Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


With an unforgiving climate, arid plains, rugged mountains, and scarce deposits of precious metals, Wyoming was one of the final western states organized for statehood. The 98,000 square miles that would become the forty-fourth state came to the United States as a result of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the settlement of the disputed Oregon boundary line with Great Britain in 1846, and the Mexican cession of 1848 under terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-6) who set off on his own to explore the Rocky Mountains, was probably the first white American to visit what is now the state of Wyoming (although the Verendrye brothers, Louis-Joseph and Francois, may have pushed that far west in 1742-43). When he returned in 1807, Colter told fantastic stories of the wonders he had seen in the Yellowstone region. Colter was followed by numerous trappers and adventurers who trapped and traded in the Rocky Mountains. By the late 1840s thousands of settlers were annually crossing what some considered the "Great American Desert" on their way to California's gold fields, the Mormon Zion at the Great Salt Lake, or the greener pastures of Oregon territory. However, few stayed to endure Wyoming's harsh winters. In 1851 a council at Fort Laramie, conducted by Thomas Fitzpatrick and assisted by Jesuit missionary priest Father Pierre De Smet, secured permission from several Native American leaders for the safe passage of pioneers across Indian lands in return for a promise of annuities from the U.S. government. Following an outbreak of warfare in 1865 along the Bozeman Trail, intermittent conflicts persisted until the tribal alliance under Sitting Bull was defeated in 1876. Meanwhile, to protect and govern the remote white settlements along the Union Pacific route, the Wyoming Territory had been created in 1868 by carving off the western section of the Dakota Territory and including parts of what is now Utah and Idaho.

Territorial government for Wyoming was organized on May 19, 1869, in Cheyenne. On December 10, 1869, in an unsuccessful effort to encourage female settlers, the first territorial legislature adopted an act granting women the right to vote. The following year, census figures showed 9,000 inhabitants (not including Native Americans), mostly located in small communities or cattle ranches along the newly completed Union Pacific Railroad line that traversed the southernmost part of the territory. Recognizing the uniqueness of the Yellowstone region, the northwest corner of Wyoming was designated by the federal government as the nation's first national park in 1872. Cattle ranching, and later sheep ranching, soon followed the rail lines and spread northward as the Native American resistance faded. In 1886 the territorial legislature established the University of Wyoming, which remains the state's only baccalaureate and graduate school (seven regional "community colleges" were created after World War II). In 1890 Wyoming's representative to Congress, Joseph M. Carey, claiming the territory had more than 100,000 residents, introduced enabling legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives seeking statehood, and on July 10 the Wyoming Statehood Act was signed by President Benjamin Harrison. An official census conducted that year would show Wyoming's actual population to be only 62,555.

Wyoming's politics are generally conservative and independent-minded, with Republicans usually controlling the legislative and statewide elected offices. Until court-ordered reapportionment of the Senate in 1965, rural interests, headed by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, dominated statehouse politics. Although Wyoming's constitution has been amended or altered more than sixty times, it remains essentially the same as drafted in 1889, providing for a bicameral legislature (sixty representatives and thirty senators), which meets for a forty-day session beginning in January in odd-numbered years, and for a twenty-day session in even-numbered years to consider and adopt a budget. The state constitution also granted full voting rights to women, the only state to do so at that time, earning for Wyoming the name "Equality State." The constitution provides for an elected governor, who serves a four-year term, but no lieutenant governor (the secretary of state is next in line of succession). Other elected executive officers include a superintendent of public instruction, auditor, and treasurer. The state supreme court consists of five justices elected to terms of eight years.

Petroleum production, mining (especially coal in the Powder River Basin), and natural gas provide the basis of Wyoming's economy. Although Wyoming still proudly calls itself the "Cowboy State," the agricultural sector produces less revenue and offers fewer jobs than the state's mineral industry or its tourism industry, which attracts several million visitors each summer to Yellowstone Park, Devils Tower, and other scenic vistas, and winter sports enthusiasts to Wyoming's mountains during the long snowy months. Because of a reliance on extractive industries, particularly oil drilling, for its tax base, Wyoming has always been vulnerable to booms and busts. With the decline of oil prices in the 1980s, Wyoming's population, already the smallest of any state in the nation, declined to 456,000 in 1990, but rose to 494,000 in 2000.

Wyoming's most notable political leaders include Chief Washakie (c. 1801-1900) of the Shoshones, who maintained peaceful relations with whites and settled his people on the Wind River Reservation in central Wyoming; Nellie Tayloe Ross (1876-1977), who in 1924 was the first woman elected as governor of a state; and Richard "Dick" Cheney (b. 1941), who served as chief of staf to President Gerald R. Ford (1974-76), Wyoming's lone representative to the U.S. House (1979-89), secretary of defense (1989-1993) in the George Bush administration, and the vice president of the United States in the George W. Bush administration in 2000.

See also EUROPEAN AMERICANS: Vérendrye Family.

Michael J. Devine University of Wyoming

Gould, Lewis L. Wyoming: From Territory to Statehood. Worland WY: High Plains Publishing Company, 1989.

Larson, Taft Alfred. History of Wyoming. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978.

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