Ethnicity in Wyoming

By Carl V. Hallberg*


      Since the 1970s, western historians have recognized ethnicity as an integral part in the settlement of the trans-Mississippi West. Although much work has been accom­plished, any attempt at understanding ethnicity overall on the Great Plains of the Rocky Mountain West is still presumptuous, because of the various methodologies employed and, for many areas, the lack of basic research.[1] In Wyoming, the latter is a valid critique. With the possible exception of some recent projects, historians have not given careful consideration to Asians, Blacks, Europeans and Hispanics in the development of the state.

      The delay in ethnic research is no fault of the historical record. The arrival of immigrants and non-Whites did not go unnoticed because race, dress, or speech singled them out as being culturally different to anglicized residents. In turn, public comments were transplanted into the political arena where officials voiced their support or criticism as circumstances dictated. All these observations reflected the changing composition of society and how commentators saw their state. But race or nationality did not have to trigger emotional reactions. To fill space newspapers printed brief notices about emigrant trains, organizations, or activities by anonymous individuals with references only to race or nationality. A person's race or nationality was sometimes required as part of a public record.

      Physical geography did not isolate immigrants from ethnic centers. Roads, postal lines and railroads served as a kind of cultural lifeline. Communication with friends, family and institutions fostered a personal sense of cultural identity. National, religious, and educational leaders used similar information lines to make contacts and to bring residents within the fold of the ethnic community at large. The effectiveness of these networks in Wyoming would be determined by who used them and the frequency of use.

      What was the composition of Wyoming's ethnic population? The answer is not a simple one. Europeans, Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics comprised 40.5 percent of the total population in 1870, 29.6 percent in 1880, 26.1 percent in 1890, 21.6 percent in 1900, and 22.5 percent in 1910.[2] But census figures are only numerical abstracts. Within each group there is a diversity, since no one group is composed of uniform individuals. Differences abound due to occupation, class, education, religion, settlement patterns, residency, and age. Wyoming's cultural environment, economics, social infrastructures, and population density-- would also have different effects upon each individual.

      After considering these factors, there emerges a far from simple account of economic success and cultural assimilation. The ability of residents, collectively and individually, to cope with circumstances around them determined how and to what extent ethnicity would manifest itself, local perceptions and attitudes of race and ethnicity, and how well immigrants adjusted to cultural life in Wyoming. For example, a Swedish farmer in Crook County and a Swedish railroad worker in Rawlins may share a common nationality, but they also might contrast in their perceptions of their adopted society, their ability to interact in the social and economic circles, their participation and acceptance in local matters, and their personal participation in their cultural heritage. But the individual account is just one perspective. In agriculture, Huntley (Jewish), Germania (Germans), and Lindbergh (Swedish) are rural settlements in title alone. A closer examination will reveal comparative differences, but in what way? Were these due to the character of the land, the ability of the farmers themselves, economics, or a combination of the above. Dudley Gardner and Verla Flores report that coal companies, particularly the Union Pacific, hired various ethnic groups to work mines, to prevent the organization of unions and to populate remote regions.[3] Did this international intermingling of people fulfill the corporation's' labor objectives? Was the melting pot in effect? Was ethnic life in the coal towns different from other towns?

      In summary, ethnicity has played a role in the settlement of Wyoming. Some generalizations can be made from this statement. Where there was a large ethnic community and community hegemony was strong, there arose support institutions--churches, fraternal orders, and businesses. In other places, the paucity of population resulted in greater ethnocultural interaction and quicker assimilation. The difficult task for historians is not merely to identify, but to understand how ethnicity and Wyoming's cultural landscape affected each other.

      National historians have been slow to rediscover or at least acknowledge an ethnic presence in Wyoming. Previous conceptions of what constituted western history and what constituted ethnic history have made a union of ideas almost prohibitive. Marcus Lee Hansen, the dean of immigration history in the 1920s and 1930s, led the way. Although he was a staunch advocate of thorough research, he based his book, The Immigrant and American History, upon midwestern and eastern studies. Some of his generalizations cannot be proven because of the lack of documentation. Other statement are wrong. For example, Hansen wrote that at the time of the adoption of women's suffrage, Wyoming's population was nearly 100 percent native-born; in actuality, foreign-born residents comprised more than 29 percent of the total population.[4] When Hansen's book was posthumously published in 1940, the Rock Springs Massacre was already recognized nationally as a prime illustration of radical nativism.[5] Acts of western nativism always break the mold of an Anglo-Saxon West.

      A balanced national portrait of ethnicity still remains far removed. To their credit, immigration historians have admitted that their attempts to document the national picture were hardly definitive, partly because of the lack of scholarship form which to draw upon and partly because of the immensity of the task before them. At the same time philosophical orientations, from Carl Wittke's We Who Built America (1939) to John Bodnar's The Transplanted (1986), would but preclude any serious consideration of ethnicity in the plains or mountain west states.[6]

      The failure of national historians is reflective, to some extent, upon the activities of historians at the state level. Considering the breadth of historical research done to date, ethnicity in Wyoming represents a comparatively small portion. The main reason, again, is one of perceiving what constitutes ethnicity based on eastern studies instead of understanding ethnicity within the context of Wyoming. Thus, for some, ethnicity  is sometimes seen as a quixotic novelty incompatible with traditional themes and popular images of Wyoming's past. For others, melting pot analogies hint at an heterogeneous population, but stop short of exploring the meaning and relevance of the melting pot concept in Wyoming.

      A thorough historiographical analysis of ethnicity in Wyoming history is beyond the scope of this paper. However, one general observation is that popular themes have prevailed. The historiography of Wyoming along with Colorado and Montana has been described as being dominated by the spectacular and sensational.[7] This statement should not be interpreted as demeaning the credibility of frontier studies. But at the same time, many authors, particularly those for early Annals articles and Wyoming history books, failed to explore ethnicity as an element within a theme or considering respective individuals or groups as colorful illustrations or sidelight within a story. Ethnicity was a passive rather than active element. This trend continues. Most ethnic displays in the capitol during the capitol centennial in 1988 and the state centennial in 1990 offered a quick overview through artifacts, photographs, and biographies of notable people. Modern county histories focus on the pioneer experience, but ignore how a person's cultural background affected his or her social life. On the other hand, in order to make ethnicity visible, some authors promote rather than interpret. They seek a dual purpose of pride and continuity with the past, a style of writing that has been called empowering, filiopietistic, and transparent.[8] Wyoming historians need to balance the pendulum from swinging too far one way or the other.

      The first scholarly study of ethnicity in Wyoming appeared in 1977 under the title of Peopling the High Plains: Wyoming's European Heritage.[9] The book represents a major development in Wyoming historiography and gave Wyoming a place in immigration history. Its essays vary in style, methodology, and perspective, but the book provided a starting point for further work. More important, the settlement of Wyoming is now viewed as part of the continuum of ethnicity on the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain West.

      But the momentum behind Peopling the High Plains was short-lived, and ethnicity quickly diminished as a serious topic of study. Peopling the High Plains is not the end all, even on its own topics, for ethnic history in Wyoming has a long way to go. Surveys on Jews, rural Blacks, Hispanics in World War II, and nativism have been done and still offer areas of research while other groups such as Swedes, Finns, Japanese (not just Heart Mountain), and Chinese (not just the Chinese Massacre) remain to be documented.[10] Eastern case studies require western counterparts. Western literary and film genres deserve scrutiny in their portrayals of ethnic groups. The ethnic perspective need not stand alone but should be regarded as part of the social, economic, and labor history. The avenues of ethnic research advocated by Hansen in the 1930s still offer possibilities for investigation in Wyoming.[11]

      Speaking before the 1937 National Conference on Social Work in Indianapolis, Marcus Lee Hansen stated that the opportunity for discovering ethnic past was readily available and should be written. "To accommodate that task, while memory is fresh and documents still preserved, is the most challenging duty now facing American historians."[12] Even today, Hansen's point--to document the ethnic heritage of a place--remains valid. It is also a challenge. Memories have faded, communities have evaporated, and some documents have disappeared. Nonetheless, the task is a necessary one. Wyoming historians have their work cut out for them.



*Reprinted from Annals of Wyoming 63 (Fall 1991), pp. 136-139. The author is Wyoming State Archives historian. He holds the M.A. degree in History and Archival Management from Colorado State University and a B. A. in History from Augustana College, Illinois.


[1]Frederick C. Luebke, "Ethnic Minority Groups in the American West," in Michael P. Malone, ed., Historians and the American West. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), pp. 388-413; Frederick C. Luebke, Germans in the New World: Essays in the History of Immigration. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), pp. 138-156; Kathleen Neils Conzen, "Historical Approaches to the Study of Rural Ethnic Communities," in Frederick C. Luebke, ed., Ethnicity on the Great Plains. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980), pp. 1-18; and Carton Q. Qualey, "Ethnic Groups and the Frontier," in Roger L. Nichols, ed., American Frontier and Western Issues. (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1986), pp. 199-216.


[2]Compendium of the Tenth Census (June 1, 1880), Part 1 (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1886), pp. 60, 332-333; Compendium of the Eleventh Census: 1890: Part 1-Population. (Washington D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1892), pp. 47, 469; and Thirteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1910: Vol. III: Population. (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1913), p. 1115.


[3]A. Dudley Gardner and Verla R. Flores, Forgotten Frontier: A History of Wyoming Coal Mining. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1989), pp. 83, 112-114.


[4]Marcus Lee Hansen, The Immigrant in American History, ed. by Arthur M. Schlesinger. (New York: Harper and Row, 1940), p. 92; Luebke, Germans, p. 143; Peter Kvisto, "Ethnicity and the Problem of Generations in American History," in Peter Kvisto and Dag Blanck, eds., American Generations and Their Immigrants: Studies and Commentaries on the Hansen Thesis after Fifty Years. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), p. 2; and 1869 census, Secretary of State Records, Wyoming State Archives. The exact percentage of foreign-born residents cannot be determined due to missing pages and blank entries.


[5]Paul  Crane and Alfred Larson, "The Chinese Massacre," Annals of Wyoming 12 (January 1940), pp. 47-55; 12 (April 1940), pp. 153-161; and Carl Wittke, We Who Built America: The Saga of the Immigrant. (Cleveland: Press of Western Reserve University, 1939), p. 462.


[6]Luebke, Germans, pp. 138-156.


[7]Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains. (Boston: Ginn and Co., 1931), p. 454; and Eugene H. Berwanger, "The Absurd and the Spectacular: The Historiography of the Plains-Mountain States-Colorado, Montana, Wyoming," Pacific Historical Review L (November 1981), pp. 445-474.


[8]Luebke, Germans, pp. 138-139; Walter O. Forster, "The Immigrant and the American National Idea," in O. Fritiof Ander, ed., In Trek of the Immigrants: Essays Presented to Carl Wittke. (Rock Island: Augustana College Library, 1964), pp. 157-158; and David Thelen, History-Making in America: A Populist Perspective. (Privately printed, 1991), p. 6.



[9]Gordon Olaf Hendrickson, ed. Peopling the High Plains: Wyoming's European Heritage. (Cheyenne: Wyoming State Archives and Historical Department, 1977).


[10]Carl V. Hallberg, "Jews in Wyoming," Annals of Wyoming 61 (Spring, 1989), pp. 10-31; Todd R. Guenther, "At Home on the Range: Black Settlements in Rural Wyoming." Unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Wyoming, 1988); Todd R. Guenther, "'Y'all Call Me Nigger Jim Now, But Someday You'll Call Me Mr. James Edwards," Annals of Wyoming 61 (Fall 1989), pp. 20-40; William L. Hewitt, "Mexican Workers in Wyoming During World War II: Necessity, Discrimination and Protest," Annals of Wyoming 54 (Spring 1982), pp. 20-33; and Lawrence A. Cardoso, "Nativism in Wyoming 1868-1930: Changing Perceptions of Foreign Immigrants," Annals of Wyoming 58 (Fall 1986), pp. 20-38. For a comparative study, see Barbara Jo Guilford, "Ethnic Comparison of Agricultural Units in Goshen and Washakie Counties of Wyoming." Unpublished M. A. thesis, University of Wyoming, 1974.


[11]Hansen, The Immigrant in American History, pp. 191-217.


[12]Marcus Lee Hansen, "Who Shall Inherit America?" in Peter Kvisto and Dag Blanck, eds., American Immigrants and Their Generations: Studies and Commentaries on the Hansen Thesis after Fifty Years. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), p. 204.