Peace was finally restored in 1876, when the last of the Indian warriors fled or surrendered and settled on reservations.
By then Wyoming had undergone development as a separate society. The coming of the railroad led to the formation of Wyoming Territory in 1868. Population jumped to more than twenty thousand in 1880 and to some sixty-two thousand in 1890. Mining was supplemented by cattle grazing and shipments of longhorns from Texas on their way to market. Sheep also made their appearance, setting the stage for protracted struggle between sheepmen and cattlemen later immortalized in Hollywood films. Oil had been known to exist in the region since the 1830’s, when it was used to grease wagon wheels. In 1883 the first well was drilled in the Dallas Field, in the Wind River region.
Politically, Wyoming Territory was growing up quickly. In 1869 it became the first territorial legislature to allow women to vote, serve on juries, and hold office. In 1924 it was first to elect a female governor. However, in certain respects it remained primitive. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association, formed as a local association in 1873, grew powerful enough to enforce its own vigilante law in defense of its interests. In the 1890’s matters deteriorated with the decline of the cattle industry and ruinous cattle rustling by groups such as the notorious Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. Homesteaders, who fenced off the open range, arrived. In 1892 the association decided to act, embarking on the Johnson County Cattle War. Texas gunmen, hired to murder a list of enemies, killed two men before the law stepped in. Later in the 1890’s more violence occurred with the influx of sheepherders, blamed for the inability of cattle to find sufficient food.
These events aside, by the turn of the century Wyoming was fast becoming part of the nation. In 1889, without waiting for passage of a congressional enabling act, a proposed state constitution was drawn up. The following year Wyoming became the nation’s forty-fourth state. It arrived into the Union with a progressive constitution that included a provision for women’s suffrage. The constitution also included fulsome support for popular sovereignty and freedom of religion. Judges would be elected, not appointed, on a nonpartisan basis. The constitution was made difficult to amend.
The state’s politics have been marked by both conservative and maverick tendencies. In the 1980’s one of its senators, Dick Cheney, was selected secretary of defense, and another, Alan Simpson, was widely admired by political opponents for his candor and civility. Wyoming has also been noted for its patriotism. Despite its small size, it contributed to the Spanish-American War of 1898, surpassing its quota of volunteers. It also sent twelve thousand men and women to World War I.
Economically, Wyoming was able to increase its agriculture after the turn of the century through irrigation, as homesteaders continued to arrive. In addition, tourism became more economically significant for the state, as better roads and railroad service made it easier for people to reach scenic areas such as Yellowstone. The Depression, however, hit the state hard, though an increase in oil production and New Deal projects helped hard-pressed wage earners.
World War II found Wyoming’s patriotic spirit intact, as tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women went off to war. At home the economy bustled with government’s demands for food and mineral deposits for the war effort. After the war, the state continued to prosper, when the Cold War brought more federal government spending. Atomic weapons production brought lucrative mining ventures when uranium was discovered in the state, and military spending increased when Wyoming was chosen as a primary site for testing of intercontinental missiles.
The state’s population continued to grow, from 92,000 at the turn of the century to 290,000 in 1950 and 40,000 more a decade later. After that time, however, growth was uneven, advancing only 2,000 from 1960 to 1970 and actually losing ground from 1980 to 1990. By then, although it had grown to more than 450,000, comparatively little manufacturing in the state and the difficulty of agriculture still placed it at the bottom of the list of state populations. Economically, although services provide some 60 percent of the state’s income, it is heavily dependent on the land, through mining, grazing, and construction. By the 1990’s, the state was attempting to broaden its economic base, especially by developing tourism. Politically, the state was divided between those who favored economic development and those who looked to the conservation of the state’s natural resources.