The original humans in the Wyoming area were large-game hunters who lived more than 11,000 years ago. They left little evidence of their lives, but in the mid-1970s archaeologists unearthed evidence of human habitation where mammoth remains were found next to human implements to kill and cut the animal's flesh. Artifacts of agate, jasper and quartzite have been found; the raw materials were mined by prehistoric people.
In later centuries, massive herds of bison ruled the plains of the Wyoming area. The animal's potential for human subsistence drew numerous additional people to the region that differentiated into distinct tribes. When Europeans arrived, they encountered the Arapaho, Bannock, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Crow, Flathead, Nez Percé, Shoshone, Sioux (Lakota) and Ute inhabiting what would become Wyoming.
The tribes were organized into small, nomadic bands of 100 people whose primary hunting quarry was the bison. By the mid-1600s, the Indians began to use horses, which afforded them greater mobility. They could now pack more possessions and more easily move their little ones and old people. In addition, horses provided a big advantage in bison harvesting.
In the 1800s and 1900s, some Indians from the Eastern Woodlands began to migrate west to the plains as white settlers confiscated their hunting grounds. As the plains became more crowded, friction developed among different native bands.
Trappers and Explorers
It is possible that French fur hunters penetrated the Wyoming region in the mid-18th century, but exploration of the area did not begin in earnest until the 19th century. European gentlemen's preference for beaver top hats attracted early-day trappers to the Rocky Mountains in search of the pelts. The Wyoming area was included in the Lousiana Purchase, that huge land mass acquired by the United States from France in 1803. Following the purchase, American trappers arrived in the the region. One such trapper, former Lewis and Clark expedition member John Colter, became the first white man to encounter geothermal wonders of the Yellowstone in 1807.
A party of fur traders out of Oregon, led by Robert Stuart, was the first to follow what would become the Oregon Trail that traversed the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming. They crossed the area in 1812 and came upon an easier way across the mountains that would be named South Pass. The approach would become significant for settlers traveling in the other direction.
Fur trading became more efficient in the 1820s and 1830s. In 1824, one William Ashley set up a yearly trapper rendezvous, the first on the Green River near today's Wyoming-Utah border, where his firm exchanged supplies for furs. Thereafter, the get-together became the highlight of the year for trappers to trade, swap stories and have a rollicking good time.
In 1832, a trapping and trading party of more than 100 men led by Captain Benjamin L.E. de Bonneville, arrived in the Wyoming area. They came across an oil spring in the Wind River Basin in 1833. In 1834, Fort William was erected in what is now eastern Wyoming by traders Robert Campbell and William Sublette. Subsequently renamed Fort Laramie, the outpost was the area's first permanent trading post. In addition, in 1843 famous scout and trapper Jim Bridger established Fort Bridger in southwestern Wyoming. Following the advent of trading posts — and the decline of beaver pelts — the rendezvous tradition fell into disuse, with the final rowdy get-together staged in 1840.
Lieutenant John C. Frémont and his party, guided by the famed scout Kit Carson, explored the Wind River Mountains in 1842 and 1843. Following a report by Frémont, Congress voted in 1846 to erect forts on the Oregon Trail to protect settlers moving west.
Settlers and Indians
By the middle of the 19th century, settlers were moving west through the Wyoming area on three well-known trails. These were the California, the Mormon to Utah, and the Oregon to the Pacific Northwest. All three led through South Pass. Beyond the pass, the Oregon Trail veered northwest, and the Mormon and California trails went southwest. Settlers by the thousands trekked through Wyoming, but only a handful put down roots. Missionaries headed for the Pacific Coast also passed through Wyoming country.
Indians witnessed the flood of settlers, their bad habits and diseases with great apprehension. The white men decimated or chased off the wildlife. Their heedlessness with fire sparked destructive prairie blazes. White diseases killed or maimed unnumbered natives. Braves began to assault the wagon trains and fought the soldiers dispatched to protect the settlers.
In 1847, the federal government created the first permanent Great Plains Indian agent in the person of Thomas Fitzpatrick. In 1851, Fitzpatrick helped to organize a general meeting of Native Americans of the Great Plains region, to be held at Fort Laramie. Some 10,000 natives attended and a treaty was drawn up that compensated them for the loss of bison and grazing lands, and specified living areas for them.
Things settled down until 1854 when a fight developed over a cow slain by some Lakota. The incident spiraled out of control and conflicts between Native Americans and whites resumed.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, soldiers serving in the Wyoming region were called away to serve the Union cause. The Wyoming area became bereft of adequate protection and conflicts worsened between Native Americans and white settlers. Army detachments were dispatched to the region. The year 1865 became known as the Bloody Year on the Plains.
The discovery of gold in Montana in the 1860s prompted settlers to move north on the Bozeman Trail to that territory. The trail and all the traffic it bore traversed a different area of native land and the warriors fought back with renewed anger.
To protect the Bozeman Trail, the U.S. Army erected Fort Phil Kearney in 1866. The Lakota detested this turn of events. Red Cloud directed war parties around it in what was accurately called the Circle of Death. In 1868, a treaty was signed at Fort Laramie, according to which the army abandoned the fort and left northeastern Wyoming to the natives. For their part, the Indians agreed to leave be the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad though southern Wyoming.
A uneasy period of quiet prevailed until 1874, when gold was discovered in the Black Hills. Thousands of white prospectors ignored the treaty by invading the area. The Lakota resisted the incursion because they held the Black Hills to be sacred land. The great Indian victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 only served to spark a massive retaliation by white forces. Effective Indian fighting ended in 1877; Wyoming Indians were relegated to reservations and Wyoming settlers finally had their day.
The Railroad, Cattle and Territorial Days
Southern Wyoming was developing swiftly well before the Indian struggles came to a close. In 1867, the Union Pacific Railroad entered the region. Coal mines were built along the transcontinental railroad. Towns were established as the track was laid out westward. Communities also sprang up along the great trails. The population of the area ballooned from 1,000 to 11,000 by 1868.
Cattle ranching in Wyoming country was encouraged by the railroad, which provided transport to Eastern markets.
The Congress created the Territory of Wyoming in 1868. Brigadier General John A. Campbell was appointed by President Ulysess S. Grant as the first territorial governor and Cheyenne became Wyoming Territory’s temporary capital.
The territorial legislature granted women the right to vote, serve on juries and hold office, beginning in 1869 — the new law was the first of its kind in the country. It was hoped that such laws would attract more women immigrants.
Ranching was a mainstay of the new territory's economy. Thousands of longhorn cattle were driven north from Texas. Rich ranchers ruled vast segments of the territory and controlled the affairs of the territorial government until 1887, when thousands of cattle perished in a bitterly cold winter. Numerous ranchers went bankrupt and their political power seeped away.
Wyoming's minerals industry was founded previous to territorial days. The Wind River Basin was the scene where the Bonneville party lubricated its wagon axles with oil found seeping from the ground. Oil was sold at Fort Bridger to settlers who combined it with flour to use as axle grease. In 1842, gold was discovered at South Pass, but the small find sparked little attention. In 1867, a bigger strike drew many gold-seekers to the pass. Several boom towns, such as Atlantic City and South Pass City, sprang up. In 1883, near Lander, the first productive well was drilled in the Dallas Field.
Wyoming's tourist economy also saw its start during the territorial days. In 1872, Congress created the nation's first national park. Spectacular Yellowstone quickly drew visitors.
Wyoming became the 44th state of the Union on July 10, 1890.* Republican Francis E. Warren became the first state governor in September of that year. Settlers trekked to Wyoming and friction developed. Many settled on the prairies with small cattle herds, then fenced off their claims. Some of these newcomers supplemented their herds by looting cattle from the established ranches run by cattle barons, which sparked the latter's fury.
In southcentral Wyoming, the situation came to a head in 1892. The big cattlemen were convinced their herds were being rustled, but they had no proof. Undeterred, they drew up a list of suspects and prepared to liquidate the men on it. Supplemented by 25 hired guns from Texas, they formed a 55-man force dubbed the Invaders. Their first act was to murder two men at the Kaycee Ranch near Buffalo.
News of the killings reached Buffalo and a group of armed men was assembled to confront the Invaders. The two forces converged on the TA Ranch, but federal troops showed up to avert a bloody shoot-out. The Invaders were escorted to Cheyenne for trial; they were were released and the conflict wound to a close.
In the early 1900s, friction again heated up on the range, this time between cattlemen and sheepmen over grazing rights. The cattlemen complained that their animals would not feed on sheep-grazed land and trouble brewed as the number of sheep increased. The boiling point came near Ten Sheep when cattlemen killed three sheepmen in 1909. Nevertheless, things calmed down and sheep products became important in Wyoming.
By the turn of the century, Wyoming's population was growing quickly. Settlers were provided with free land (under certain conditions) by the Homestead acts of 1909, 1912 and 1916. Along major rivers, dam construction provided irrigation water to some prairie areas and produce from this land enhanced the state's agricultural wealth. Following President Theodore Roosevelt's designation of Devils Tower as the first national monument in 1906, tourism became increasingly important.
Although oil had been a part of Wyoming's economy, the first true oil boom occurred in 1912 in the Salt Creek Field north of Casper. Pipelines and refineries were constructed to accommodate the crude. In six years, Casper became a vital hub of business and finance.
Following their early-bird tradition, Wyoming voters elected Nellie Tayloe Ross as the nation's first woman governor in 1924.
Parts of Wyoming suffered a terrible drought during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In addition, crop prices slumped, banks failed and several mines were shut down. Overall, however, the state suffered less than most of the other states and was the last to request federal financial assistance.
The state's economy was helped by increasing oil production and by various government construction projects. These included the Kendrick Project on the North Platte River, comprising the Alcova, Kortes and Seminoe dams. The project provided hydroelectric power and irrigation water. The state was assisted by the Congressional Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, which was crafted to help avert overgrazing. In addition, some dried-out areas were reclaimed and put back to use as irrigable pasture, thanks to the assistance of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service.
Wyoming's economy boomed during World War II (1939-1945). The war brought great demands for the state's oil, coal, lumber and meat. Economic development continued unabated following war's end. Tourism increased. Two minerals, trona and uranium, sparked new industrial development. The basic constituent in trona is sodium carbonate, for which the chemical industry has many applications. Southwestern Wyoming oil drilling revealed that trona existed in the Green River Basin several hundred feet below the surface. In 1947, a mine shaft was sunk there and output burgeoned during the 1950s.
In 1951, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist made the first major Wyoming uranium discovery in the Powder River Basin. Following publication of the findings, many of Wyoming's major basins proved to be uranium-rich. Wyoming became third in the United States in detected uranium reserves by the end of the 1950s.
During the 1960s, numerous firms enlarged their Wyoming operations. Near Sunrise, one steel company built a new plant that processed iron ore. Atlantic City, which had become a ghost town, was given a new lease on life when a company opened an iron mine and constructed a processing plant there. Trona extraction near Green River continued to expand. To capitalize on Wyoming's huge coal deposits, two electric power companies invested large sums to construct generating plants that use coal as fuel.
Oil exploration continued in the mid-1960s. The greatest activity took place in the Powder River Basin. Coal production, which had dropped during the 1950s, rose again in 1959. New power plants promised a steady market for coal. In the mid-1960s, a group of oil companies collaborated to experiment with production of oil from shale. In addition, several business ventures conducted experiments with the state's coal to assess its value as a coke source.
Wyoming of Recent Years
Avoiding a state income tax, Wyoming utilizes a sales tax (instituted in 1935), which produces an important source of revenue. Wyoming passed a mineral severance tax in 1969, which drew off a percentage of that industry’s profits. Nearly a third of the state’s budget has been provided by severance taxes on oil, coal and other minerals.
Wyoming’s constitution conferred to the state ownership of the state’s water, and water rights issues were significant throughout the last century. The state has been engaged in litigation over water rights with downstream states since the 1980s. For example, Wyoming and Nebraska have wrangled over control of the North Platte River.
Nearly 50 percent of the state’s land is under the federal government's control. Disagreements between state and federal agencies over land use basically consist of attempts spearheaded by mining and ranching interests to gain greater control over federal lands. Other Wyomans, especially those who enjoy outdoor activities, typically oppose such efforts.
Richard B. Cheney has been one of the leading Wyoming political figures of the last quarter century. He grew up in Casper, graduated from the University of Wyoming and served in the Office of Economic Opportunity during the Nixon administration. He was later a deputy assistant and chief of staff during the Ford administration. Cheney was elected to Wyoming's sole seat in the House of Representatives in 1978 and was relelected five more times. He served as Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush and in 1995 became the president and chief executive officer of the Halliburton Company. Cheney successfully ran for vice-president on the Republican ticket with George W. Bush in 2000.
Perhaps Wyoming's greatest asset, its outdoor grandeur, continues to draw visitors, especially to Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Fort Laramie and several other forts.
*From time to time, portions of present-day Wyoming existed in the Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah and Dakota territories. The part of southern Wyoming south of the 42nd parallel was possessed by Spain from the 16th to the 19th century, but Spain lost it to the Republic of Texas in 1836. This region was incorporated into the United States when Texas joined the Union in 1845. Portions of Wyoming became part of Oregon Territory in 1848. The same year, the United States acquired parts of Wyoming from Mexico through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War.
See Indian Wars Time Table.
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